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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!

Monday, October 22, 2018

"Our Opponents Are Not Evil"

We are racing headlong towards next month’s Midterm Elections. Much is being made about the consequential nature of this particular election for our nation and for the state of our democracy. Given the turbulence of recent years, how could it possibly be otherwise? I do not mean to infer a partisan sentiment. For in truth, no matter where your political sensibilities lie, you likely see the upcoming elections in a somewhat black-white, binary fashion. Whichever party you favor, you likely see the other party in a relatively dim light. Though I certainly have my own point-of-view, I am trying to step back and take a broader view. Nonetheless, I find it hard to feel good about most of the actors on today’s political stage, irrespective of their party affiliation.

In my darker moments, I find myself muttering that in light of so many of today's examples of leadership, we are less a Democracy, and we are more of a Hypocrisy. Day after day I see core principles and values being set aside for the sake of political gain. I find it hard to maintain respect for those whose faces and voices fill our newscasts. I am truly sickened by the hyperbole and vicious rhetoric tossed into the public by flamethrowers from both sides of the political divide. The zero-sum game of today’s politics is toxic, and I fear, it is destructive, in ways that will take a long time to undo.

At Yom Kippur, I wrote and spoke about my admiration for the late Senator John McCain. Though I shared precious few positions with Senator McCain, I admired his humanity, his service to our country, and his capacity to understand and articulate the reality that elected officials on both sides of the aisle want what is best for our nation. Time and again he would acknowledge the humanity and essential goodness of an opponent. And he did so even in the face of derision from folks gathered at a political rally or amongst members of his own party.

In the past few days, I believe we have seen another example worth noticing. Soon-to-be-former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, with whom I also have my differences, earned my admiration for a stand she took late last week. In a speech at charity dinner in New York, she tossed out quite a few laugh lines, which included poking fun at herself. But Ambassador Haley also took aim at a serious theme when she stated: “In our toxic political environment, I’ve heard some people in both parties describe their opponents as enemies or evil. In America, our political opponents are not evil. In South Sudan, where rape is routinely used as a weapon of war — that is evil. In Syria, where the dictator uses chemical weapons to murder innocent children — that is evil. In North Korea, where American student Otto Warmbier was tortured to death — that was evil. In the last two years, I’ve seen true evil,” Haley continued. “We have some serious political differences here at home. But our opponents are not evil. They’re just our opponents.”

How refreshing! I wonder if any of the hundreds of candidates running for office – for the US Senate, the House of Representatives, any of the governorships up for election, or at the state and local levels heard her statement. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to hear politicians from across the spectrum stand up and endorse her words?  Of course, I would most love to see it come from the highest level of our nation’s government, from the Administration from which Ambassador Haley will soon depart, and from its leader. I am not holding my breath on that.

I believe that in addition to voting on November 6th, we must each take the time to let all our elected officials know that we heard the Ambassador’s words and we must demand that her message become one that all of our leaders are prepared to stand by and live by.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Seeking Emet/Truth in an Unnerving Time

I sat down to write a response to the events which took place in our nation’s capital yesterday with the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings. In short, I want to call for a vote of “No Confidence” in our elected officials in DC. Then I reminded myself that while that maneuver works in Israel and in Great Britain, it does not in our system. What poured forth as I wrote was an angry screed. I have tried to set it aside for now. I may or may not return to those writing out and sharing those thoughts. Among the wide range of emotions with which I found myself sitting with late last night was a strong feeling about how damaged we are as a nation; about how damaged our government is, and about how fractured the very concept of “truth” is in our days. As I sat thinking what do with my feelings I remembered a post I wrote several years ago, on the subject of Emet/Truth.  I have adapted part of it here:

Those who know me, know that I have been a student of Judaism’s Mussar tradition for a number of years now. Riffing on the title of David’s Brooks’ inspirational book The Road to Character, I have taken to calling Mussar “the Jewish Road to Character. What started as a weekly dive into mussar texts with my hevruta (“study partner”), Rabbi Jonathan Kraus almost five years ago, has led to a dramatic realignment of my life, my focus, and my work, as I now spend a great deal of time reading, studying, and teaching about Mussar. Indeed, as the Holy Day/Festival season ends in coming days, my main work focus over the coming year will be leading Mussar groups around the greater Boston area, as well as continuing my personal research and writing in the field of Mussar.

As I tried to bring myself back from the soupy mix of emotions after yesterday’s deeply disturbing hearings I was reminded of a Mussar teaching on the middah/value of Emet/Truth from an early 19th century text entitled Cheshbon HaNefesh (literally “Accounting of the Soul”) by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Leffin of Satanov. In my various mussar studies, with my friend Rabbi Kraus, and under the auspices of the Mussar Institute, I am constantly struck by the immediate sense of applicability of these teachings from centuries earlier than our own to our own time and its challenges. As we come to Shabbat, I share just a small piece of Rabbi Leffin’s teaching on truth. While it might seem that I am bringing it out in response to these past days, I lift it up, also as we approach the coming days. May we all consider its applicability to our lives, and to our complicated time. Rabbi Leffin teaches (in the 18th century!):

"TRUTH - Do not allow anything to pass your lips that you are not certain is completely true . . . Lying is a most despicable spiritual illness. At first it stems from the pursuit of permitted pleasure, money, prestige or the esteem of men. It then progresses towards the pursuit of prohibited pleasures. At the end, it becomes an acquired inclination of its own lying for the sake of lying! When it is combined with the yetzer hara (“evil inclination”) of mocking and of idle talk, it brings man to the point where he will even swear falsely, God forbid. For example: A haughty person expends all of his efforts to flaunt virtues which he does not possess. He strives to deceive others through mountains of lies and exaggerations hoping that they will believe him.

"A person who mocks also slanders and discredits decent people. A person who flatters, uses falsehood as his chief weapon . . . Then there’s the cheat who lies for money; building his livelihood and his prestige and his business on this virtue. His expertise in deception, cheating, wrongdoing, mocking, slandering and flattering makes him a person to be feared . . .  But in the end, falsehood has no base on which to stand. And if the liar should later speak truthfully, no one believes him any longer. This is the punishment of those who are haughty, hypocritical, deceitful or who cheat others they are discovered and exposed, first by one friend and then by another, until their lies are publicized and they become full of shame, debased and hated by all.

"Therefore, one must, from the very beginning of its appearance, search for the root of this illness and root it out by applying the disciplines of humility, righteousness, and silence. Afterward, one must include the discipline of truth by committing himself to the positive precept of loving truth even when doing so will cause him to forgo some monetary pleasure or presumed honor . . ."   (from Cheshbon HaNefesh, chapter 12)

Yesterday brought powerful testimonies from the two central figures who spoke before and were questioned by the Senate Judiciary Committee. For the most part, our elected officials have lined up along partisan lines. Their respective senses of the “truth” are, I daresay, not based on the words of the two individuals who gave testimony yesterday. We heard histrionic displays from quite a number of other players – both inside the hearing chamber, as well as from various figures around our nation’s capital, and on our airwaves. Not lost on me personally is the irony that some who spoke the loudest have, it seems to me, not even a passing acquaintance with the truth.

Many things are getting lost in the tumult of these days. Not the least of these is any semblance of, or respect for, “truth.”  I am fairly certain we will never really know the “truth” in this ugly chapter. I am deeply troubled by those who wish to rush this nomination for our nation’s highest court in the face of such confusing and troubling discourse. I can only hope that all the players step back over the weekend to reflect on it all. I confess I am not optimistic that many will do so.

For now, I pray that Shabbat and what remains of Sukkot gives us pause and time for reflection and honesty for each of us within our own kishkes before we – and our leaders – we return to the battlefield in the week to come.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Stopping By the Woods . . . At the Start of a New Year

At the end of 10th grade, I was part of the celebration at my home synagogue of the year’s Confirmation. As I recall, there were a good number of us in the class, and I can still picture many of my classmates. I can also easily remember the speech I gave that day (we all gave speeches.) Mine was based on Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken. As I have written previously, my father believed I was telegraphing my intention to study for the rabbinate in that talk. 

I’ve now been up in the North Country of New Hampshire for the better part of three weeks, sharing the journey into the New Year with the wonderful folks at Bethlehem Hebrew Congregation. Prior to my arrival up here, I had done my homework about the area online, as I knew I would have some time to explore. One site I put on my agenda was what is known asThe Frost Place, the Franconia home in which Robert Frost and his family lived for five years in the early in the 20th century. I just felt like this was a must-do. Today was the day.  A crisp chill in the air, and a clear blue sky, it seemed like the perfect day to head down the road to nearby Franconia.

The Frost Place is not a glitzy site, but it is deeply inspiring. And, it is easy to see why Robert Frost was drawn to Franconia and the White Mountains. I watched the film they show, I toured the house which I filled with memorabilia.  The gentleman who welcomed said, “Be sure to sit on the porch a while.” Boy, was he correct, I could hardly tear myself away from the majestic view from that porch. It is so easy to see why Frost was drawn here and why the Frost Place organization invites rising poets to spend a summer here to soak in the beauty and tap into what surely inspired Robert Frost.
Before leaving I went for a walk in the woods along the “Poetry Trail.” It’s a beautiful, easy walk through the woods surrounding the home, speckled from time to time with bits of Frost’s poetry. I wasn’t familiar with several of the poems I encountered along the way. But I suppose I wasn’t surprised when I came upon the familiar Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening. Somehow, reading it there in the beauty of Franconia’s woods it sounded different and even more powerful.  A short while later, I suppose I was not entirely surprised to find "my Frost poem" – The Road Not Taken. 
Reading it in the quiet serenity of these beautiful woods, and at yet another juncture in my own personal journey, it was quite the powerful moment. I do not know where the road ahead will lead me, but I am certainly glad that my road has brought me to this beautiful part of New England, and back to the poem that was a touchstone for me long ago. And just before I left The Frost Place, I spied a short few words by Frost I'd never hear before. But they were well placed for this juncture in my journey and I snapped a quick photo!

Just feeling “the presence” of Robert Frost and his art this afternoon was an inspiration. And that walk was a great way to launch into Sukkot – when we celebrate nature’s beauty and bounty. Chag Sameach!