Shabbat Talmud Study: The Urim V’Tumim and the Fantasy of Easy Answers to Hard Questions

Pick the most divisive, polarizing issue of our time. The issue that you won’t discuss around the dinner table with family or friends because it will not end well.

Now imagine that there were some device that could ascertain God’s will about the answer to this vexing question. Our Torah tomorrow offers us just such a thing, the Urim v’Tumim, translated by our Etz Hayim chumash as “the instrument of decision…for determining the will of God in specific matters that were beyond human ability to decide.”

Imagine if we had the Urim v’Tumim today. What is the right answer on: abortion, immigration, border security, criminal justice reform, health care, or any other issue that occasions constant disagreement. As a society we have been disagreeing about these issues from generation to generation. Is there such a thing as the right answer to these questions? Is there such a thing as God’s answer to these questions? Is it even possible for there to be the answer that resolves the question once and for all?

How did this instrument of decision work out for ancient Israel? Did it work? Did they use it? Did it really resolve their hardest questions? What do we learn about the hardest questions from the Urim v’Tumim?

Finally, google “Yale insignia.” Guess what you will see. Why that?

See you tomorrow at 8:30.

Shabbat shalom,

Shabbat Talmud Study: Why Do We Do Bad Things-and How Can We Stop Ourselves From Doing It?

If you want to see a movie that gets inside of you, lands like a porcupine’s quill, and does not leave, ever, see Three Identical Strangers. It tells the story of three identical triplets born in 1961 who were as part of a diabolical medical experiment separated from one another as 6-month old infants and sent to live with separate families, all in the New York area, unaware of one another’s existence. Identical triplets were a few miles away, and yet a universe away, until young adulthood. They discovered one another at the age of 19. The film tells the sorrowful tale about how this medical experiment ruined their lives.

All of that is sad enough. But what is particularly horrifying is that the creator of this medical experiment was a man named Peter Neubauer, who was born in Austria in 1913. He came of age in Hitler’s Europe. He managed to escape the Nazi regime by immigrating to New York in 1941. Once here, this man who avoided Mengele’s diabolical medical experiments, perpetrated Mengele’s diabolical experiments on unsuspecting babies and families. A refugee from the Holocaust ruined Jewish lives by doing Mengele here.

Why is it that victims of abuse, when they emerge into their adulthood, all too often perpetrate that abuse on others?

The Israelites are slaves for 430 years. When they are finally freed, and receive the Torah at Sinai, God frames the moment by saying I am your God and I took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You would think the first thing they would do is build a society where there was no slavery. Yet, immediately after Sinai, the first law is “When you acquire
a Hebrew slave.” Jews become Jewish slave owners of Jewish slaves. Like the refugee from Mengele doing Mengele in America.

What is that? There is no magic bullet, no magic pill, no panacea for our resistant, recidivist human nature. Not even God at Sinai could shock us into decency.

But the Book of Exodus does have one core insight that can help us at least check ourselves, even if we cannot rid ourselves of our darker shadows. This one insight will allow our nobler angels to emerge, if we work at it every day.

See you tomorrow at 8:30!

Shabbat Shalom,

Shabbat Talmud Study: A Great Idea that is Common Sense but not Common Practice

“The mind of the Multiplier works like this: If I can find someone’s genius, I can put them to work.” Liz Wiseman, Multipliers, 45.

A multiplier sees people for who they are, their distinct talents, what they love to do, what they do well, even effortlessly. A multiplier sees that talent, summons and cultivates that talent, and finds a place where that talent can land, can have impact. The multiplier creates a space where the number cruncher crunches numbers; the policy analyst analyzes policy; the bean counter counts beans; the painter paints, the singer sings, and the greeter greets. It is a symphony of everyone’s unique gifts, intentionally summoned.

Seeing the best in people, and bringing out that best, is obviously wise. Who could argue with that? Yet what is common sense is often not common practice. What gets in the way of seeing and valuing and bringing forth people’s uniqueness? Why do people’s unique gifts get stymied not summoned?

We are in the second half of the Book of Exodus. The second half has two main stories that pivot on exactly this issue: can the leaders of Israel see and bring out the best of the people of Israel? At stake in this conversation is how effective you are with people.

See you tomorrow morning at 8:30.

Shabbat shalom,

Shabbat Talmud Study: The Accidental Diminisher

When Liz Wiseman first published Multipliers in 2010, she offered her typologies of the multiplier and the diminisher.

Seven years later, in 2017, she published a revised and updated version of her book. What had changed? What was the essential difference between the original and the revised and updated versions?

Answer: The Accidental Diminisher (chapter 7).

What Liz Wiseman learned from seven years of reaction to her book is that while some diminishers are narcissists and egomaniacs who think only they can figure it out, just do what I say, that is a thin slice of the diminishing that goes on. The far more common form of diminishing is done by people of goodwill who do not intend to be diminishers. They intend to be multipliers. As she puts it “sometimes the good guys are the bad guys.” p. xx.

What happens? These well intentioned accidental diminishers illustrate the truth that sometimes too much of a good thing is too much. Wiseman offers nine examples of conduct that, in itself, is inherently good, but the person engaging in this conduct can, in the wrong context, cross a line so that this conduct diminishes.

It is good to answer your emails on time. But if you are sending out emails at 11:00 pm, midnight, 1:00 in the morning, 4:00 in the morning, 5:00 in the morning, 6:00 in the morning, that can diminish the people to whom you send it who say, “I can’t keep up.”

It is good to be optimistic. But if you are always glass half full, that can diminish our colleague or family member who is grappling with real problems and who wants your empathy for these problems, not your solutions.

It is good to have high standards. But your high standards can come across as diminishing if it feels like perfectionism. The parent who says to the kid who gets a 98 on their test, where were the other two points, is guilty of perfectionism that diminishes.

Tomorrow morning we will meet the original accidental diminisher. His name was Moses.

Shabbat shalom,

Shabbat Talmud Study: Should We Make Ourselves Smaller to Give Others the Space to Be

Contraction. Self-contraction.  Is that a good idea?
In Multipliers, Liz Wiseman devotes an entire chapter to this essential quality of great leaders.  They “create space.” They “release others by restraining themselves.”
How should we think about this notion of intentional self-restraint for the purpose of unleashing other people’s voices, contributions, potential?
This question has implications for any work environment, but also home.  Do we make ourselves smaller so that our spouse shines?  Do we not give voice to our concerns so that our children can do their thing in peace and with our support even if we really wish they would do what we want them to do?  This question also has implications for any community of meaning, our shul, your child’s school, your alma mater.  What happens when any of these institutions makes a decision  that you deeply disagree with?  Do you contract your concern? Do you go along to get along?
How should we think about contraction?  There is a profoundly Jewish angle to all of this–a Kabbalistic and Rabbinic notion called tzimtzum, which means God’s contraction.  God, who fills the universe, has to contract Godself to make life possible for everyone else.   We will encounter a sparkling essay by Rabbi Shai Held on how the Kabbalists and the Rabbis have very different understandings of God’s contraction.  Their creative tension, on a seemingly technical theological point, connects directly to what keeps us up at night.
See you tomorrow at 8:30.
Shabbat shalom,

Shabbat Talmud Study: Becoming a Multiplier–Can You Learn to Ask Better Questions?

If you want to become a better and more effective human being at home, at work, and in your various communities of meaning, please consider reading Multipliers by Liz Wiseman. It is gold. Tomorrow morning we begin a several-part series on this very important book.

Wiseman and her team interview 150 leaders, and the people they lead, in America, Europe, Africa and Asia. On the basis of this learning, she offers two typologies: the Diminisher and the Multiplier. The Diminisher sucks all the energy out of the room; demoralizes their team; makes people half as productive as they could be if properly inspired. By contrast, the Multiplier brings out the best in everybody, creating positive energy, high morale, high motivation. The Multiplier makes everyone smarter, twice as productive as they might otherwise be.

Her central thesis is that we can all become a Multiplier. Tomorrow morning we are going to encounter one of the most important ways to accomplish this: asking better questions.

A Diminisher thinks no one else can figure it out but him or her, so the Diminisher tells. A Multiplier knows that others can figure it out without him or her, so the Diminisher asks or invites or poses challenges for the group. The Diminisher micromanages. Do what I tell you. The Multiplier invites a conversation about a juicy challenge and is genuinely interested in other peoples’ thoughts.

What makes a question a question that will open up? Open up conversation. Open up possibilities. Open up energy? Open up thinking that leads to solutions?

We are going to encounter four great Jewish texts on questions (not the 4 Questions from the Seder). Some land. Others do not land. Hopefully we can learn from our tradition how to ask questions that will open up all kinds of positive energy in this new year.

Can we retool ourselves to ask better questions?

See you tomorrow morning at 8:30.

Shabbat Shalom,

Shabbat Talmud Study: The End of King David’s Life, Two Very Different Reads

About everyone of us, at the end of our lives, two things will be true.

We will be in the middle of our story. There will be unfinished work we wanted to do, or we wanted to see our children, grandchildren or great grandchildren do.

There will be layers of complexity, blessings for which we are so grateful, and challenges and unanswered prayers that walk with us until our last breath.

If that is true for each of us, it is even more true for the epic life of King David. Tomorrow morning, our last Talmud class for 2018, we will encounter two different reads of King David’s end, the biblical account (which furnishes two Haftarot, including the Haftarah for tomorrow morning) and that of the great writer of historical fiction Geraldine Brooks in her biography of King David entitled The Secret Chord.

What do we learn from the end of King David’s life, through these two lenses, that teaches us how we should live our life now?

Begin with the end in mind. If we have a sense of the kind of end we want, what do we do today? How shall we live now?

See you tomorrow morning at 8:30.

Shabbat shalom,

Shabbat Talmud Study: How We Teach, for Good and for Bad, Without Intending to Teach, Just by Living

In the annals of the human story, it is hard to imagine a more arrogant person than Joseph. Who dreams that their siblings will bow down to him? Who dreams that their sibling and parents will bow down to him? Joseph.

But here is the sobering thing. Joseph became who Joseph became because of how his father Jacob raised him. Jacob created an arrogant monster. If you had asked Jacob, when Joseph was born, do you want to create the most arrogant person in the history of the world, Jacob would probably say no. But the choices Jacob made, how he raised Joseph, promoted the arrogant man that Joseph became.

We do our best teaching when we are not intending to teach at all.

We do our best teaching by how we live.

Tomorrow morning we will see the power of this truth for good and for bad.

Shabbat shalom,

Shabbat Talmud Study: President George H.W. Bush and Joseph in Egypt–What is the Single Most Essential Quality of a Great Leader of a Nation?

Tomorrow morning we are going to look at an underexplored part of the Joseph story: How he feeds the Egyptian people during the period of severe famine. Thankfully we have not experienced famine and so do not really get its destructive and horrible power. We are going to read some excerpts from Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick about the famine in North Korea. Famine kills. And it kills slowly, painfully, cruelly.

Joseph saved the Egyptian people from this slow, painful famine-induced death, for which they are grateful and for which they thank him.

And yet.

As Rabbi Shai Held observes, the Torah suggests a critique of Joseph’s life-saving policies. Indeed, what Joseph will do to the Egyptians-make them slaves unto Pharaoh in Egypt, avadim l’pharoh-the Egyptians will do to Joseph’s descendants.

This analysis of Joseph will yield a simple metric by which we can judge all of our leaders and which can explain why President Bush, though super successful in international relations (end of Apartheid on his watch, fall of the Soviet Union on his watch, creation of a truly international coalition to get Iraq out of Kuwait, the successful prosecution of the war, restraint in not going to Bagdad), was denied a second term.

Shabbat shalom and Happy Hanukkah,

Shabbat Talmud Study: A Simple Move That Will Change the Tone of Your Life and of Our Time

Have you received an angry email that gave you indigestion?
Have you sent such an angry email to somebody else?

Is there somebody at your Thanksgiving table that you dread talking to because you see the world so differently, and if you go there, your blood pressure will rise, and if you don’t go there, there is an elephant in the room?

Last week I read something from a colleague that is simple, hidden in plain sight. It is deeply rooted in Jewish texts and values, from Pirkei Avot, to the Babylonian Talmud, to our portion this week (Parshat Vayishlach). It is wise. It is helpful. It is already making a difference for me. You can do it too. After you start doing it, you may wonder, as I have, why did I not do this before? On Shabbat we will explore a simple move that can change the tone of your life and of our time.

Happy Thanksgiving, Shabbat shalom,
and see you on Shabbat at 8:30.