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).



How to Be the Author of Your Life – Parshat Mikeitz


“Our stories are the source of our suffering and the springboard to our liberation.”                                                                  – David Drake


Victim or Hero?

With the human psyche so wired for connection, it’s understandable that some inmates on death row will forego lengthy appeals and choose death over remaining indefinitely in solitary confinement.   About the only thing prisoners can do in interminable isolation is to go mad, and the damage is usually permanent.   Put them back in any social interaction, and they are just bat-crazy.

And then there are those movies – we’ve all seen them – where the world needs to be saved through a top-secret mission, and only one man is fit for the job, but he happens to have been railroaded in a cover-up, and shipped off to a prison that doesn’t exist, a captive in solitary confinement. In goes the secret government official, winding through a series of massive steel doors, to a dark subterranean hidey-hole, and with weapon drawn, warily faces the opening door. Inside, a shadowy figure emerges, hair and beard wildly feral and long, but sporting a six-pack that would make any gym rat jealous. Grinning with a sense of irony, he knows the balance of power has just shifted, and that he will have the upper hand in navigating whatever conversation is about to take place.

I love those movies! In a way, these plots resemble the story of Joseph. After twelve years in an Egyptian dungeon, the balance of power abruptly swung in Joseph’s favor as he was appointed Viceroy of Egypt on the spot. While the entire Joseph story is captivating, I am fascinated by pivotal moments where a story line can go either way. What is it, I wonder, that makes one person emerge from a painful prison experience bitter and hardened, or wild-eyed and incoherent, while another uses the moment to self-actualize and, by the way, masterfully save the entire ancient world?

There’s a Bigger Picture Here

Maybe it has to do with the stories they tell themselves about who they are and why they are here. In the dreams of his youth, Joseph fully understood that he was destined to be major player in a Divine plan. And so no matter what he experienced, he never lost sight of a vision that he trusted would unfold. That attitude requires taking the long–game view of life. And so Joseph knew when to be proactive and “make it happen,” and when to be surrendered and “let it happen.” To do this, however, one needs a high degree of self-regulation, a coming back to center, which allows our best selves to naturally show up and make optimal choices that create a positive outcome.   Even in prison.

Freedom Defined

We find a modern-day Joseph in the story of the famous refusenik, Anatoly Sharansky, who was sentenced to 13 years in a Soviet labor camp, for the crime of wanting to immigrate to Israel.   After serving nine years, most of which was spent in solitary confinement, Sharansky was released; and after immigrating to Israel, he founded a political party and became a member of the Israeli parliament. Sharansky recounts how he used to tell anti-Soviet jokes to his interrogators, where they had to exercise tremendous restraint to contain their laughter. “And I said to them, ‘You cannot even laugh when you want to laugh, and you want to tell me that I’m in prison and you’re free?’”

Sharansky defines freedom as the moment when he claimed his autonomy, when he realized that only he could humiliate himself, and only he could be ashamed of his actions. “If I’m not ashamed of what I’m doing, if I feel myself part of this great historic process, and I am true to the image of God in which we are created — I am a free person.”

When we allow other people to define us and write our stories, we imprison ourselves. When we are on autopilot, we lose track of our vision, the who of who we are and why we are here.   On the other hand, when we trust that the narrative arc of our lives is part of the unfolding of a divine destiny, then we can bear suffering as part of the hero’s journey – even if there is no “happy ending.”

As Sharansky said, even if were to have died in that prison, he knows he would have died a free man.   Tormentors and oppressors are bit actors performing a role in the cosmic play of our lives. It is we, however, who can define our character and write our lines. And if we can navigate terminal illnesses, personal tragedy and heartbreak, and yet remain unbroken, and maintain our faith, then we are free.

How You Do Anything is How You Do Everything.

We don’t exist in a vacuum, but within a context, the context of relationship. Look at your life close to home. In every relationship we have, there are pivotal moments, where it can go either way.   Whether it is a family member, spouse, child, co-worker, neighbor, etc., whenever we get triggered, or whenever that hot button is making our blood start to boil, that is the exact instant, the pivotal moment when the story line we create in our head will drive one of two outcomes. Ask yourself: “How do I want this to go?” We can act with compassion or criticism, curiosity or control, unconditional love or judgment.  Instead of resisting life, let life be your teacher. You can be in prison – but that doesn’t mean you have to be anyone’s prisoner.






How Taking a Break Can Prevent a Breakup



“Silence is never more golden than when a quarrel is brewing.” 

Clifford Adams


Great Expectations

Me. At my worst. Kinda looks like this. I was driving from Philly to Kripalu, a holistic retreat center in the Berkshires, where I was taking a week-long training to teach a specific positive psychology course. Typically, it’s a 4-½ hour ride, most of it through beautiful scenery. Having made this trip several times before, I was looking forward to tearing up the road in my Mini Cooper Roadster, blasting music without concern for anyone else’s eardrums or musical taste, while taking in the beauty of the dazzling New England fall foliage.

Expectations Unmet

I didn’t know it at the time, but a hurricane was unleashing hell all along the northeastern corridor. I could not listen to music because to add sound on top of the noise of the rain hitting my windshield like machine gun fire would have made the din unbearable. I could not see the fall scenery because I couldn’t see any trees. The cold rain hitting the warm air created a fog so thick I could barely even see the road, and I drove by following the taillights of the car in front of me. To make matters worse, each gust of wind and wave of water created from the passing trucks and SUV’s shook and rattled my little toy car.

I couldn’t help but think about two members of my family who had died in tragic vehicular accidents. There is a saying that things that are wired together fire together, and I started to panic. OMG, I thought, I’m going to die. On my way to a course – in happiness! This is not funny!!

Trip to Crazy Town

After a grueling six-hour drive, all the while pumping stress and fear hormones, my hands aching from gripping the steering wheel and my neck muscles clenched in knots, I couldn’t emotionally transition to the reality of being OK. Even though I arrived at my destination safely, my brain didn’t catch up with this fact and was still processing reality as if I were still in danger mode. And so nothing seemed right, people seemed weird and annoying, and I was seriously questioning why I had even come. Until my sympathetic nervous system (flight or fight) could calm down, my cognition was distorted, even conjuring paranoid and absurd dangers. Was it OK for my room to be so near ground level in case some unhinged maniac who may have been rebuffed by a yoga instructor had finally snapped and wanted revenge? I was in crazy town.

Who Was That Lizard?

By the morning, the rain had stopped. I opened the window to breathe in the pristine mountain air and saw awe-inspiring natural beauty. I was fine. No, I was more than fine. No longer hijacked by stress, my rational brain was back online. I was calm, happy, and appreciative to be there. I felt a kindred connection to everyone I saw, a sense of belonging, and I was open and eager to participate in the training.

A Tale of Two Brothers

In Vayishlach, we read of the famous account of Jacob wrestling with the angel through the night, before encountering his brother, Esau. The one saving grace about Esau was his supposed devotion to his father, Isaac. Yet, when he learned of the deception surrounding the blessings, he openly yearned for his father’s death, so that he would be free to kill his brother. In short, Esau was in crazy town, and no one can function well or process reality benevolently from that place.

Whatever the nature of a conflict, it is not the objective facts that drive it, but our thoughts that create the story around it. When we get emotionally triggered, when our hot buttons are pushed, when we feel threatened, unsafe and get hooked by drama – bam – we become flooded, and our thinking process emanates from our primitive reptilian brain.

In that state, even loved ones can become “the enemy,” as we objectify and demonize them. We interpret their behavior in the most negative light, imputing the worst motives at every turn. We magnify threats, turning barbs into ballistic missiles, or we misperceive innocent remarks as attempts to cut us to the quick. Our inner lizard fears becoming someone’s lunch; and so as a protective measure, it becomes a destructive fire-breathing dragon.

Most of us don’t recognize this process for what it is. We believe the stories we spin, and then we perpetuate it. We live from that reality, and we attempt to rope in others to our way of seeing things – sometimes to the point of creating loyalty tests.   This wreaks havoc, sometimes permanently on our relationships, and to our psyche.

Getting Out of Crazy Town – Time Out

So first, you need to recognize the signs of being emotionally flooded. We have telltale signs in our bodies (shallow breathing, muscular tension, and pain) our emotions (anger, fear, feeling unsafe, overwhelmed) and our thoughts (blame projected outward, negativity bias, magnifying faults, linking prior events and other people to the present). It is crucial to know when you – or someone else is in this state – because there is no one rationally at home. Therefore, a constructive conversation cannot happen. There needs to be some space and distance to allow things to normalize, for the hot buttons to cool down and goodwill to return.

It is critical to use this period of cooling down with the intention to allow things to heal. If we use time apart to ruminate, obsesses self-righteously about the perceived faults of others, vent to others, and escalate the tension, it will only cause further polarization.   Instead, use the time to turn things around to the positive by cultivating gratitude for the person, consider the validity of other viewpoints, acknowledge your part in creating the conflict, be receptive to any bids for reconnection, and don’t hold onto who you think should make the first move

While Jacob and Esau reconciled, it took twenty years for it to occur, and it was only temporary. Allow yourself enough time to calm down – but don’t wait unnecessarily long to get your relationships back on track. It may be too late.  





Why Good People Do Good Things


“Before you begin scrambling up the ladder of success, make sure that it is leaning against the right building.”

Steven Covey

The Torah abounds with tales of sibling rivalry that run the gamut from latent hatred to outright murder, and so in Vayeitze, we have a refreshing break as we read the account of sisterly love exhibited between Rachel and Leah.   We all know of Rachel’s act of self-sacrifice in favor of her older sister, Leah, when she switched identities under the marriage canopy (and the marital bed) to save Leah from the humiliation of having to marry Jacob’s immoral and depraved older brother, Esau.  

Less known is the story where Leah, pregnant with her 7th child, prayed to give birth to a girl and not bear Jacob another son.   Leah knew that there were to be Twelve Tribes.   When she realized that she was pregnant, Jacob already had ten sons (six from Leah and two from each of the handmaids, Bilhah and Zilpah). Concerned that if she gave birth to another boy, who would be Jacob’s 11th son, at the very best, Rachel could have only one son to complete the destined twelve. To spare Rachel the humiliation of being considered “less than a handmaiden,” Leah prayed for her sister. One account is that God switched the gender of her child from male to female, which resulted in Leah giving birth to Dina. There is a similar account that Leah was pregnant with Joseph and Rachel was pregnant with Dina at the time, and so God switched them in utero – reminiscent of Rachel’s action many years before.

How did these two sisters muster the strength to forbear their deepest desires? In deceiving Jacob, Rachel could have no assurance that she would ever marry the love of her life. At best, she had would have to share her husband. And in trying to avert an imbalance and emotional devastation to Rachel, Leah essentially gave up the chance to be the mother of another one of the tribes, as well as trying to curry any additional favor with Jacob. In exercising such powerful restraint for the sake of the other, both sisters teach us the lessons of altruism.

The Kindness of Strangers

Every day, it seems, the news bears tales of horror, acts of violence and evil unleashed by man upon his fellow. It is often the case, however, that there are heroes that emerge in these stories, and not just people trying to save loved ones, but bystanders who risk life and limb to help total strangers. Why?

To the “survival of the fittest” mentality, altruism has to be an embarrassment. That is why science tries to explain it away as a vestige of a survival tactic when we lived in small groups and tribes of closely related people. Or, the pundits say, altruism is ego-based and self-serving; in that we do kind acts in the hopes of reciprocity, to elicit the admiration of others, or getting brownie points for heaven.    

Pure Altruism – It’s an Empathy Kind of Thing

In his article, “Why Do People Do Good Things? The Puzzle of Altruism,” Dr. Steven Taylor pondered his motivation for carefully removing a spider he saw in his bathtub when he could have easily flushed it down the drain.   Obviously, there was no social or self-serving benefit to saving a hapless arachnid, and so he discusses the origin of what he terms, “pure altruism:”

I think this simple act was motivated by empathy. I empathized with the spider as another living being, who was entitled to stay alive just as I was. And I believe that empathy is the root of all pure altruism. Sometimes empathy is described as a cognitive ability to see the world through another person’s eyes, but I think it’s actually much more than that. In my view, the capacity for empathy shows that, in essence, all human beings – and in fact all living beings—are interconnected.

When we feel this larger sense of connection and interrelatedness (even with things that seem tiny and insignificant), we respond to the suffering of others with altruistic acts, because they are no longer the “other.”   Says Taylor, “We can sense their suffering because, in a sense, we are them. And because of this common identity, we feel the urge to alleviate other people’s suffering – and to protect and promote their well-being —just as we would our own.”

And so the more inclusive of “other” we are in our network of connection, the more extensive is our sense of empathy, which impacts how we behave, from scary spiders and scary people to our loved ones and people just like us. In other words, in the world of action, pure altruism is “other-focused,” but it originates from the inner sense of kinship, and a desire to ease pain.

Gratitude Is Also “Other-Focused”

Says my friend, Megan McDonough, “Gratitude is always a function of being in a relationship with something else. There’s you, and then there’s the person, place, or thing that you are grateful for. That’s why it’s known as ‘other-praising.’ Giving thanks draws you out of yourself and into an appreciative connection.”

The First Thanksgiving – and It Wasn’t the Pilgrims

Leah was the first person in recorded history to say, “thank you” and she named her forth son, Yehuda, from the word, “hoda’ah,” which means, “to thank.” Since names convey spiritual essence, the Jewish people (Yehudim) should realize that gratitude comprises their core component of being. Furthermore, the very existence and makeup of the Twelve Tribes came about through the altruism of two sisters, each motivated by empathy and wanting to ease the suffering of the other.

Stairway to Heaven

In Vayeitze, we also read the story of Jacob’s ladder, reaching from earth to heaven. Let us build our ladders: one side, “Gratitude” and on the other “Empathy.” Let the rungs between them be the steps of compassion, connection, and kindness. Let us lean our ladders against the right wall, climb the ladder of spiritual success, and bring heaven down to earth for a global transformation. May you and every living creature and all things on this planet be at ease, may there be an end to suffering and may there be only peace.    








The Path of Restraint: Let It Be


“Sometimes nothing is the hardest thing to do. – Tyrrion Lannister”
― George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones

It was towards the end of a weeklong training for facilitators of Positive Psychology workshops, and we were participating in a group exercise. We all stood in a circle, and in the middle of the floor were scattered a few dozen cards, face down. Every person picked a card at random, and in turn read out loud the message on the back. Each card described a different Signature Strength in a poignant but humorous way, and having been together for days, where we learned together and shared deeply, as each person read his or her card, it became obvious that the so-called random selection was right on target.   I smiled when I saw my card – “Gratitude;” after all it’s in one of my top 5 Signature Strengths. When I read the card out loud, I added a quip of my own. After all, another one of my strengths is “Humor.”  

When I came home and told my husband about some of the highlights of the week, I talked about this exercise. Why was it, I wondered, in a group of about 50 or so people, there were only two people who went off script – me as well as the only other attorney in the room. Was that a coincidence? Most attorneys are wordsmiths, and we are adept at playing with words to shape reality. It didn’t occur to me not to inject my personality into the task, rather than letting the words speak for themselves. Has this trait become my second nature? Is this a good thing?

“These other students,” asked my husband, “the ones who just read the cards – they’re spiritual people, aren’t they?”  “What do you mean?” I bristled. After all, “Spirituality” happens to be another one of my Signature Strengths – number three to be precise. “Do you think they were all in flowing robes and yoga pants while we showed up in Brooks Brother Suits, briefcases in tow?” “Maybe they just have more humility than you” he replied, “maybe they approached it with simplicity.”

He had me there. Years ago, when I was a student in a certain training program, I was always clashing with the director, and before he threw me out of his course, he chastised me with these words: “You always make things so damn hard.” I took it as a compliment, a badge of honor. So I’m not a simple contented cow, or someone who just follows orders, I thought, I’m complex!   Said the late great Oliver Wendell Holmes, however, “For the simplicity on this side of complexity, I wouldn’t give you a fig. But for the simplicity on the other side of complexity, for that, I would give you anything I have.”

Of all of the founding father and mothers, Isaac was always the hardest for me to relate to. In all of the Isaac stories, he is passive, he complies with the decisions others make for him, and we don’t get the story from his perspective.   The only narrative where Isaac plays an active role is in the middle of the Torah portion, Toldot, where Isaac is described as a farmer and a digger of wells – mostly trying to re-open the wells dug by his father, Abraham.   

Abraham used his signature characteristic of chesed (kindness), bestowing his open-hearted generosity indiscriminately to others in an outward dynamic that ultimately changed the world. In contrast, Isaac was insular, a tent dweller, a tiller of the soil, a scholar, who had one student only – his son Jacob. Where Abraham went wide, Isaac went deep. Where Abraham was boundless, Isaac was bounded – literally so. While I could respect Isaac, he was never a role model for me.

The words most commonly associated with Isaac are: “strict justice, severity, strength, humility, introversion, etc.” I read an article, however, that used the word “restraint” to describe Isaac.   Suddenly, I saw Isaac in a different light. What if exercising restraint is allowing things to be as they are meant to me, not exerting dominion and control, and letting things unfold naturally and organically?

What if all along Isaac was not passive, but was exercising the strength of restraint, and was willing to allow God’s plan to unfold – instead of thinking he knew better.

Being Right Versus Being Happy 

There is a saying, “you can be right, or you can be happy.” This suggests, however, that forgoing being right, or being number one, is a concession, a sacrifice whereby outwardly one backs off or says the right thing, but inwardly still believes that he or she is right. There, restraint is repression, a temporary cease-fire in the war of differing opinions.

What if we could exercise restraint – not to be self-righteous or to be the bigger person – but to get really curious?   Restraint allows us to discover new things about ourselves – like what’s on the other side of this issue that you have held onto for so long to the point of self-identity? Who could you be if you let that idea go, or gave people the space to be who they are without negative judgments? What if you drilled deeply into your own well?  

What Love Asks of Us

In his book, Journey of the Heart, John Wellwood describes how intimate relationships ask us to give up something we cherish dearly, such as our way of staying securely defended.   When we give up what makes us feel personally safe and comfortable, and relax the demands and expectation we place on our partners, we can shift our focus to the concerns of the other as well as the needs of the relationship as a whole. When we stop being territorial, we no longer are the sole center of our lives. And that is the key to feeling happy and alive.

The best way to deal with negatively is to replace it with curiosity.   Because on the other side of anxiety and negative judgments is seeing others more clearly – and ultimately ourselves.   Says Wellwood, “Recognizing the absolute significance of this other that we love, who is wholly different from us, expands our horizons and opens us more fully to life as a whole.” But we have to get out of the way. Exercise a little restraint.   It’s not that hard. Let it be simple.



The Measure of an Extraordinary Life


“We contain multitudes.”

Walt Whitman

Many years ago, I was having Friday night dinner at a friend’s house, and when I arrived, I was taken aback momentarily, when I saw her sitting on the couch, an open Chumash (the Five Books of Moses) on her lap, with tears streaming down her face. “Tova!” I exclaimed as I rushed to her side, “What’s wrong?” “Sarah Emeinu (Sarah, our foremother) just died” was her simple response, as she had just finished reading the account of Sarah’s death in the Torah portion, Chayei Sarah. Ironically, Chayei Sarah, which means, “the Life of Sarah” opens with news of Sarah’s death.  

Now my friend had grown up in a household where Torah was in her mother’s milk, and no doubt she had read these very passages dozens of times. Seeing her reaction, however, of unfeigned emotion and personal connection to the written text, the terms “life” and “death” were irrelevant. If Sarah was not a disconnected personage from the ancient past, but a living presence to relate to, who was she?

And Behind Every Successful Man…

Like Abraham, Sarah endured many trials and hardships. Like Abraham, she embodied the quality of chesed, (kindness) and lived with selfless generosity. And like Abraham, she was fueled by a sense of mission and purpose, knowing she was destined in some fashion to mother a nation that would transform the world.

But where Sarah was greater than Abraham (and our tradition says that she was an even greater prophetess) was in her ability to harmonize different qualities, and to draw from herself, that which needed to be expressed. And so, at times, she served the moment by being expansive, wide open and self-sacrificing. For the sake of ensuring a legacy, for example, she could draw another woman into her husband’s bed. Other times, that mission required her to draw boundaries with a love that was fierce and protective, and with judgment unclouded by sentiment. And so Sarah saw clearly when that same woman needed to be ejected from the family circle. Simply, Sarah knew when to be what, and so in addition to their shared values, Sarah’s grounded feminine complexity afforded Abraham the luxury to pursue a life of singular virtue.  

What is the Measure of a Life?

Instead of telling us that Sarah died at the age 127, her lifespan is described in a curious manner: “Sarah’s lifetime was one hundred years, twenty years, and seven years.” Rashi, the medieval commentator, explains that Sarah’s life had three stages: 100 and 20 and 7; where at age 100, she had the beauty of a 20-year old, and at age 20, she had the innocence of a seven-year-old. In an article entitled, “Chayei Sarah: What Makes For a Successful Life?” Rabbi David Fohrman mentions a teaching of Rabbi Soloveitchik, that discusses the different stages of the maturation and aging process, where our priorities and values change, and we begin to wrestle with the existential question of life, such as what do we stand for, what are the values we want to impart, what is our legacy, etc.

One way, the “ordinary way,” is to go through this process in a compartmentalized fashion; as we pass through each stage, we leave it behind. Like shutting a mental gate behind us, the attitude is, “that was then, and this is now” and we do not look back and embrace life with a sense of wholeness. And so what Sarah did was “extraordinary,” in that she took with her all of the exuberance and enthusiasm of her youth into her adult years, and by infusing and integrating the past into her present, she continued to build a congruent life at every stage, crafting a lifetime of experience and dimension

Unlike most people who disdain the innocence of youth as childish and immature, Sarah never lost the quality of being open, curious and filled with wonder, even as she transitioned into adulthood, and beyond. Jewish tradition teaches that when God spoke to Abraham and directed him with the famous command, “Lech Lecha,” to leave his home and all of the trappings of comfort and success and to go forth into the wilderness, Abraham didn’t exactly hop to it right away. Instead, he came home and asked Sarah (who was 65 years old at the time) what they should do, and it was Sarah who said, in effect, “Are you kidding? What are you waiting for? Let’s go!” As she went through the successive phases of life, she fused all of her experiences together, each step being enriched by the previous one, in a seamless and harmonious integration. This quality allowed her to bring forth whichever aspect of her multitudinous self that would best serve the needs of her marriage, her mission, or the moment.

Carrying it Forward

There is a Jewish saying, that when a righteous person leaves this world, a new one comes into it. At the same time that Sarah died, hundreds of miles away, Rebecca was being born. Despite growing up in a culture of selfishness and dishonesty, Rebecca was the polar opposite. Like Abraham who rejected the social mores of his surroundings, Rebecca was an outlier, attracting the notice of Abraham’s servant, Eliezar, when she single-handedly drew jug after heavy jug of water to slake the thirst of the camels of a stranger. Rebecca’s virtues of sensitivity, kindness, and selfless service demonstrated the values that were to console a family mourning the loss of Sarah, made her a natural fit to be Isaac’s beloved wife for a lifetime, and positioned her to take a proactive role in furthering the spiritual mission of the Jewish people.

But like Sarah, Rebecca knew when to be what. The brave child, who didn’t hesitate for a moment to leave the house of her deceitful father, gave her the strength and wiles as a wife and mother to ensure that the Jewish spiritual legacy was placed in the right hands – even when her husband was too blind to see the truth. The measure of a good life is not in excising the painful or bad parts of your life, or to think of your life as separate and disconnected stages, but in allowing everything to serve. Good values certainly form the basis for good marriages, good relationships, and good lives; when we can live out the years of our life from the fullest of our whole being, however, it can be more than good – it can be extraordinary.

Do The Math


“If we can see past preconceived limitations then the possibilities are endless.”               

Amy Purdy

Math (if they even call it that anymore in school) was always my worst subject. Yet, when I am trying to make sense of a situation, understand someone’s behavior, or best predict an outcome, I will use that expression – do the math. Whether this is true or not, to me, mathematics represents reality as it is – without distorted perception, wishful thinking, or resistance to what merely is. Sometimes we get confused when other people give us mixed messages. In that case, I suggest turning off the volume (the voice in our head) or the words coming out of their mouths and look at the behavior only, to get the much-needed clarity. Just do the math.

The very week that my book, A Year of Sacred Moments came out, my husband met with the owner of a small publishing house to discuss a Jewish journey book he had written – and he told this man about my book. My husband and I have been practicing law together for 25 years so I was excited to think of us both becoming writers in the Jewish world together as well. Not only did this publisher give my husband a reality check about the viability of his book concept, but he also conjectured about mine. In his opinion, there is no appreciable market for my kind of book, where people prefer books that are theme oriented – not structured according to the weekly Bible chapter, and he predicted sales well under 500 copies. He wasn’t trying to be mean – not at all! Being thirty years in the book business, he was just “doing the math,” and he didn’t want me to have unrealistic expectations and feel like a failure if I didn’t hit some fantasy number in my head.  

And who was I to argue or have an opinion to the contrary? I can’t even count how many intakes I have had with prospective divorce clients who would say something like – “My buddy said that since my wife cheated on me, I don’t have to give her anything” to which I would reply, “which law school did you say your friend attended?” I’m sorry, but not everyone has a right to an opinion.   And so I couldn’t just shake off what this publisher had to say and with impudent bravado, substitute my version of market reality for his.

Nevertheless, there is another way of looking at this whole thing. I have had clients willing to spend hundreds of dollars, thousands, even, fighting over worthless items. And I’m not talking sentimental value; I’m talking used dishtowels. My struggle as an attorney was to move my clients from the “story of divorce” into the “business of divorce” as many of them get stuck in what I termed, “emotional math.”

Maybe one of the lessons of Lech Lecha is to learn a new type of math, “spiritual math.” I have to wonder, then, is the measure of the success of a Torah-based book the number of copies sold, or is it the contribution and impact it may make? And how about my experience and growth as the writer? And what effect does that have on my family and friends? We think of capital in terms of money only, but what if we expanded it to encompass social capital, relationship capital, and spiritual capital? Isn’t that what counting our blessings is all about?

A New Math

Lech Lecha is the command by God to Abraham to go from his “country,” his “place of birth” and “his father’s house.” These places are not just geographical, but also psychological: they represent the influences and biases of our society, cultures and the times our nature, our inherited genes, our dispositions, and our family of origin. While the debate has raged for decades over which primarily controls – nurture or nature – either side of this argument buys into control being exerted by an external force or circumstance outside of your control – thus a limitation.

In the city of Ur Kasdim, Abraham and Sarah were extremely wealthy and influential, successful by anyone’s math. In one of my favorite movies, The Family Man, as the angel was about to take away all of the material trappings from the billionaire Wall Street trader to teach him the meaning of life, the angel said, “You’re workin’ on a new deal now, baby.” Abraham and Sarah left their material comforts to go to a land that God showed them – and it didn’t flow with milk and honey. It was desolate. There was severe famine, and they had to set out for Egypt. Lech Lecha, however, set into motion the chain of events that changed not just the lives of Abraham and Sarah, but the entire course of human history.

The journey of actualization is to break free of limitations. But we are not alone. What Abraham and Sarah taught us that each of us has a direct and intimate relationship with our Creator. Alone, we are limited. Connected to God, and to each other, we are transcendent. To follow in the footsteps of Abraham and Sarah doesn’t mean that have to leave behind the places and people that we love, or give up our comforts or way of life. It does expect, however, that we should be willing to re-evaluate our assumptions, our priorities. When it comes to our society, culture and times, can we break free of the blame and finger-pointing and be ethical, kind and responsible citizens and members of our communities?

Are we willing to re-narrate our childhood or other victim stories with compassion for family members or others who have hurt us? As we look to our inner circle, what do we consider to be our precious commodities and what do we devalue? What do we give freely and what do we hoard? Are we squandering thousands of life hours for no return? Are we wisely investing our social, relationship and spiritual capital?  

Lech Lecha is about charting the spiritual trajectory of our lives. For God’s sake, do the math.