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Wednesday, June 12, 2019

A New Mountain – a New Meadow in Which to Wonder


I started this blog – A Wondering Jew: Musings From Newton – in the summer of 2016. In part, I began it as a platform from which I could speak a bit more freely on matters of public concern, without having my thoughts and pieces linked to the congregation I was serving at the time. My writing stream has waxed and waned over these three years, largely driven by the schedule of my work and family responsibilities. In recent months, I’ve hardly written on the blog at all. It’s not that I have had nothing to say, but that life has kept me busy. (And, in truth, I have been busy with other writing projects.)

The latter two years of this experiment have been entwined with my decision to step away from full-time congregational work as I set out to explore new chapters I might create in these years ahead. These have been two very busy years – each one different from the other.

In early April I read a column by David Brooks in the New York Times entitled “The Moral Peril of Meritocracy. His piece struck me as an earlier piece, he Moral Bucket List,” had in February of 2015. I quickly realized I was likely reading a tease for a new book. Sure enough! I learned that his newest book, TheSecond Mountain: The Quest For a Moral Life was going to drop any day. I quickly devoured the first chapter which he had made available on his website and I knew that it was, for me, a must-read. Much as The Road to Character had landed squarely on me where I was in the summer of 2015, Brooks’ new book seemed eerily timed to my journey. In recent years I have read several books on what some call “the second-half of life.” Brooks’ new offering joins this growing literature.

In The Second Mountain, Brooks writes, “I often find that their life has what I think of as a two-mountain shape. [People get] out of school, [begin] their career or started a family, and identified the mountain they thought they were meant to climb: I’m going to be a cop, a doctor, an entrepreneur, what have you. On the first mountain, we all have to perform certain life tasks: establish an identity, separate from our parents, cultivate our talents, build a secure ego, and try to make a mark in the world . . . The goals on that first mountain are the normal goals that our culture endorses—to be a success, to be well thought of, to get invited into the right social circles, and to experience personal happiness.”  Brooks goes on to note that, “Some people get to the top of that first mountain, taste success, and find it…unsatisfying. ‘Is this all there is?’ they wonder. They sense there must be a deeper journey they can take . . . [Some] “realize, ‘Oh, that first mountain wasn’t my mountain after all. There’s another, bigger mountain out there that is actually my mountain.’”  Brooks states that, in his mind, “The second mountain is not the opposite of the first mountain. To climb it doesn’t mean rejecting the first mountain. It’s the journey after it.” He proceeds to extend his metaphor, writing that, “If the first mountain is about building up the ego and defining the self, the second mountain is about shedding the ego and losing the self. If the first mountain is about acquisition, the second mountain is about contribution. If the first mountain is elitist—moving up—the second mountain is egalitarian—planting yourself amid those who need, and walking arm in arm with them.”

Brooks states, “You don’t climb the second mountain the way you climb the first mountain. You conquer your first mountain. You identify the summit, and you claw your way toward it. You are conquered by your second mountain. You surrender to some summons, and you do everything necessary to answer the call and address the problem or injustice that is in front of you. On the first mountain, you tend to be ambitious, strategic, and independent. On the second mountain you tend to be relational, intimate, and relentless.”

In Brooks’ analysis, I found an expression of some of the unsettled nature of the past years for me along my journey. As I set out from congregational work in the summer of 2017, I didn’t yet know where the journey would lead me. I knew I wanted to teach. I knew I wanted to write. And, I knew I wanted to organize my life differently than I had over the three-plus decades in which I worked hard in congregational settings, often setting aside family time and relationships.  I have no regrets about my years in congregational life. I’d be less-than-honest if I said I have no regrets about how I balanced my life in and out of work. Yet, over the years I have learned I’m not alone in that. Brook’s The Second Mountain offering helped frame that differently.

My journey continues. I am teaching and learning. I am spending more time with my family. And yet, there is still a restlessness which I am hoping to address in the next chapter of my journey.
Sometime later this year Laura and I will “downsize” our lives, as so many do in our stage of life. This will lead us away from living in Newton, though Newton will always be home. As we watch our now 27+ month-old grandson grow we know that we will not go far. Indeed, the greater Boston-area will remain home. As summer dawns, I am looking forward to more time to write as my schedule slows down. At the same time, as I contemplate a new town in which we will make our home, I realize it’s an opportune moment to re-launch my blog, and I truly hope, my writing practice which I’d especially grown to enjoy after my summers in the Kenyon College Beyond Walls – Spiritual Writing workshops.

So, the “Wondering Jew” will keep wondering, and I hope, have something worthwhile to say. Maybe not. However, as I look ahead to wherever my next mountain will be and what it will hold, I look forward to continuing my journey – as a husband, a father, a grandfather, a friend, a student, a teacher, and a rabbi.

Thanks for peeking in on my musings from time-to-time.

Peace!


Sunday, February 24, 2019

Two Lights Gone - Still Lighting the Way

My message from this past Friday night at Temple Shalom of Newton:

Shabbat shalom! I had my topic for tonight set weeks ago, but then last Shabbat came and went, as and sometimes happens, that plan had to be set aside.  Laura and I had spent an entirely restful day together in the Berkshires – sleeping, reading, relaxing. But the peace of last Shabbat was shattered at day’s end as I learned of the death of not just one, but two teachers. I am certain the two never knew one another. One had a hand in shaping me early in life – as a teenager, and then for decades more as I began my path towards and through the rabbinate. The other became my teacher in these last two decades as our family settled here in Newton and as I served my active years here at Temple Shalom, and in a larger sense against the broader canvas backdrop of Newton.

The first was a powerful, prophetic voice of our Reform Jewish community, especially at the national level. The second was an inspiring, prophetic voice for many of us here in Newton and across the Boston area. While I am certain they never met, they were, in the words of Rabbi Larry Kushner linked by “an invisible line of connection.”  Both were models and leaders in different arenas of the broader fight for civil and human rights. Both were active warriors for human dignity who stood tall and spoke loudly the truths they carried in their very souls.

The first teacher was Albert Vorspan, who died at the age of 95 last Shabbat. Al was one of the most visible and articulate spokespeople for our Jewish tradition’s imperative to make our world a better, brighter, and safer place for each and every precious reflection of the image of God. I first encountered Al as a NFTY participant. I was probably about 15 years old. To me, and to my fellow LIFTYites, Al was a giant. In those days, the early 1970’s, we were barely removed from the power and tumult of the Civil Rights movement in which Al played no small part. He was the director of our movement’s Religious Center in Washington, DC.and he was the leader of the Commission on Social Action (on which I served for several years). Al was one of the many luminaries to whom we were exposed and to whom we had frequent access in those days growing in and around New York. It was not uncommon for Al to appear at our regional events where he would share stories of his experiences and implant within our very souls the core teachings of our tradition on justice, human dignity, and our responsibilities as bearers of the Divine image in God’s world. Though I recall several Jewish books I cherished from my early years, none did I cherish more, nor hold onto longer, than his small light blue, 3-ring binder entitled Jewish Values and Social Crisis. For years after its sequel, Tough Choices: Jewish Perspectives on Social Justice which he co-wrote with Rabbi David Saperstein, had already taken its place in my library as a part of my canon, I still could not part with that touchstone from my early teen years. Finally, I reluctantly parted with it, but not with the teachings which Al taught my generation, and many others, to absorb into our very bones and to live in our lives. As I have thought about Al this past week, I have found myself reflecting on some of the paths I have traveled. I can’t help but see his imprint on me and my choices, even some tough choices, I have faced over the years.

Al was a master raconteur. Indeed, in later years, as he became Senior Vice-President Emeritus of the URJ, he was one of the two figures who would close each Biennial with a humorous yet meaningful recap of the week’s gathering. For many of my age, one story stands out. Indeed, my dear friend Rabbi Jeff Salkin tells the story in his tribute to Al Vorspan in his blog, Martini Judaism. As soon as Jeff mentioned he would circle back to a single story I knew precisely which one he meant.  Reform Jews of a certain age, vintage, and level of participation in Reform Jewish life in the ’70s and even through the ’80s all knew it. Al loved to tell of the time he went to Saint Augustine, Florida, to march for civil rights with a bunch of rabbis. They all wound up in a jail cell. As the hours passed, the rabbis were each rehearsing what they planned for their Friday night sermons after their release from jail. At one point, Al rattled the bars of the cell and yelled for the jailer: “You are violating my civil rights!” he screamed. “How so?” asked the jailer.  Al replied: “You have me cooped up in here with a bunch of rabbis. They are all working on their sermons. This is police brutality!” That was Al Vorspan. He was our moral conscience. Our world is just a bit darker without his light.

The second teacher, a friend, and colleague died closer to home – here in Newton, where he lived his entire life. Reverend Howard Haywood was also a staunch soldier in the fight for civil rights, human dignity and in more recent years, a tireless advocate for Housing Rights. This past August. Mayor Ruthanne Fuller invited the clergy of Newton to her office for a conversation about community and the issues we face. At no point in my 20 years here have I seen a larger turnout of clergy – some 35-40 of us crowded into the Mayor’s office. It was mid-August!  I thought to myself, “Aren’t you all on vacation?” Yet there we were – all parts of the religious spectrum, including 3 of my Orthodox colleagues, whom I have rarely seen at clergy gatherings. As we settled into our chairs, I realized that quite by chance I was seated next to Howard. He greeted me warmly and we chatted about our families. I knew he was seriously ill, yet when it came his time to speak, I was certain that the prophetic voice had been awakened as he spoke forcefully about community values, racial justice, and housing.  He called all of us, his younger colleagues to grab the mantle, as he knew his day would soon pass. It was inspiring. It was a rallying cry. I felt energized, as many others have since that day. At the end, we embraced. He thanked me for being by his side – and I thanked him for being my teacher and my friend. Fortunately, we had a number more such opportunities over the months since then, the most recent just a few weeks ago at a gathering back in City Hall at the dedication of an exhibit about Myrtle Baptist Church, where he served as pastor for 24 years. It will yet hang for a few more weeks. Go see it and learn a bit about our city’s history!

In mid-December, our Newton community filled our sanctuary here at TS as the community came out for a moving tribute to Howard. That night I was truly honored to have been invited, at Howard’s request, to be one of three people to offer a toast to him.  Here are just a few of my words from that night: "In a classic early Rabbinic text on ethics, morality and practical wisdom, the 1st century Jewish Sage Ben Zoma is recorded as having taught (Pirke Avot 4:1): "Ben Zoma says: Who is the wise one? He who learns from all men . . .

"In my 20 years in Newton, few figures have had as profound an impact on me as you Howard. I have always found you to be a strong moral and justice-oriented presence in our community – and I have watched you listen carefully to the views of those around you, cognizant that you do not have a grasp on all truth, mindful that those around you can help you gain a better understanding of the ultimate truth. You have never, in my experience, compromised your values and core. Yet, you have been open to the people around you. In our time, that balance is all-too-rare. . .

"Who is the mighty one? He who channels his passion. Howard – I have seen you speak your truth with incredible passion. I have been present when you call those in power and those who would lead to task for overlooking what is truly important. When trivial matters and narrowness of mind and heart obscure the truth and what is important you have forcefully and yet lovingly called us out. Even with just your presence, you remind us of what is important – such as was the case at the hearing at Newton South a few weeks ago. Your mere presence was grounding and important. You have been our communal moral conscience.

"Howard – this afternoon we gather to honor you, and to thank you. Our best form of honoring you yet lies before us. We must continue living the lessons you have taught us: to pursue justice, equity and wholeness (which in this house we call shalom) day by day, month by month, year by year. The best way we can honor you is by continuing to hear your call – and by responding."

Our world, my world, is a bit darker for Howard’s absence – as well as that of Al Vorspan. I pray these two giants, these two heroes, these two courageous men will somehow meet in that world which we do not yet know.  I know they will enjoy such a meeting. I know, that I was changed by each of them, and for that I am grateful! 

Shabbat Shalom!

Monday, February 4, 2019

It's Time to Step Up - and Step Down

I’ve not written in a long time. It’s certainly not for the lack of ideas. The ways in which events swirl around us these days have given me more than a few kernels with which to work. And while life has been busy, I can’t honestly say it’s been for a lack of time. Somehow these past few days have shaken me out of – well, whatever – and I need to write. It also helped that a dear friend and colleague pushed me last week to get writing!

In recent days we have been barraged by the news pouring out of Virginia following the discovery that Medical School Yearbook page for the recently elected Governor, Ralph Northam, contains a deeply disturbing image of two people, one in “blackface, and the other in the garb of a Ku Klux Klan member. While we do not really know whether one of the individuals in that image is a younger Ralph Northam (he has alternatively owned it and denied it), the revelation and the subsequent furor over it is unsettling.

There have been widespread condemnations and calls for the Governor to resign his office. As I write it still unclear whether he will do so. My reaction to the news, aside from disgust, is filtered through the prism of my study and practices of the middot (soul-traits) of the Mussar tradition. I believe Northam should in fact resign. And I believe he should do it as quickly as possible.

In an early response, Governor Northam seemed to own the picture and expressed that it may have reflected him at an earlier time in his life, in which he may (or may not) have held and found humor in the disturbing image. He claimed that he no longer holds those views and that he is a changed man. As troubling as I find someone believing it was a humorous expression, I do believe in our tradition’s concept of Teshuvah – repentance.  Indeed, the concept is so central in our tradition that it is not merely related to our annual Days of Repentance which take us from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur. There is a prayer for teshuvah, that is, the ability to reflect on and engage in teshuvah in the daily liturgy. It is recited on most days (exclusive of Shabbat, holidays, and other special times designated in Jewish tradition.) Had Northam stuck with his ownership of the image on his Medical School Yearbook page, and with the statement that it does not represent who he is and what he believes today, perhaps I could allow him some time and room to prove himself.

I leave aside the Governor’s shifting responses and could attribute them to “politics as usual.” Too many in the public sphere play the game of navigating amongst responses when they have been outed for some misdeed.  They cast about until an explanation seems to settle. We who listen find ourselves like sailboats facing ever-shifting winds. To be sure, this is not exclusive to public figures. Even as I could hear and respect the confession of a misdeed or an inappropriate expression from an earlier point in time, on which an individual has had a change of heart and mind, it’s not that simple for me in this case.

I am focused on a different concept from the Mussar tradition, that of Achrayut – responsibility. In a post on the subject, Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz writes, “Achrayut comes from the root “acher” (other). To take responsibility means to cultivate the “ability” for response to an “other.” This responsibility to another is born in the moment where no one else is present to assist. As Hillel said (Pirke Avot 2:6) ‘In a place where there aren’t people of moral courage taking responsibility, one needs to step up.’”  These days we often hear the language of being “upstanders” rather than “bystanders” when we see injustice, bigotry, hatred, or any of the other ills with which people harm one another. Being an upstander is the act of taking Achrayut- responsibility. It is true that over time and through the experiences of our lives, we learn through trial and error. We can and should change. Indeed, that is a part of the essence of the study and practice of Mussar. And striving to become a better person is hardly the sole province of Jewish tradition.

The shift between the Governor’s initial response owning the picture and his subsequent disavowal is, for me, beside the point.  Governor, whether you are in fact in it or not, the picture is on your yearbook page. I believe it is a reasonable assumption that at some point you had to approve your page. For me, whether you are one of the two figures in “costume” in the picture is immaterial. It is your page and you must, therefore, accept responsibility for what is on that page – irrespective of whether you are, in fact, one of the two people in that distasteful picture. And I believe your responsibility does not hang on whether you purchased a yearbook those many years ago. You cannot possibly expect us to believe you’ve never seen your page until now. That is too disingenuous a notion for any public official to expect his or her constituents to accept.

Governor, the honorable thing for you to do at this moment is for you to show some character and values. Step up – and step down! That is the responsible thing to do.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Some Thoughts on Perspective

Last week I attended a public hearing in my hometown of Newton, Massachusetts. The gathering was extremely well-attended. It also revealed some of the deep fractures in our community, and our nation in these times. The hearing was convened by our School Committee in response to a citizens’ petition alleging that the curriculum in our public high schools contains bias, as relate to anti-Semitic and anti-Israel teachings. This hearing comes after seven years of attacks and allegations. The auditorium, in which last week’s hearing was held, was filled to overflowing with hundreds of attendees, representing all sides of the controversy.

Everyone who signed in requesting a speaking slot at the beginning of the evening was granted up to 3 minutes in which to make their comments. Time was kept with a timer on a large screen behind the School Committee members so that all could see that each speaker was granted his or her allotted time. I was grateful that the school committee patiently sat and listened, while each person who asked to speak took their place at the microphones at the front corners of the auditorium.

I write not to affirm nor criticize any of the speakers, or the groups who had organized on various sides of the matter. I surely have my feelings, and indeed, I was one of the speakers at the hearing. But as I reflect on last week’s forum, I am reminded of a saying I learned several years ago. Those who know me are familiar with the fact that I am often inspired by things I see around me which might otherwise pass unnoticed. One such source of inspiration comes from bumper stickers I see on cars as I traverse the highways and byways of our communities. Several years ago I spotted one such bumper sticker which became the focus of an entire Yom Kippur sermon. It read: “Don’t Forget Who You Always Wanted to Be!”

In the days following last week’s hearing, I recalled another bumper sticker which I noticed almost a decade ago. Frankly, I had forgotten about it until searching for some older writings I know I had from several years back. In my search, I turned up a piece which I had started to compose, but had set aside and marked “Not Used.”  As I read the fragment I realized that the message I’d seen almost a decade ago still speaks to me as I reflect on last week’s hearing. It was a bumper sticker I had noticed not while my car, but rather in one of the many coffee houses, I visit in the Berkshires each summer. The establishment in which I noticed this sticker had an entire wall of such stickers, from which there were quite a few that caught my attention. I remember thinking at the time, oh boy, lots of sermon ideas. However, on that occasion, I only made note of one whose message summed up a lot of my thinking over the course of that summer.  Now, almost a decade later, it still strikes me as relevant – and important.  Its simple message: “Don’t believe everything you think.”

Part of what made last week’s public forum an important event for me was that every speaker was afforded the same allotment of time, irrespective of his or her viewpoint. This was an important exercise in public discourse and a civil, democratic community. Certainly, there was a broad spectrum of viewpoints, as there is in just about every corner and on every subject in our society in 2018. But that bumper sticker I noted almost a decade ago, and my studies of the Jewish Spiritual practice of Mussar – especially as they regard the soul traits of humility (anavah) and truth (emet), taken with the simple message of that bumper sticker. In a pluralistic society, where we are afforded freedom of thought and freedom of expression, we must never take for granted the right to speak forthrightly our opinions. At the same time, it is extremely important that we not confuse our opinions – nor our interpretation of what we consider fact – to be the absolute truth.  There was a point in last week’s hearing in which one speaker asked why the School Committee was not listening to the “truth.” As I listened and considered the speaker’s viewpoint, as well as the one I had presented, I realized that my words were just that – my words, my opinion, my interpretation. Certainly, I believe that I am attempting to read everything honestly and with a clear mind, so I can speak what I believe is true. But we are limited beings, with limited capacity to know the truth. I believe there is such a thing as absolute truth. But I am guided by the teachings of the 12th century Jewish legal and philosophical master, Moses Maimonides when he cautions us that as human beings our capacity to “know the truth” is limited by our human qualities. We can pursue the truth, but our limitations prevent us from ever absolutely attaining it with certainty.

The saying, “Don’t believe everything you think!” is, for me, not merely a catchy phrase on a bumper sticker. It is a call to honest reflection. It is a challenge to acknowledge that our knowledge and understanding are colored by the lenses through which we see the world. We must approach sharing our “knowledge” and understanding with humility and respect for the very real likelihood that there is a larger truth we may not fully comprehend. We all need this perspective in our contentious, fractured reality as we close out 2018 in anticipation of 2019.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Nedivut - Generosity: Mussar Thoughts on the Eve of #GivingTuesday

Thanksgiving was a welcome diversion from the world! It was great to retreat to a special place with our family. It was delicious to step back from the news (for the most part), the challenges our world faces, and to face one another for a few days. What a treat to gather with three generations for food, fun and lots of laughter. Now that Thanksgiving weekend is receding, our secular holiday calendar has taken over. “Black Friday” was hard to miss, though I found that by staying in our retreat spot I was able to ignore it to a great extent. Now that I have returned home, and now that I have returned to my inbox, it’s nigh impossible to ignore the tidal wave of messages – either trying to lure me on this “cyber-Monday” or calling out to me as tomorrow, the much heralded “Giving Tuesday” arrives. Of course, with the end of the secular year in sight, many are focused on those gifts we typically make at years’ end so as to maximize the tax benefits of giving. Last year’s Tax Bill changed the impact of our charitable gifts on our tax filings. How that really plays remains to
be seen.

But now seems a good time to reflect on a middah (soul trait) from the Mussar tradition on which I am currently working with one of my Mussar groups. Several of the groups with whom I am working are “advanced groups,” in that they have been meeting for several years.  Part of what I really enjoy about my work with these groups is their thirst for in broadening our Mussar horizons as we venture into the exploration of and practice with middot which are not typically in the basic curriculum of beginning groups. For me, the challenge to expand my repertoire, study middot and develop materials for these groups is nourishing. It is expanding my own soul-curriculum, and I love it!

One of my groups chose Nedivut/Generosity for this year’s journey. While I had studied the classic Mussar text, Orchot Tzaddikim (Ways of the Righteous – an anonymous text generally thought to originate in the 15th or 16th century) and its chapter on this middah about two years ago with my personal hevruta partner of many years, studying and teaching are two different processes. I have always loved that in the world of Hebrew grammar the Hebrew word for teaching, l’lameyd is a more intensive verb form of the word “to learn” – lilmod. Ever since I first began teaching, during my high school years, when I served as the Music teacher in my home congregation’s all-volunteer Religious School, I have never forgotten that relationship between learning and teaching. It continues to inspire and guide me.

As I think about Nedivut, I am reminded of a teaching from Rav Moshe Leib of Sassov (1745–1807, a disciple of the early Hasidic Master, Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezeritch.) The story is told that Rav Moshe once  asked a miserly person: “What is the difference between looking through a window and looking at a mirror?” Rav Moshe then explained, “When you look through a window you see other people, but when you look at a mirror you see only yourself. And why? Are they not both sheets of glass? The difference is that a lining made of silver blocks the view through the mirror.” That silver, the Rav teaches, is like the silver of our material wealth. He challenges us to consider in what ways our own materials goods and monetary wealth prevent us from seeing the world around us, and other people in our world.  As we step into a season when many of us do a substantive portion of our charitable giving, it’s a good question to ask ourselves. The world around us is filled with sorrow and brokenness. While giving tzedakah is not the only way in which we should engage with repairing our world and helping others, it is a part of our responsibility.

The 20th-century Mussar master, Rav Eliyahu Dessler taught, “That which we give to another person is never lost.” Through our acts of generosity, we are not simply giving up what we have. We are redistributing the stuff of our world so as to have a positive impact beyond ourselves and our family. If we are making a positive difference in the world and the lives of others (which is hopefully our intention when we give) we should not view what we have given through Nedivut as lost. Perhaps we can see it as having found a place or a life in which what we have given can have even greater impact.

In the chapter on Nedivut in Orchot Tzaddikim, which I mentioned above we read: “Our Sages of blessed memory have stated that the trait of nedivut/generosity resides in habit. One is not called generous until one becomes accustomed to giving, in every time and season, and according to one's ability. For one who gives to a deserving person 1,000 gold pieces at once is not as generous as one who gives 1,000 gold pieces one by one, each gold piece to an appropriate recipient. One who gives 1,000 gold pieces all at once is seized with a fit of generosity that afterwards departs.”  I do not read the teaching of Orchot Tzaddikim as discouraging larger gifts. The teaching is encouraging us to develop the trait of nedivut ha-lev – “a generous heart.” We should work on ourselves so that we are accustomed to giving, not just on one day a year, or in one season of the year. Indeed, the goal is for us to make nedivut and tzedakah a regular part of our lives, week in and week out, in all seasons. That is certainly a reflection for each of us as #GivingTuesday arrives.  

Friday, November 16, 2018

Finding Balance

Thanksgiving is peeking around the corner. The hours of daylight are dwindling. We know well that this is part of a cycle. Yet, I also feel as if the darkness which surrounds us is growing in more than just the natural world around me. With last week’s elections mostly in the rearview mirror, I had hoped the tenor of our national discourse might die down a bit. Alas, we live in a world in which events – both those resulting from human actions, as well as what our insurance policies label as “acts of God” come in a seemingly never-ending stream.

I keep reminding myself that this Shabbat will mark just three weeks since the horrific shooting at the Tree of Life congregation in Pittsburgh. That nightmare thrust not only the Pittsburgh community into darkness. A shroud descended on Jewish communities throughout our country. Judging from the kindness and comfort of neighbors, friends and the communities which surround us, the darkness was felt far beyond the boundaries of our Jewish communities. And dark events have continued: shootings in numerous settings and communities, the ongoing fires in California, more revelation of anti-Semitic incidents, the ever-present political noise, and so much more.

In the weeks since Pittsburgh, I have found the conversation and mood in the various Mussar groups with which I work around Boston deepening. The groups involve some 85 or so participants. There is seems to me, a shared sense that our study and practice of Mussar – the Jewish spiritual practice of character development and moral improvement -- has taken on a new urgency and a deeper purpose. I know that for me, my personal journey into Mussar study and practice has been a source of grounding in a world which it can be so hard to maintain a sense of balance. To paraphrase my teacher Alan Morinis, the founder of The Mussar Institute, the purpose of Mussar practice is to help individuals deepen their understanding of the ways of the soul, and to guide them in overcoming obstacles which keep them from attaining a sense of inner wholeness (shleymut) and holiness (kedushah). 

A core teaching of Mussar is that our deepest essence is inherently pure and holy. However, our inner is obscured by extremes of emotion, desire, and bad habits which veil the inner light within us. Our task in life is to break through the “veils” and uncover the brilliant light within our soul. The Mussar masters developed a host of teachings and practices—some of which are contemplative, some of which focus on how we engage with other people in daily life, some seek to impact our sense of relationship with God. All are designed to help us heal and refine ourselves. Mussar is both a body of knowledge and a perspective on life. It is also a discipline because Mussar knowledge is not meant to be a merely intellectual pursuit. The teachings of Mussar are meant to be activated in our daily lives.
Mussar is built on the concept of middot (singular – middah), “soul traits” which are elements of our character. These include humility, honor, patience, gratitude, generosity, anger, forgiveness – and the list goes on. We each carry all the traits. However, we each carry them in different ways and different strengths. The path of Mussar invites the student/ practitioner to consider a single trait for a period of time so she can learn about her strengths and opportunities for growth.

Each middah is imagined along a spectrum ranging from extremely strong to absent. The general goal, I believe, is to try to walk within what I like to call “the broad middle.” Akin to Aristotle’s Golden Mean, Maimonides’ Shvil HaZahav (the path of moderation), Buddhism’s Middle Way, and other similar portrayals of the ideal path in life, the “broad middle” beckons us to strive for a balance. We can track a similar range for each of the middot. For example, we should exhibit not too much humility (or a lack of self-worth), but neither should we allow our sense of self to grow unbounded so that there a total absence thereof. In the case of generosity, we should strive not to be miserly. Yet nor should we be so generous as to give it all away. As Alan Morinis teaches, there are times when the middle is not the ideal path: For example, “in the face of injustice patience is not a virtue.” Just like a gymnast who navigates a balance beam, we must make constant adjustments. As dynamic beings, each of our middot/soul traits is in flux. So too, is the world around us. Through Mussar study and practice we hold up a mirror in order that we might examine ourselves with an eye towards personal improvement and growth. 

Part of what I love about the study and practice of Mussar is that while we each have what Alan calls our own personal “soul curriculum” soul traits which need more or less work, we practice in the context of a va’ad, a group with whom we share the journey. At present, I work with five such groups. I also study as part of two personal study pairs (hevrutot) with dear rabbinic friends and colleagues. Sharing the journey helps me as I learn from those around me with whom I share my struggles, my insights, my successes, and the learning. In the darkness which I so often feel pervades our world, I have trusted companions with whom I can share the journey. This adds meaning to my life. The study, practice and my companions help provide a sense of balance.

In one of my groups, we have been working for the past month with the middah of menuchat ha-nefesh which is often translated as “equanimity” or “tranquility.” So much has happened since we began our focus on this soul trait which has thrown us off in terms of a sense of equanimity. The rash of pipe-bomb packages; the shootings in Pittsburgh, Thousand Oaks and elsewhere; and the terrible loss of life and property in the fires consuming vast parts of California; all disrupt the sense of wholeness in our world. Add to this the hateful rhetoric which flies in too many directions and too many places in our country. Just yesterday morning I awoke to a news story about a 10-year old Framingham girl, a Muslim student who received two notes in her school box. One accused her of being terrorist, and the other threatened her life. Why do our times make such forms of expression possible? A 10-year old child? That expression was learned somewhere. How do we dial that back? I also read yet again about the intensifying wave of anti-Semitic and other hate expression uncovered in the Reading Schools to the north of where I live. This morning it was at UMASS-Amherst. How do we impress upon our elected officials that hate, division, demagoguery, bullying, and personal attacks are unacceptable? We are better than this.
To enhance my sense of menuchat ha-nefesh, to strengthen my sense of balance, I have decided to tune out of social media, and indeed, most media for the week ahead. I want to focus my Thanksgiving week on middot, such as kavod/honor and hakarat ha-tov/gratitude for the people in my life, and for the blessings I enjoy. It’s not that I think the world will suddenly straighten itself out next week. I don’t. But I can find balance, strength, and blessing by stepping back and refocusing. May the coming holiday week bring us a sense of awareness of our blessings, and a sense of balance so that, renewed and strengthened, we can return to the work of making our world one in which the blessing of shleymut/wholeness can be shared more broadly.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Strive For Truth - An Election Eve Mussar Lesson

It’s the eve of our US midterm elections. The hype, rhetoric, and anxiety that have been part and parcel this election cycle is supposed to reach its climax in the ballots that will be tallied tomorrow. There is little reason to believe that the hype and rhetoric will abate, as the passing of this Election Day gives way to two years hence and the election for President of the US. I suspect that there is little reason to expect that the anxiety which seems so widespread will lessen either. The toxicity of our political arena has been building over years and even decades. The anxiety about our civic arena grows not only from the divisive discourse but from the accompanying horrific events which seem to be increasing in frequency and violence.

It was refreshing, therefore, to take a short break this morning from the news and the tension by diving into some study about one of the great Mussar masters, Rav Eliyahu Dessler (1892-1953). I should have known better than to think that my study would remove me from our existential reality. I was sitting in my favorite coffee house near our home, reading an article about Rav Dessler which I had found several months ago. Its title “Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler: Not Quite the Musar Traditionalist” piqued my curiosity. I really thought it would take my mind off of this week’s elections. I was however, surprised when the author, Esther Solomon, proceeded at one point to reference a teaching from Rav Dessler’s magnum opus, Michtav Mey-Eliyahu (rendered in English as Strive For Truth!) The intersection of Rav Dessler and our reality came with the author’s reference to the Rav’s interest in bringing philosophical discourse into the world of Mussar. By and large, this was unheard of the formative years of the Mussar Movement, which began with Rav Yisrael Salanter in mid-19th century Lithuania. Philosophical themes were very much the province of the Haskalah (Enlightenment) of 18th century Europe. The Mussar Movement emerged, in part, as a reaction to the Haskalah. Ms. Solomon notes that Rav Dessler, a product of traditional Mussar learning, broke new ground by bringing the worlds of Mussar (as a Jewish spiritual character-building practice) and philosophical discourse on issues such as good and evil, truth and falsehood, the meaning of life, and other such themes into a common arena.

Reading her article, I was struck by these lines: “In deliberating the philosophical constructs of truth and falsehood, Rabbi Dessler posits that telling the facts does not, in itself, constitute the truth. True statements depend on their human context, particularly on the teller. Thus, if a person spends his life pursuing falsehood, any true facts he tells will nevertheless constitute falsehood because that is his life’s orientation.” Lest you think I am overreading Esther Solomon’s article, it was published before the 2016 election. While that timing might suggest that it was written in response to the then-current presidential campaign, at no point in the article does the author make any reference to current events, of that year, or any other, save for those from the lifetime of Rav Dessler (e.g. the Holocaust), who died in 1953. Sitting with my cup of coffee in the quiet of the cafe, I sat straight up as if she had aimed a megadose of caffeine at my consciousness. I was wide awake. I finished reading the article and raced home to grab my Rav Dessler volumes, both Hebrew and English, only to learn that in fact, he had written an entire discourse entitled, “What is Truth, and What is Falsehood?” I will be reading that selection as this week unfolds. But in a quick scan of his discourse, I quickly realized that his proof text comes from this week’s Torah portion – Parashat Toldot (Genesis 25:19-28:9)! Our portion reflects much of Isaac and Rebecca’s adult life, including the birth of their twins, Jacob and Esau, their challenging childhood, and their oppositional characters. In his discussion of truth and falsehood, Rav Dessler uses Jacob’s deceptive behavior towards their father in stealing his slightly older twin brother Esau’s rightful blessing as the firstborn.

Rav Dessler writes: “When we went to school, we were taught that truth is to tell the facts as they occurred, and falsehood is to deviate from this.” The line that really struck me was his statement, “No one can succeed in bringing his behavior into line with the veritable truth as long as materialistic, selfish, and evil will dominate his mind. His eyes will be blinded, and he will inevitably pervert everything to accord with his desires.”

I suspect I need not explicitly connect the dots from his teaching to the tension of our existential reality as Americans. The campaign which ends in tomorrow’s vote has been riddled with falsehood. Now I know that some will say that all or most politicians lie or stretch the truth. Indeed, I have grievances with leaders from all sides of the aisle. Yet, never in my life have I seen a leader so doggedly promote falsehood, and outright lies with the regularity of Mr. Trump. For all his attacks on the media as purveyors of “Fake News” it’s not lost on me that (a) journalists are human, and as such, they make mistakes. Most responsible journalists will own and correct their mistakes when they are made known, and (b) the “media” is a broad spectrum of outlets. These include some that have a proclivity for falsehood, including some of Mr. Trump’s favorite outlets. Is there “Fake News” out there? You bet there is. But it emanates more regularly from some of the sources that are absolved while Mr. Trump’s attacks CNN, the New York Times, and his other favorite bogeymen.

Tomorrow we get to render a verdict on the truth of where we wish to see our nation go in the years ahead. This may be the most consequential election day of my life thus far. While this is but our midterm election cycle, the outcome will impact the latitude with which this current Administration operates. You may not like your options – as many reportedly did not in the 2016 Presidential election. But not voting is voting. It is silent assent to the status quo. It may yet turn out that, as Americans, we will support the status quo after all the ballots have been counted.

In my eyes, this election is as much, if not more, about our value of truth over falsehood, as it is about candidates and ballot initiatives. Ms. Solomon’s summation of a key point in Rav Dessler’s teaching about truth and falsehood echoes aloud for me. I ask you, read it aloud to yourself a few times before you cast your ballot tomorrow. Let her echo of Rav Dessler’s teaching guide you, however, you choose to cast your vote: “If a person spends his life pursuing falsehood, any true facts he tells will nevertheless constitute falsehood because that is his life’s orientation.”

May we be guided to differentiate between truth and falsehood so that we, our neighbors, our fellow citizens, and all who share our world will be guided towards the truth that leads to Shalom!