April 13, 2019 — 8 Nisan 5779
What a complicated time. Today is Shabbat Hagadol. We are supposed to prepare ourselves for the first seder next Friday night. But most of the big issues that one might discuss at our s’darim are even more fraught than usual.
Israel is part of the seder. God took us out of Egypt to take us to our promised land. The seder ends with bashanah haba’ah birushalayim. Next year in Jerusalem. But Israel, always fraught, is even more fraught than usual. The Israeli election this week generates deeply held feelings. It is extremely likely that folks around any seder table would disagree passionately about what these elections mean for Israel and for our relationship with Israel.
Thinking about the vulnerable and the stranger is part of the seder. The Torah’s single most frequent command is you were strangers in a strange land, therefore have compassion for others who are strangers in your land. That is always fraught. That is especially fraught now, in this season of a national gridlock over the wall, over asylum seekers, over whether our nation is full, to use the President’s term this week. It is extremely likely that folks around any seder table would disagree passionately about what our nation’s posture towards asylum seekers should be today.
Thinking about economic and social justice is part of the seder. That we were slaves is core to our story. Our story as a people who had nothing has inspired the psalmist to sing that God lifts up the needy and the Torah to dream of a world without poverty. But how to actually make the biblical ideal of economic justice real is always fraught and is especially fraught now. Talk to your 20-something who is home for the seders about their thoughts on socialism; their thoughts on capitalism; their thoughts on whether the very words millionaires and billionaires connote deep blessing or policy failure. The folks around any seder table are going to think very different thoughts about social and economic justice.
All of which leads to what seems to be a lose-lose proposition. It seems like we have two bad options.
One option is: don’t talk about anything that matters so that we can preserve shalom bayit, peace around the seder table. Talk about the Red Sox. Rough start! The weather. Still so cold, can you believe it. The food. I just went gluten-free. Not for trendy reasons. For health reasons. Is there any gluten-free matza?
The other option is: it’s a jungle out there. Talk about the stuff that matters, but watch out when your 20-something from Oberlin talks to her 85-year old grandfather about Israel today, and both are deeply hurt and offended by the other’s point of view.
Is there a third move? What would it look like to talk about the hardest issues in a hard time, where people disagree deeply, and still the conversation is beautiful and uplifting.
I think I have something helpful to suggest, and it comes from two speeches, one that I heard directly, and one that I heard about.
Recently I spent an afternoon listening to four Ted talks delivered in Kenmore Square. The subjects were diverse. Dizziness. Intimacy. Depression. And sharks.
Three of these topics were obviously relevant. Lots of people I know have struggled with dizziness and fallen; or are working through issues of intimacy or depression. But sharks? I was tempted to skip the shark talk. I have spent literally zero minutes in my life thinking about sharks. I would rather catch up on my emails that hear about sharks. Or so I thought.
Out of respect to the folks who organized the afternoon, I went to the shark lecture. I am glad I did. I was on the edge of my seat the entire time.
The speaker, Greg Skomal, embodied conviction. This man believes that sharks are an urgent issue. He dreamed of becoming a shark expert when he was only12 years old and saw the old Steven Spielberg classic, Jaws. He studied marine biology as an undergraduate and in graduate school, and he has studied, pursued, and encountered sharks for more than 30 years. Because he believes that sharks are the most interesting thing in the world, you quickly fall under his spell.
Here is the lesson of this speech for us, one week before Pesach. What is your shark? What is it about which you have a deep conviction, and you are going to spend your next 30 years deepening that conviction?
And here is the second speech, which was recently given by Larry Bacow—we know him as Larry, but in his day job he is the President of Harvard—and he was offering remarks at the Kennedy School of Government in the context of a Harvard Gender Equity Summit. He and a colleague were slated to have a dialogue on the role of higher education in expanding economic opportunity. But as he was offering his remarks, students stood up and unfurled banners protesting what they claim to be “Harvard’s complicity in the Prison Industrial Complex.” These activists insist that Harvard divest from any company that supplies private prisons with uniforms, food and the other materials that go into running a prison—which, by the way, is a totally de minimis part of Harvard’s portfolio. Larry pointed out that prisons are not per se immoral, and that civilized nations incarcerate people convicted of crimes. These activists argued that prisons “cage people who have traditionally been oppressed by people of privilege.” The activists refused to move and continued shouting, as a result of which the whole gathering was disrupted and moved to another, smaller location. This is the first time that this ever happened at Harvard. A conversation about gender equity was hijacked. A president was shouted down.
These activists had their shark. They had conviction. What they did not have was civility, humility, and decency.
Thus our challenge, one week before Pesach. How do we have both? How do we have both conviction and humility? How can we care about something deeply, and listen to and respect others who don’t share our point of view?
Now our challenge, to be fair, is harder than it is for the shark expert. After all, there is nothing particularly controversial about sharks. We want to avoid them. All of us can agree on that. Avoid sharks. Check. Anything that Greg Skomal has to say about avoiding sharks would be welcome.
His conviction is not controversial. But what about conviction about Israel, about immigration policy, about socialism, capitalism and economic justice? While 100% of us want to avoid sharks, that unanimity breaks down when we confront these more complicated issues. What do we do?
I want to offer you in this regard a simple, single idea. Can you listen in order to understand, listen without any expectation of persuading the other person? Can you listen out of genuine curiosity and not out of the desire to convert the wrong-headed to your point of view?
Experts in this field of listening call this hitting the bulls-eye. It would look something like this. You talk to somebody about an issue of substance where you see things differently. You say: Please tell me your thinking. You then listen, not to rebut, or to refute, or to contradict, or to prove them wrong. You listen to learn what they think and why. And then you try to put into your own words everything they just said. Not because you agree with what they said, but because you heard what they said. To feel heard is a beautiful thing.
This theme of I see you, I hear you, for who you are, and I don’t judge you, animates Kaddish.com, a novel that just came out by Nathan Englander. The father is an Orthodox Jew. The son is secular. The father davens every day. And the father would appreciate the deeply meaningful gesture of his son saying Kaddish for him. But the son never davens. Kaddish is not his thing. And before he dies, the father says to his son: you are good, just as you are. I love you, just as you are.
After the father dies, the son in fact does not say Kaddish for him. The son finds somebody on Kaddish.com to say Kaddish for him. Time goes by. What was the impact of the father’s embodying both conviction—he was an Orthodox Jew who davened every day—and humility. He loved his son for who he was.
The son could not bump up against his father’s anger, because his father was not angry.
The son could not bump up against his father’s judgment, because his father did not judge him.
The son could not bump up against his father’s guilt, because his father did not guilt him.
All the son could bump up against was his father’s love, because his father loved him, and saw him, and heard him for who he was. All of which inspired his son to go on a spiritual and religious journey in his own time, and in his own way. Years later he found his own deep meaning in living his Jewish life. Non-judgmental love and deep listening make good things grow.
Conviction and humility, caring deeply about your own core, listening openly to those who do not share your core, loving generously, that is a powerful combination—for seders, for relationships, and for life. Chag kasher v’sameakh.
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March 23, 2019 — 16 Adar II 5779
If you were listening closely when we read the megillah, you might have heard something strange. At the beginning of chapter two, the talented heroine of Purim is introduced by two names. In the words of the megillah:
[And he was the guardian of Hadassah, (that is, Esther) the daughter of his uncle] (sung)
Why did she have these two names? The midrash explains that Esther was born green. Literally. Her skin had a sallow, yellowish-green tone and for this reason, she was named Hadassah—myrtle. As a little one, she looked like the plant. But as she grew older, God made a miracle for her. God concealed her green skin and made it so that anyone who saw her experienced her as the most beautiful woman in the world. That’s why she was named Esther—Esther for hester—the Hebrew word meaning hidden.
When I first came across this midrash, it seemed like a dream to me. I was a sleep-deprived rabbinical student poring over texts late into the night. At that point, my under-eye circles had grown so large and dark, I thought people might confuse them for my eyes. So the idea that there was a possible miracle that people would see me and think I was well-rested and beautiful rather than overworked and tired—that was attractive! Think about what an incredible blessing it would be to have Esther’s divine charm. You accidentally spill coffee on your white shirt? No problem, people just see a perfect shirt. You are feeling sick? No problem, people experience you as if you were fully healthy. Didn’t get a chance to shave before your morning meeting? No worries, you’ll look perfectly groomed! No matter what is going on for you, the world only experiences perfection. Pretty amazing.
Except the more I thought about this midrash, the more I began to see its dark underside. What would it be like to be Esther? To be born and to have God say, “You know what, I see that you came out a different color than everyone else. Let me fix that. I’ll make it so no one can see your green. Instead, you will look like everyone else. In fact, you’ll look better!”
After the miracle, it’s like you are living a double life. Everyone sees you and relates to you, but no one really sees you at all. Because God has hidden your greenness away, you start to think that maybe there is something wrong with being green. Maybe you should just act as if you were not green and forget about it. You start to believe that your true self should never be shared. You hide not only your skin, but also your Jewish identity, and your feelings and preferences. Soon it’s hard for you to remember who you really are. All you can easily grasp is the person the world wants you to be.
We’ve all lived some version of this. We’ve all felt the compulsion to be the person the world expects, to suppress the parts of ourselves that aren’t perfect, to make ourselves beautiful in the eyes of others. How many of us wake up extra early to put on make up and do our hair and style our clothes so we will look just so? I remember Oprah Winfrey did a show years ago where she found women who wore make up 24/7 and challenged them to take the make up off for one full week. These women were filmed going to the grocery store without make up and then, crying at home about the pain of having been seen without foundation. When I watched the show, I was shocked. How could women be so afraid of themselves? How could they believe their self-worth was so fully tied to their appearance? I was horrified; and yet, if I’m being honest, I can’t imagine going to a formal function, or to work for that matter, without my own coat of make up. I’ve got Esther syndrome!
I see this with our teens too. Have you heard of Instagram? It’s a social media platform where you can post pictures and videos with short captions. For many teens, it’s their primary social media outlet. They carefully curate their insta with pictures of them having fun, perfectly groomed, going on adventures, courting success. No sweatpants, emotions, or loss. This page is totally posed. But teens call it their rinsta—their real Instagram. They’ve got Esther syndrome!
The rinsta stands in opposition to the finsta (I’m not making this up!)—finsta is the fake Instagram account. Whereas a rinsta is perfectly curated, a finsta is spontaneous, authentic, and real. It’s private—only shared with a few people—and doesn’t try to create an image. If you’re sick, you might post a picture of you not feeling well. If you’re feeling grumpy, you could post about that too. Didn’t score as well as you wanted on a test? That’s a post for finsta. Finsta is a fake insta because unlike the expectations of social media, we use finsta to be real.
Fake Instagram is the real Instagram. And what we call the real Instagram is so fake. It’s all backwards and confusing. Just like Esther, the more we try to curate our rinsta, the more time we spend refining our image in the world, the less we feel able to be authentically ourselves. Esther syndrome.
In 2008, Brandon Stanton was forced to confront his own version of this. He had been working as a bond trader in Chicago, fully immersed in the conventional career path the world seemed to expect from him, never having given much thought to his own preferences. But when the recession hit, he was laid off. Suddenly, there was time for him to reflect.
He realized that he was happiest on the weekends when he would go out to take pictures. He decided that instead of working in finance, he should become a photographer. So, he bought a camera and moved to New York. His family thought he was crazy. You can’t just decide you’re going to be a photographer. You need training, equipment and experience. But Brandon was determined. He decided his goal was to photograph 10,000 New Yorkers going about their business. Every day, he would go out to the streets of New York to find willing subjects. He posted his pictures to Facebook and called the album Humans of New York.
At first, no one cared. No one liked his pictures or responded. But then, he started adding a line or two about each person. Then his likes jumped. It started with a few likes here and there and then, before long, he had hundreds, then thousands, then millions of followers. Today, he has more than 18 million likes on Facebook and nearly 9 million followers on Instagram. He’s published several best-selling books. He’s even been hired by the UN to travel around the world taking pictures. Beyond his personal success, Brandon has used his social media presence to raise more than $6.5 million dollars for cancer patients, orphans, veterans, indigent New Yorkers, and everyday people who just need help living their dreams.
Brandon’s story teaches us about the powerful blessings that can come when we are willing to be ourselves. For him, shedding the world’s expectations and living his dream meant millions of dollars of accumulated wealth, transformative leadership, global connections, and profound change. But Brandon’s story is not always our story. Each one of us walks around in a green skin of our own. Sometimes those skins are full of challenges, full of pain. And when we lift the veil that conceals who we really are, people don’t always respond in the ways we want. Our challenge is to love ourselves for who we are, to be ourselves, no matter what.
Which brings us back to Esther. In the story, Esther is living her glamorous hidden life in the palace, when Mordechai comes to tell her what is about to happen to the Jews. Imagine you’re Esther. “Uncle Mordechai,” she says, “what can I do? If I go to the king, well first of all if I go to the king without his invitation he could very well just kill me for showing up uninvited. But let’s say I go to the king and he lets me speak. Then what?! I say, ‘oh honey, by the way, I meant to tell you we’ve been living a lie. I’m not who you think I am. I’m Jewish. And I’m green. Look. I’ve been hiding it from you all this time because I was afraid of what you would think and how you would respond.’ Uncle Mordechai, he will be furious. He will feel betrayed and hurt and angered. There’s no way that will work! I will just be the first to die and he will want to kill everyone else even more.”
Mordechai stands there with a pained expression on his face. “Esther honey,” he says, “you think it’s safer to keep lying about who you are? You weren’t sent to this planet to live someone else’s life. You were sent here on a mission. God has given you the qualities you need to succeed. מִי יוֹדֵעַ–אִם-לְעֵת כָּזֹאת, הִגַּעַתְּ לַמַּלְכוּת Who knows? Maybe this is why the king fell in love with you, so that his love for you could expand to hold our whole people. Maybe this is why you are queen.”
The miracle of Purim is not just that Esther saved the day. The real miracle of Purim is that Esther found the courage to be herself no matter what.
Purim is over. Let’s take off our masks. No more Esther syndrome. It’s time to be you.
March 16, 2019 — 9 Adar II 5779
Every year the Oxford Dictionary comes up with a Word of the Year, a word that captures the ethos and mood of our time. For 2018 the word of the year is toxic. Toxic was used widely to describe our natural environment, relationships, culture, politics, the state of our national conversation.
The word of the year is toxic because all too often our world feels toxic.
Here is my question for you. If the world is toxic, do you have a counter world to which you can retreat where you feel safe and sound, seen and heard, loved and valued?
The Israelites inhabit a toxic world, a wilderness that is hot, dry and endless. They are thirsty and hungry. Rootless and wandering. Every grain of sand looks the same. Every day looks the same. Times 40 years.
What do they do?
They create their counter world, the Tabernacle, an alternative and much happier reality. In a world of drab sand, the Tabernacle is full of color, of red, purple and blue fabrics, fine gems, dolphin skins, beautiful wood. In the desert, they are preoccupied with the lower rungs of Maslow’s hierarchy, eating, drinking, surviving. But with their counter world, with their Tabernacle, they can think about higher emotions, guilt and gratitude.
The Israelites had a counter world that was better than their wilderness. What about us? How can our counter world be better than our toxic world?
In the toxic world, people are driven apart. How can we create a counter world that brings people together?
In the toxic world, people knock each other down. How can we create a counter world where we lift one another up?
In the toxic world, we feel drained. How can we create a counter world where we feel rejuvenated?
How do we get this wonderful counter world? The Torah’s answer could not be more clear. In the Torah God created the world in six days. But the Tabernacle was created by Israelites. The same is true for us. If we want a counter world, we have to build it.
Let me share examples of four counter worlds that work.
The first counter world is a gym—or any other place where you work on your physical fitness and health. The psalmist says it plainly: loh hameitim yehallelu yah, the dead do not praise God. While there are no guarantees, we need to do our part to try to stay alive and healthy as long as we can by developing a regular work out life. A good gym is a sanctuary for body and soul.
Last month Shira and I went to visit our 24-year old daughter in Los Angeles. The twenties can be a tough decade. Twenty-somethings have a lot to figure out. What they do for a living; how to make ends meet; the search for a life partner; many move around from job to job and from city to city and from relationship to relationship. Many are far from home and from the support structures of their youth. That is why David Brooks calls these the odyssey years. Most of Jordy’s friends are experiencing their own version of the odyssey years. What does their counter world look like? Answer: Soul Cycle. Every Sunday this group goes to Soul Cycle for an intense hour spin class, from which they emerge recharged.
What are you doing for yourself, physically, to stay healthy? What is your version of Soul Cycle?
We also need a counter world at work. We spend so many of our waking hours at our job. And yet, how much can any one employee really do to shape the culture of a work environment? Most of us inherit our work spaces; we do not create them.
While we may not be able to set policy and culture for our larger work force, we can control the personal quality of our interactions. We can be a mensch with the people in our little orbit. Our small act of decency creates ripples.
In her book The Power of Meaning, Emily Esfahani Smith relates a study of cleaning and janitorial staff at a large hospital in the Midwest. Cleaners are crucial to the safety of a hospital. This study focused on their morale. How did they feel about their jobs?
A deep learning emerged. If the cleaners felt respected as people by doctors, nurses and families, they felt like they were part of the healing team. If doctors, nurses and families knew and used their names—how are you Ben?—they had a high morale. If people would walk around the floor they were mopping to respect their work product, they had a high morale. But if they were unacknowledged, if they felt invisible, if people would walk on their floor while they were in the middle of cleaning it, they had low morale.
You do not need to be the CEO to shape a culture. It is ordinary acts of menshlikeit done every day that shape a culture. Knowing, seeing, and caring about the people we work with. Are we creating a counter world of menshlikeit at work?
Here is the third counter world that you can shape: a regular prayer space. I was talking recently with a person who is new to our community; who is in fact not Jewish. But he and his wife and children have been coming to our services, Friday nights and Shabbat morning. They are interested in learning more about Judaism. What draws you to a service in a language you do not understand, I asked him? I do not understand the Hebrew. But I do understand the vibe. The vibe is a deep serenity. Nobody is on their phone. Nobody is climbing the corporate latter. Nobody is striving. Everybody is there to just be, to sit, to enjoy unhurried time with their loved ones. Where else does that happen, he asked? Nowhere else for me. That is why we are there.
Do you have a spiritual counter world where you can just be?
And the fourth counter world is the most important of all. A gym is important. Work is important. A spiritual center is important. But the most important counter world is what happens in our home. There too we have the power to shape that world.
Recently something happened in our community that is unusual. A granddaughter decided to sit shiva for her grandmother. According to Jewish law, one does not need to sit shiva for a grandparent. But, like the Israelites who created the mishkan with gifts from their heart, this shiva flowed from her heart.
During one of the evenings of shiva she shared that when she and her husband were raising two small children, this grandmother, then 83 years old, would regularly drive from Connecticut to Newton, a drive of more than two and a half hours, to be helpful. She would take care of both children, her great grandchildren, helping feed them, bathe them, change them, brush their teeth, tell them bed time stories, put them to bed, do the dishes, do the laundry, and then ask, after all that, what else can I do to be helpful? She was 83. She did this for years, until both great grandchildren grew up.
Roll the film forward, she passes at the age of 101, and this granddaughter not only sits shiva for her grandmother, she is saying Kaddish for her every morning and every evening. Again, not required by Jewish law. A gift of the heart.
Her grandmother had created a counter world of love, and that counter world did not end when she left the world.
At work and at home, for our physical selves and for our spiritual selves, what counter worlds of love and healing will we now create? Toxic is so 2018. In 2019, let’s create a better word for a better world. Shabbat shalom.
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