The Dual Art of Rising to the Occasion

We need a psychology of rising to the occasion.”

  • Martin Seligman

Staffs and Reeds

“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” If anyone knew the truth of this, it would be the author of this quote – Helen Keller.

In the Torah portions, “Mattot-Masei,” the Jewish people were on the cusp of entering the Land of Israel. While this would be at last the joyful fulfillment of God’s ancestral promise, it was not going to be all “milk and honey.” It was quite the opposite; actually, as the Jews who entered into the Land were headed into cycles of trial and suffering that would last for years to come.

At this critical time, God referred to the Jewish people as “mattot” which has the dual meaning of both “tribes” as well as “staffs.” Wooden staffs are unbending, unyielding, straight and strong. Thus, God was imbuing the Jewish people with the very qualities they would need in light of the turmoil and challenges ahead.

While the word mattot was used from time to time, the most common word to describe the Jewish people was not mattot, but “shevatim.” Like the word mattos, shevatim also has a double definition – “tribes” or “reeds.” Unlike wooden staffs, however, reeds are thin and flexible. Reeds are rooted, yet able to withstand external elements by being supple. In general, since God typically uses the word shevatim, one could surmise that embodying the qualities of the flexible reed is our natural or preferred state.

By referring to the Jewish tribes as “mattot” at this particular juncture, however, we should understand that sometimes – as in times of war, upheaval and chaos – we have to stiffen our resolve and embody a very different nature. There are times when being a reed does not serve us. There are times when being a reed actually hurts us. And in such times, we must become like “mattot.” We must become a solid staff. So the question is: When do we become what?

Three Hours and Twelve Minutes

 Recently, the news brought horrors from abroad and close to home. As we were reeling with the news of the massacre in a gay bar in Florida that took place over a horrific three-hour period, we learned soon after of the brutal murder of a French police officer and his wife (in front of their three-year-old child). For twelve infinitely long minutes, the murderer chillingly filmed their torture, while issuing warnings to Europe of Isis’ intention to turn it into an imminent graveyard.  

Not to be an alarmist, but we could be on the brink, once again, of facing significant challenges. The flip side of adversity, however, is that it is the birthplace of greatness, and when we rise to the occasion of formidable challenges, we can achieve great heights. When confronting evil and hatred, we must rise to the occasion and stand as one with the strength of the wooden staff. As Winston Churchill said, “Never give in…never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”

Looking for the Good

On the other hand, when it comes to our interpersonal relationships and interactions with people outside of our comfort zone, we would be well served to be flexible, to put aside our differences and embrace our commonality. Eventually “close to home” as opposed to “over there” will be indistinct, as hatred anywhere must be perceived as hatred everywhere, and everyone’s backyard becomes a global reality.

When I have empathy for the sufferings of others as my own, I will be inclined to commit acts of benevolence, compassion and bravery. And while I must keep my eyes open to the horrors of this world, it’s just as important, if not more so, to see what is so very good. Otherwise, we will lose the best of what drives us forward.

In an article called, “The Optimism of Uncertainty,” Howard Zinn wondered how it’s possible to stay involved and happy in a world where the efforts of caring people often pale in comparison to what is done by those who have power. And he answered it thus:

To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places- and there are so many- where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of the world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.

Driving home, I was listening to the news. Overwhelmed with sadness and anxiety, I silently asked God to show me signs of kindness and compassion. As if on cue, I noticed a homeless woman begging in the middle of a hot street, and I saw an arm shoot out of a car window to give her a bottle of water.

Fred Rogers said that when he was a boy and would be afraid of scary things in the news, his mother would say, “Look for the helpers.  You will always find people who are helping.” When we see pain and suffering, we must, even to the point of bending over backward, do what we can to ease it. When people hurt, we must heal. When it comes to the root causes of pain and suffering, however, and those who inflict it, we must stand tall against them. God tells us we have a dual nature. We must use our heads and hearts to know when to be what

Internalize & Actualize:

  1. Write down a challenging situation you are currently facing and if you have been handling it like a staff or like a reed. Would it perhaps be better served by switching approaches? What do you feel will make the biggest impact in transforming this situation to the positive?
  1. When terrible things happen it is easy to lose sight of anything positive that is happening around us. Think about something difficult you have experienced, and then write down five good things that happened during this experience. They may pale in comparison, but focus on them. Then write down how you are feeling when you think about something uplifting alongside something so negative.
  1. Finding the good in those we struggle with is likewise a challenge. Think about someone you have a difficult time getting along with, and write down the characteristics and qualities that bother you about that person. Then alongside each aspect you find negative, write something that is positive about that quality (ie. Stubborn = someone who stands by their beliefs and feelings).

 

Advertisements

Beautiful Enemies – A Love Story

images

“A strong marriage requires loving your spouse even when in those moments when they are not lovable; it means believing in them even when they struggle to believe in themselves.”                  Dave Willis

With one question, my powerful, competent and responsible husband can turn into an evasive first-grader. Often, when I just ask my husband if he knows where some missing item might be, his instant knee-jerk response is always, “I didn’t touch it.” “I didn’t ask if you touched it,” I would respond with icy sarcasm, “I just asked if you knew where it was.” And I would think to myself, and if you would stop automatically assuming I’m accusing you of something, you could do something useful – like try to think where it could be or help me find it. It’s biblical – man’s proclivity to avoid blame.   The defense mechanism goes back to Adam, of course; husbands are practically hard-wired for it.

And Then This Happened…

I had bungled something as an attorney. A combination of procrastination and overwhelm caused me not to pay attention to something I thought was a minor issue – which turned out to be not so minor, creating a financial loss to a client – which we reimbursed. My husband, a well-known family lawyer, however, shielded me and took the blame, and was publically censured for a careless act that would cause any first-year associate to get fired.

And the most shameful part of it was that my husband wasn’t mad at me at all. He didn’t yell. He didn’t make me feel incompetent. And while I was sobbing with guilt that I had “ruined his life,” my husband laughed and said, “Don’t you know – you made my life?” But that profession of loving tenderness and unconditional grace somehow made me feel more ashamed than if he had yelled.

And Then This Happened Next…..

I noticed a book on top of a pile entitled, “Sacred Marriage” and I was reminded of the ultimate mindset one should have towards marriage and relationships in general. What my husband was saying, in effect, was that our marriage is sacred and he wouldn’t tarnish it, trample on it or hurt the relationship on account of something as secular, mundane and profane as a work-related legal matter. And I cringed thinking of how dismissive I can get over ridiculous minutia.  When one regards marriage as sacred, however, a journey of soul mates pledged to each other’s betterment and potential, then shame and blame, harsh criticism and other behaviors that infuse relationships with negativity are intolerable.

The Next-Step Marriage

In his book, The All Or Nothing Marriage, Eli Finkel describes the progression of marriage as being driven by utility, function, and necessity, to being love-driven, to a new “modern” concept of marriage as a means to self-actualization. According to Finkel, this is almost impossible bar to achieve. How can a spouse make the other feel loved, comfortable and secure while at the same time, be the driver of their improvement? How can we finesse being lover and coach, the safe harbor and the push for success? Is it fair, much less realistic, to expect our spouses to be all things?  

Um, Read Your Bible

This model of marriage isn’t so modern. In fact, it originates with the first couple in recorded history, when God created Eve to be an “ezer kenegdo” for Adam. When the Old Testament was translated into English, this term, “ezer kenegdo” was mistranslated as a “helpmate,” evoking an eternally submissive Betty Crocker. Granted, the Hebrew term has no direct and easy English equivalent, but in fact, an “ezer kenegdo” is a “helper in opposition,” a wife who assists by “being against.” When I first learned that this was my true role as a Jewish wife, I completely misunderstood it, thinking I was commanded from on High, to discover and fix my husband’s every imperfection. Self-righteously, I justified nagging as a holy mitzvah. An ezer kenegdo, however, is neither a Stepford wife nor a shrew, but a “beautiful enemy.” Allow me to explain.

In writing about leadership, Tal Ben-Shahar explains that while it is pleasant to be surrounded by those who always say yes to us and confirm and validate our actions, what is truly valuable is to have that rare and special someone who can say “no” – albeit with kindness, intellect and empathy. When critique is presented as an offering and not a demand, and when it comes from the person’s best and highest self, then even criticism can become beautiful.[i]

What Adam Didn’t Understand

Defensiveness, however, is the ego’s method of self-protection and it blocks us from hearing what the other person is saying. When God asked Adam the famous question, “Where are you?” for example, Adam’s defensiveness caused him to deflect the existential inquiry and by blaming Eve, he missed the opportunity to restore his relationship with God.

Accordingly, as Ben-Shahar notes, an indispensable component of this process is that we must also bring our kindness, intellect, and empathy to the table in understanding criticism – otherwise, our egos will perceive the person (even a loved one or the Almighty) as an enemy. Thus, the process is reciprocal and, ultimately must become mutual. “As we want all our friends, spouses and families to grow in all the possible ways we need to become beautiful enemies toward them.”[ii]

A beautiful enemy will both challenge and push you to grow, while at the same time love and accept you as you are. And so yes, we must continuously rise to the occasion and finesse these dual roles; to help our spouses and others actualize themselves, we must also work on ourselves.   I call that a win-win.   It’s a challenge but so very worth it. It’s what makes marriage sacred, so unbelievably great, and right from the start of Creation, the way it was meant to be.

[i] There is a story in the Talmud (Bava Metzia 84a), where Rabbi Yochanan mourned the death of Resh Lakish, his brother-in-law/study partner who had consistently argued against his every opinion. When he was paired with a brilliant scholar who supported his every decision, however, Rabbi Yochanan was inconsolable, crying bitterly that he didn’t need Rabbi Elazar to tell him he was right; he needed Resh Lakish to tell him he was wrong. “Bar Lakisha – when I would believe a thing would challenge me with 24 objections, and I would answer him with 24 answers, which led to a fuller understanding of the law.”

[ii] http://interesting-leadership-techniques.blogspot.com/2009/11/beautiful-enemy.html

The Meaning of Meaning

images

“Walk through the door and you’ll know you are in the right place.”                                                             – R. Levitz

The question stopped me in my tracks. In response to an article, On the Meaning of Meaning, by Seph Fontane Pennock, I wrote to Seph, sending him a saying by Tal Ben-Shahar that I liked, namely, that happiness lies at the intersection of pleasure and meaning. Seph immediately fired back a question: “What is meaningful – to you?” Thankfully, he narrowed it down to my personal viewpoint, but I as I formulated one answer after another in my head, I realized I had no ready response. Weeks went by, and the question continued to nag at me. How can I write, teach, or urge people to pursue meaning, when I can’t put my definitive finger on what it even is? I use the word all the time, and I can write pages about it, but I couldn’t find that one pithy Zen-like line that would sum it all up.

Man’s Search for Meaning

Viktor Frankl is known for opening the eyes of modern psychology to the concept that the essence of man lies in his search for meaning. And so, if this is my true essence, my fundamental nature as a human being, how can I be so dense? Why is this so hard to nail down? Our Founding Fathers guaranteed us the right to the “pursuit of happiness.” No guarantees, of course, and as we well know, even when we attain “happiness,” it is transient, and off we go on the chase ad infinitum.   Sustained happiness, on the other hand, is not derived solely from pleasure and positive emotions, but has another essential ingredient: meaningfulness.   Maybe, as the title of Viktor Frank’s famous book would suggest, it is the very search for meaning – that is meaningful. Perhaps it is simply the process of being open to seeing and experiencing the possibility of meaning that is offered to each of us moment-by-moment, right here, right now.

Inch Deep Versus a Mile Wide

Nitzavim, or Nitzavim/Vayeilech when it’s a double Torah reading, occurs on the last day of Moses’ life. The stakes couldn’t be higher, the words truer, the plea more from the heart. We also read these Torah portions right before Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment, where we pray to be inscribed in the Book of Life for the coming year. The Days of Awe are sobering and naturally, our thoughts run to the lofty side; we want to grow and change and be better, do better. It’s also a time of year for emotional hyperbole. We beat ourselves up for being sinning miscreants and promise to be righteous and praiseworthy from now on. You don’t have to take my advice, but I suggest that you go small, and take it moment by moment. For in looking for the grand gesture, you may miss the opportunity right in front of you, missing both the forest and the trees.

In Nitzavim, the last day of Moses’ life, Moses tells the Jewish people that Torah is neither far away and foreign, nor unobtainable and unnatural.

“It is not hidden from you and it is not distance. It is not in heaven, [for you] to say, ‘Who can ascend to the heaven for us and take it for us, so that we can listen to it and perform it? Nor is it across the sea [for you] to say, ‘Who can cross to the other side of the sea for us and take it for us, so that we can listen to it and perform it?’ Rather, the matter is very near to you – in your mouth and your heart – to perform it.”

How many times have I read these few lines without understanding the huge lesson they contain? We don’t even have to look outside of ourselves – we are hard-wired for holiness and meaning. It’s our natural state of being. Perhaps that is why Torah is compared to water and Abraham, Isaac, and Miriam were well diggers. Futilely, we try to quench our thirst with exotic waters, ignoring the wellspring within.

And so perhaps, ultimately, the search for meaning is who you are as you face whatever the next moment has to offer.   Moses is telling us that our authentic self is our godly nature and that we naturally yearn to express our core essence in our words and deeds.

Recently, I joined a Meet Up group that hosts musical gatherings in people’s homes. On the evite, along with the address, were the directions: Walk through the door and you’ll know you are in the right place.  In other words, in case you are not sure which house is his, if you open the door and hear the sound of music, you have found what you are looking for.   We know the right thing to do; we really do, but in over thinking it, or knocking on the wrong door, we lose touch with our essence and contort ourselves to justify doing whatever we want to do.

Peeling the Layers

As the saying goes, “less” is “more;” and so the less inauthentic we are, the more godliness we can reveal. Thus, our lives become meaningful as the natural consequence of meeting the moment with our best selves. We are said to be “thirsty souls,” and so may we satisfy our thirst from the well of Torah that runs deep within, and may the magic and meaning of the moment unfold and reveal itself to us.

 References:

On the Meaning of Meaning

Devarim/Deuteronomy 30:11-15.

The True Cost of Deception

images

“Integrity is telling myself the truth. And honesty is telling the truth to other people.”

– Spencer Johnson

It All Depends….

We’ve all heard the joke: How do you know when a lawyer is lying? When his lips are moving. Sadly, that joke is not reserved for the legal professions; but is endemic in the public arena with fake politicians and fake news, and in other areas such as fake goods, fake food, fake charities, fake political agendas, etc. Blatant fabrication seems to be the new norm.

And what is the truth anyway?  In my inbox today was a promotion for a continuing legal education seminar, entitled, “Lawyers and Lies,” which looks at the difference between what we are supposed to learn in kindergarten – such as honesty being an unquestioned virtue – and how the law sees it. And so lawyers are held to something called the standard of “Required Honesty,” which is how the Professional Rules of Conduct play out depending on the relationship between the attorney-speaker and the subject. Anyone who takes webinar is guaranteed to learn how cultural values shape what we call a lie, and explore negotiation ethics as to the difference between bargaining and lying, and the line bewteen outright fabrication and effective lawyering.

Blessings and Curses

Ki Tavo is known as the Torah portion of “blessings and curses,” and describes a curious ceremony, like a mass verbal referendum, which was to take place when the Jewish nation people would enter the Land of Israel. They will encounter two mountains: Mount Ebal, which is barren and bleak, and Mount Gerizim, a lush and verdant slope. Half of the tribes are to ascend one mountain and half the other, while the Priests and the Holy Ark remain in the middle. The priests turn towards each mountain and utter 12 proclamations that bring either blessings or curses upon the Jewish people, to which they will reply “Amen.” Refrain from doing these prohibitions, and God will bless the Jewish people with economic prosperity and safety. Violate them, and the Jewish people will be cursed with economic disaster and foreign conquest.  

So what are these 12 specific behaviors that teeter us between blessings and curses? Are they simply the Ten Commandments – plus 2? Oddly, on their face, they have nothing to do with what we think would be the central tenets and behaviors that would be paramount to driving national destiny. Rather, the prohibitions are for things like setting up secret idols, abusing one’s elders, secretly moving property lines, committing incest and variations thereof, being a hit man and killing innocent people, issuing unjust verdicts against the oppressed, taking advantage of the disabled, etc. What these behaviors have in common are that they are done in secret. Further, it tends to be someone in a position of power or control that is violating the foundations of relationship, civic duty or social norms. Finally, the victim has no recourse or protection. How many prominent figures have gone down after being exposed for privately committing the very behaviors they publically protest? How many people craftily put forth a clean and honest image while every night they sweep their dirt under the proverbial carpet? And how many victims of abuse fear retaliation – or not being believed – more than the violence?

Behind Closed Tents

In the Torah world, there is no such thing as, “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, or whatever goes on behind closed doors or the privacy of one’s home is OK.” The Jewish people were about to stake their claim in the homeland and become a functioning society. Ki Savo is trying to root out that which corrupts and destroys an organism from within – the cancer of hypocrisy, which can only live in the shadow world of secrecy. Such a people could never fulfill its mission: to serve God, be His emissary, and be a light unto the nations; hence to violate these precepts is to write their own ticket of destruction and exile.

You’re Not Smarter Than God

These two mountains, Gerizim and Ebal, are two peaks of the Ephraim range of mountains, which to this day still show a striking contrast in their appearance. The famous commentator, Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, points out that there are no obvious reasons for this being the case as they arise from the same soil, get the same amount of rain, the same amount of sun, etc. “In the same way, blessing and curse are not conditional on external circumstances but on our own inner receptivity for the one or the other, on our behavior towards that which is to bring blessing.”

The ceremony on the mountains is a reaffirmation of the covenant between the Jewish people and God and His commandments.   The hallmark of a covenantal society is that it is holistic; we are all in this together, we are responsible for each other, and the actions of individuals affect society at large. Apparently, as long as your behavior falls within the parameters of “Required Honesty,” you can legally fool others. You can even fool yourself. But you’re really deluded if you think you can fool God.

The Cost of Deception

To be honest, must we verbalize every thought that pops into our heads? Of course not! In fact, not telling your friend that you don’t absolutely love her new haircut is a good idea. On the other hand, if we do some honest self-reflection, we can usually find some discrepancies between our principles and our behavior. Unlike the shifting sands of cultural values, the Torah line between subversive corruption and what you can get away with has never changed.  Ki Tavo is warning us that the cost of the deceptions that betray our values, deceive others and surreptitiously unravels the very fabric of society is not a price we can afford to pay.

References:

Ki Tavo – The Pursuit of Happiness

Ki-Tavo: Blessings and Curses

Getting Married is Half the Battle

images

“I find that if your partner shares your values, everything else is negotiable.” Michele Paiva, therapist

What Were We Thinking? Or Not.

The couple sitting in front of me was at an impasse. Married for many years, they had solidified their positions on opposite sides of the “having children question.” Wife, an only child in her late 30’s, wanted something more out of the relationship and was desperate to create a family of her own, while the Husband was just as adamant that he was not willing to become a father. “Umm…” I began gently, “did you ever discuss how you felt about having children when you were dating and then deciding to get married?” They looked at me blankly, as if the thought had never occurred to them.

People – and relationships – grow and change over time; it’s not fair to lock people into certain decisions that no longer fit (e.g., a stay-at-home parent wants to work outside the home or vice versa, or someone wants to change the trajectory of a career, etc.). I am amazed, however, at how many couples seriously date and marry without figuring out whether or not they have similar overall visions for their lives together. They may feel confident in a relationship in which they have surface compatibilities and sufficient chemistry without inquiring whether their deeply held values mesh and align with each other. They often rely on certain commonalities while ignoring glaring differences. And so, swept away by infatuation, or driven by some other unsustainable force or motive, they close their eyes to red flags and blatant warning signs.

It’s a War Out There

Ki Teitzei means, “when you go out to war with your enemies,” and it opens with the rules a man must obey when coming across a “beautiful woman on the battlefield.” As the Jewish people were getting ready to leave the desert and enter the Promised Land, where they would be engaging in battles for years to come, this was a very likely scenario.   Despite the idiom, “all’s fair in love and war,” the Torah is clear about inserting rules of fair play into the heat of battle, where emotions override rational thinking.  

God understands human nature; after all, He created it. Thus, the specific laws of “the beautiful captive” were an intervention. They served to prevent captured women from being violated as victims of lust and infatuation, while at the same time, affording the man the opportunity to avoid entering into a hasty marriage that would ultimately violate his values. And so, a soldier who comes upon a beautiful woman whom he desired had to follow a whole regimen to cool off and think it through. After 30 days, during which the woman’s true essence would have time to emerge, and the soldier had time to reconnect with his rational brain, if he still desired her, he would have to marry her.  

The laws of “the beautiful captive” were not a formula for how to marry the women of the land, however, but to prevent the marriage in the first place. He had to see the woman as not just satisfying his desire for instant gratification in the immediate present but as a total commitment to the future. Could he picture her as the mother of his children? Would he live happily by her side for the rest of his life? Was she compatible with his values and lifestyle, community and family?

While the famous “irreconcilable differences” provides a legal ground for divorce, the truth is all couples have irreconcilable differences!   In fact, most marital arguments cannot be resolved, and it’s often a waste of time to try to reconcile disparities that are based on people having their own identities, differences of personality, history, etc.   Therefore, it’s not irreconcilable differences that end relationships; but rather, incompatible values.

For deeply held intrinsic values, there can be no compromise. In the case of the childless couple, for example, there can be no meeting in the middle, as there is no such thing as half a child.  Even if this couple decided to stay together, their future doesn’t look rosy. When a couple’s irreconcilable differences are tied to fundamental values, dreams, life vision and non-negotiable requirements for happiness, either or both of them will harbor resentment and anger, which breeds unhappiness and despair.

Living in Peace

Whether we are consciously aware of it or not, we all have values and a life purpose. When we live lives aligned with these values we feel fulfilled; our lives have a sense of meaning.  Sometimes, we can truly feel that we have a clear road map of who we are and where we want to go, only to realize at some point that we never created the map to begin with, and the unfolding of our lives was charted for us by our parents, society, or other external factors.   Like the quip that says you can spend your life climbing the ladder only to realize it was propped up against the wrong wall, the process of creating a shared life vision is only satisfying when it’s authentic to who you are.

So first, you must understand your core values. Unlike variable or secondary values that can change and grow, primary core values are the ones that endure, the ones that are tied to your belief system, you in your bones, being your best. The laws of the Torah, of course, help us shape those core values to express our godly souls and direct our life mission.  

Knowing What’s at Stake

The late Rabbi Noach Weinberg, used to say that unless you know what you are willing to die for, you don’t know what you’re living for. By the same token, if you want a life of meaning, joy, and purpose, you need to know what these things are. In choosing relationships, especially a life partner, common interests will not hold up unless there is also the common ground of mutual meaning, supporting each other’s dreams, and the sense that building a life together is a shared purpose and a loving sacred path.

 

Are We Supposed to Be Happy Or Holy?

“Sometimes the quest for meaning can override the quest for happiness.”

 – Roy Baumeister

The Beauty of Complexity

The beginning paragraph of Shoftim contains the famous phrase: “Justice, justice shall you pursue….” While the Torah may be poetic, it is not poetry. There is not one extraneous word, nor does the text rely on alliterative and other literary devises to turn a phrase. “Justice,” therefore, is not a single word, because justice is not a single concept; “Tzedek,” the Hebrew word for justice, embodies the double qualities of “righteousness” and “mercy.” Laws protect our safety, ensure rights, resolve conflicts, and bind us as a society. Without the underpinning of both righteousness and mercy, however, the resulting society we could create would be neither just – nor holy.  

To create a holy society, however, is not just to survive, but also to thrive, and this entails altruism, the engine that drives the Jewish passion to make the world a better place. Thus, Moses was emphatically emphasizing the selfless imperatives of how we are commanded to treat the weakest of our society, lifting us above our tendencies to become self-centered. Years before “Black Lives Matter” became a slogan, Christopher Peterson, one of the founding fathers of Positive Psychology, used to say, “OPM – Other People Matter.” But millennia before Chris Peterson, came… (you get the idea).

Covenant Versus Contract

The Jewish people were on the verge of crossing the Jordan and settling the Land of Israel. As such, they would be setting up societies and implementing legal systems, the foundations of the “social contract,” so that we can all get along. Ensuring socially predictable behaviors and norms are crucial to the survival of the common order. Unlike any other society ever created before, however, driven by the economy of the marketplace and the power of the state, the Jewish nation was to be a covenantal community, based on collective responsibility.

In a lecture entitled Cultural Climate Change, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks referred to this as a society of shared values, of how we act towards each other without the market paying us to or the state forcing us to. In a covenantal society, explains Rabbi Sacks, we are all in this together, and we are all responsible for each other; otherwise, all we are left with is the social contract, which dehumanizes us.  When we continue to outsource services, the state gets bigger, while our communities and we, as individuals, grow smaller.

Jews are referred to as the “People of the Covenant,” referring to the relationship between God and the Jewish people. Unless we create just and kind societies, however, based on a collective covenantal consciousness, then we are breaking faith with God, no matter how pious we may think we are. The Declaration of Independence grants individuals the right to pursue liberty and happiness. The Torah, on the other hand, envisions a holy nation pursuing justice, justice.

Resources:

Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue

Shoftim/Deuteronomy 16:20.

 

 

 

True Love is Never Blind

“The whole of life lies in the verb seeing.”

– Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

imagesLike so many things in life, the email over promised and under delivered. Snagging my attention with the subject line by Ticketmaster, “Your Personalized Event Line Up,” I assumed that this was a select and targeted list of local events I would find interesting and therefore, might want to attend. I am out of the loop when it comes to the entertainment options in my city, and so I opened the email with a bit of excitement to see what curated fun looks like.

Putting aside for the moment the fear I should have of the Big Eye in the Sky that records and logs for eternity each preference, purchase and Google search I ever made, I was willing to sacrifice my privacy for the sake of the convenience of algorithms that know me better perhaps than any human being.  With a very wide and eclectic range of interests, I was curious: “Oh holy data gatherer who sees all, when you look at me, what do you see?”

As I started to scroll down the suggested list of entertainers, I was puzzled: never heard of ‘em, never heard of em, never heard of em. “Peppa Pig’s Surprise,” which I assume is a show for children, or for butchers, or maybe a twisted animal revenge theme, is playing on a Friday night (Shabbat) in a theater about two and a half hours from my home. Three strikes. I continued to scroll down the email to see ads for boxing, football, and other attractions you couldn’t pay me to see; obviously, this list was not tailored to my tastes whatsoever. Offended by its false promise, I deleted the email and unsubscribed from the site, frustrated that my inbox seems to fill up with impersonal mass marketing emails faster than I can delete them.

The Need to Feel Special

After the flash of self-righteous indignation passed, I felt a little bit pathetic. Ugh. Wounded Child strikes again, looking to be acknowledged as a unique individual rather than a commodity – even by an innocuous online marketing service. Says clinical psychologist Edward A. Dreyfus: “The need to feel special is common to human beings. We want to know that we matter to others; we want to be seen.  We strive to achieve some special status in the eyes of others; how we are viewed by others matters to us.”[1]

To See and Be Seen

In Abraham Maslow’s famous Hierarchy of Needs, after our basic needs for shelter and safety are met, human beings have psychological needs, such as belonging and love, which are satisfied by intimate relationships and friends. Intimacy, best understood as the oft-quoted phrase, “Into Me See,” can only exist when others truly see us. To be truly seen, however, depends on the courage to be vulnerable. The willingness to disclose our inner selves, in the face of fear of rejection, is nothing short of an audacious act of bravery. This takes real love, genuine connection, and sincere empathy. Unless you sincerely know someone, how can you truly see this person? And without seeing, how can you say you love him or her?

What Do We Se

“Re’eh” means “see,” where Moses is telling the Jewish people: “See, I present before you today a blessing and a curse.” While we may think the difference between a blessing and a curse is obvious, it is not.   First, we don’t have objective eyes that see reality clearly, in that we constantly filter out sensations and billions of bits of information per second. Our attention is discriminating, and therefore, we can fail to see what is in front of our face. Take the Selective Attention Test and see for yourself.  Second, we have biases that shape those bits of information into personal meaning. We all watch the news. We all see the same videos. But each of us processes the information according to our values and standards. And with a predisposed bias, we see what we are looking for – 100% of the time.

Looking with Godly Eyes

In the words of author Brad Meltzer, “There’s nothing more intimate in life than simply being understood. And understanding someone else.” So it’s not a coincidence that the biblical term for sexual intimacy is “to know.” True knowledge, however, requires the commitment of time and investing in the relationship. But unless we look at the people we love with the right lens, our vision is faulty. We maximize the bad and minimize the good, sometimes to the point of no longer seeing the positive – even when it is in front of our face. Whether you see a challenging situation as the blessing of growth-waiting-to-happen, or a bitter disappointment depends on you. Therefore, God exhorts us to see reality – not with our eyes – but to train ourselves to see reality with Godly eyes. For when we fail to see and appreciate our blessings, then we are truly cursed.

[1] http://docdreyfus.com/psychologically-speaking/the-need-to-feel-special/

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJG698U2Mvo

Keeping Your Why Nearby

imagesIt is said that that the definition of insanity is to repeat the same thing and hope for a different result. Nevertheless, today, I joined Weight Watchers for the umpteenth time, with gritty determination that this time it will be different, and as I sat in the unfamiliar room, I took stock of my surroundings while waiting for the meeting to start. On the wall hung a poster with the slogan: “Keep your why nearby.” Worth the price of admission right there, I thought, as the crux of any endeavor is to align what we do with why we do it.

If I could sum up the directive of Eikev, where Moses uses his remaining days to instruct, inspire, and strengthen the Jewish people as they were about to cross the Jordan River without him, it would be those same words: “Keep your why nearby.” As long as we were still in the desert, we lived in a sort of cocoon, not just with each other, but also with the overt presence of God. We were cared for with daily open miracles. Foes were vanquished; transgressions punished.

Like a newborn emerging from the womb, however, we were headed to an entirely different reality and experience. We wouldn’t see an obvious connection between our actions and subsequent reward and punishment. We would face individual and national challenges where we would have to rise to the occasion or fall dismally apart. And so, whether in the heat of battle, the challenge of the market place or the grind of daily living, we could come to feel disconnected from God.

And instead of dwelling together in an orderly encampment around the Mishkan (the portable Tabernacle), we would become spread out over the land; eventually throughout the globe, as we would be forcibly exiled from the homeland we were about to conquer. How would we remain a unified people connected to each other under those circumstances? How would our hearts break when we hear news of Jews being murdered thousands of miles away, and what would we be willing to do about it?

What is Your Why?

Says the famous visionary Simon Sinek, “Everyone has a Why. Your Why is the purpose, cause or belief that inspires you to do what you do.” During the 40 years of wandering in the desert, we were learning laws, laws, and more laws. Why? What was the point of it all? Declares Moses; the point is to love God, to attach to God, to emulate God and to walk in His ways. But what does that look like outside of the desert? It looks like acts of loving kindness to each other: taking care of the needy, the poor, the widow, etc. Unless these tenets drive the “why” of what we do, the “what” will be rather inconsequential.

Give and Take

The stone tablets of the Ten Commandments are rounded at the top. It is not a coincidence that these shapes allude to a woman’s breasts. Kabbalah teaches a beautiful idea that God’s giving the Ten Commandments to the Jewish people is like a mother nursing her children. Just as an infant needs to suck, however, so does a nursing mother need to give milk. And so the role of giver and taker is as one; giving and taking need each other for fulfillment.   When we give to the poor, for example, it is not a one-way street; the giver and recipient are part of a bigger reality that embraces them both. Thus my life does not revolve around a self-centered “I” but encompasses a greater communal and shared identity; and those of my actions, which are rooted in empathy, will have a greater and more meaningful impact.

The Why of Relationship

How does this play out in relationships, especially marriage? Successful and happy marriages are based less on conflict resolution and more on sharing (and consciously keying into) a mutually created culture of a shared “why.”

According to relationship expert John Gottman:

Marriage isn’t just about raising kids, splitting chores, and making love. It can also have a spiritual dimension that has to do with creating an inner life together – a culture rich with symbols and rituals, and an appreciation for your roles and goals that link you, that lead you to understand what it means to be a part of the family you have become….Developing a culture doesn’t mean a couple sees eye to eye on every aspect of their life’s philosophy. Instead, there is a meshing. They find a way of honoring each other’s dreams even if they don’t share them. The culture that they develop together incorporates both of their dreams. And it is flexible enough to change as husband and wife grow and develop.[1]

And so the poster on the wall reminds me that if I want to achieve a certain result, keeping my “why” nearby will keep my values in the foreground so that the choices and decisions I make are congruent with my goal. Without a strong commitment to my own “why” my behavior will be haphazard and ineffectual. Simon says: “Values are not simply posters on the wall. In order for a culture to be strong, your values must be clear and your values must be lived.” So what is your “why,” how will you keep it nearby, and how will you honor the shared cultures of your life?

[1] John M. Gottman, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (Three Rivers Press: NY) pps. 243-244.