Ki Sisa – How Solid Is Your Sense Of Self?

imagesIn the aftermath of a scandal having to do with embezzlement from a charity, a woman wrote an article chiding people who responded with moral outrage, suggesting that none of us can be sure how we would act under similar circumstances, and therefore, we should not be so self-righteous and judgmental. I thought that idea was ridiculous. I know myself pretty well, and I couldn’t imagine any set of factors that would induce me to act like that. Embezzling from a charity? No way! And so my moral outrage stayed intact, thank you very much.

This week’s Torah portion, “Ki Sisa,” chronicles  the sin of the Golden Calf. I would like to think that I would never have participated in that terrible spectacle. If you have ever seen the movie, The Ten Commandments, where Charlton Heston calls out, “Whoever is for the Lord, join me!” and a woman’s voice cries out from the crowd, “I will!” – I would like to think that I am that kind of girl.

I would like to think that in any situation, my highest best bravest self would guide me, injecting me with the fortitude to do the right thing, no matter what. But that would be naive thinking.

Historically, psychologists used to believe that what matters most is the nature and character of the individual, and that “we are who we are,” and who we are – for better or worse – doesn’t vary, and we don’t quickly change our spots. Trying to change a character trait, they thought, was as futile an endeavor as an attempt to be taller, for example, and so little attention was paid to the environment or situation in studying character. In the last few decades, the social sciences offer a different view of the solidity of the self and the infallibility of character. And when you hear the studies, you might get a little uncomfortable.

The Shock “Ouch!”

In a landmark experiment which shook the world of the social sciences, Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram measured the willingness of study participants to obey an authority figure who was instructing them to commit acts against their personal conscience. He was testing the theory of whether people are inherently evil or situationally evil. Could a so-called “normal person” be induced to commit an immoral act and if so, what would it take?

Test subjects who participated in a study were told it was to understand the effect of physical punishment on memory, in which they were to administer escalating electric shocks for mistakes. So they would conduct progressively harder memory tests to someone hooked up to a machine that would deliver higher and higher levels of electricity when the person failed to recall a string of words.

The test participants didn’t know that they were the actual test subject. The test participants thought they were assisting a memory study on the person in the chair. In actuality, it was the test participants who were the object of the experiment, which was to study how submission to authority could induce an otherwise reasonable person to inflict cruelty.

At 150 volts, the person would be yelling to be let out of the experiment. At 450 volts, the person would fall silent, presumably dead. In between 150 volts and 450 volts, the person would be begging, crying, convulsing, etc. The machine was fake, the victims in the chair were actors, but the real results were “shocking.”

When the actor in the chair would beg and cry, and the participants would look up to see whether they should keep going, the “authority figure” – who held nothing more threatening that a clipboard – would simply and calmly say, “please continue” or the experiment must go on”. They weren’t threatened or coerced in any way to inflict pain.

Before the study, the prediction was that most people would stop at 150 volts, and a minute fraction of the test population (one-tenth of a percent, which roughly corresponds to the statistical probability of sociopaths) would administer an electric shock at fatal or near fatal levels. Boy did science get it wrong! A whopping 63% of the participants were willing to deliver shocks at near lethal levels!

As a result of this and other experiments (which were repeated in other guises but with similar results), researchers started looking seriously into the effect of groups and external environments on behavior. And so now current theory claims that the greatest predictor of behavior is the situation, the circumstances, and the context – hence, the phrase: “situational-press.”

Perhaps this helps to explain the incident of the Golden Calf. It is simply too easy to dismiss all of the participants as being the riff-raff that tagged along with the Jewish people when they left Egypt. It’s too easy to look at them as “unworthy,” “less than,” “and not like you” so that you can keep your moral outrage intact, and assume you are invincible.

The Power of Environment

Our environment influences us a great deal more than we think. Whether we get married, whether we smoke, whether we do a host of things, depends a lot on our social network and the people around us, because “social power” can exceed “will power.” Of course, Pirkei Avos (Ethics of Our Fathers) said as much when the Rabbis advised that in picking where to live, you should make sure that you have a good neighbor.

But like any force, “situational-press” has its negative as well as its positive applications. Some situations and people bring out the worst in you; but the reverse is also true, bringing your best self to the table.

Once you realize the power of “situational-press,” you can consciously create the environment, the social network, the physical surroundings, the activities and partners that are healthy, that support and reinforce your goals and aspirations. You can use “situational press” to surround yourself with that which inspires, uplifts and elevates you, rather than that which brings you down, undermines and sabotages your real goals.

Take an inventory of who and what you allow into your space, into your head, and into your life. Is it conducive to bringing out the best in you? Are you being inspired, elevated and motivated? Or is it bringing you down?

When you understand and use “situational-press,” or the “power of the situation,” to your best advantage, you can forge your own identity and shape your greatest destiny. In so doing, you will create such a solid sense of yourself, and no matter what challenges face you, you know for sure what kind of person you will be, what kind of choices you will make and you know for sure what you stand for.

Tetzaveh: Your Mother Was Right – Clothes Do Make The Man

imagesWho doesn’t remember fighting at times with our parents over their clothing choices for us? I still remember being forced to wear an unlined wool dress that scratched with every move of a muscle and felt like sackcloth against my skin. A child’s only defense is to grow out of such clothes as quickly as possible, or find a way to make sure the garment meets a premature death.

As we got older, there was the pressure to “dress for success”, although we weren’t always sure whose idea of success or image we were even dressing for. Part of this cultural view is the oft-stated idiom: “Clothes make the man.” But we bristled at the idea of a shallow society unable to see us for whom we were (slobs) and our true value (free-loaders), and we didn’t want to buy into creating an external reality via the perceptions of others. (You can tell which decade I grew up in.)

This week’s Torah Portion, “Tetzaveh,” deals almost exclusively with the elaborate clothing and the intricate and ornate vestments that Aaron, the High Priest, wore when he entered the Tabernacle to perform the Temple Service. Without this regal and distinctive garb, Aaron could not perform his service. I can just hear Aaron’s mother yelling, “Aaron, put your priestly robes on already. And don’t argue with me. Let’s go – God’s waiting!”

Is this nothing more than “clothes make the High Priest”? Some commentators state that the purpose of the vestments was for the Jewish people to recognize the unique and spiritual stature of the High Priest. That suggests that our teenage angst was justified, and it’s all about other peoples’ perceptions and external reality. But that would be a very superficial interpretation. What if the outer garments we wear could affect us on an internal level, which in turn can create a new external reality? So which is it – external or internal reality?

Putting On The Sandals

The Torah describes the vestments as being for the “splendor and glory” of Aaron. You may think that these two words mean basically the same thing, but in this case, they don’t. “Glory” refers to our God-given qualities, our innate strengths, and gifts. “Splendor,” on the other hand, refers to what we do with them.  

There is a saying that our life is a gift to God, but that what we do with our lives is our gift back to God. In order to make that remotely meaningful, we have to understand the exalted essence of a human being. That’s a challenge at any time, but put yourself in Aaron’s shoes – or sandals – for a moment. One day, he’s a slave in Egypt; the next, he’s the High Priest serving on behalf of the entire Jewish nation. That’s a mind-blowing colossal shift. How could he possibly have felt worthy and up to the task?

Fake It ’til You Make It

We usually think that attitude drives behavior. That makes sense. After all, we see how our actions flow from our beliefs and thoughts. Torah tells us that the reverse is just as true, if not more so, and now, with Positive Psychology research validating Torah wisdom with Daryl Bem’s “Self-Perception Theory,” we have evidence-based science showing that behavior does in fact, more effectively drives attitude. An oft-repeated idea in Judaism is “fake it ‘til you make it.” A deeper idea is “fake it ‘til you become it”, and deeper still, is “fake it ‘til you reveal what is already there.”

For Aaron to assume his role and serve the Jewish people, he needed to feel worthy, to understand his inherent royal nature, and the holy vestments were vehicles to get to that truth. Interestingly, nothing could serve as a barrier – not even so much as a bandage – between Aaron’s body and his vestments. This prohibition is meant to teach us that the physical (and emotional) impediments we place between holiness and ourselves and between God and us are foreign objects that don’t belong there.

Tapping Into Glory

We are all glorious. We all have God-given qualities, unique strengths and talents. But unless we know that they are there, we can’t tap into them. Unless we know who we are, we can’t comprehend our mission and begin to actualize our potential.

May we all use the lesson of “Tetzaveh” to clothe ourselves in new behaviors and new ways of being, to remove barriers and create a new internal reality sourced in our “glorious” essence so that we can reveal a new external reality and create the “splendid” life that we are meant to live.  So you may as well start fakin’ it – you have nothing to lose.

Questions To Ponder:

Are feelings of unworthiness, or the fear that you’re not “up to the task,” holding you back in your life, whether in your career, relationship, or personal growth?

If you could imagine your life as the gift you want to give to God, what would you life look like?

What would you be doing differently?

If you could take on one new behavior to try on to “fake it till you reveal it,” what would it be?

Hanna Perlberger, a long-time divorce attorney, now practices as a Divorce Coach, supporting clients in accessing their best selves to make optimal decisions that will create a better future for themselves and their families – before, during and post divorce.  Otherwise, she is writing about the intersection of Positive Psychology with the realm of the Sacred.



The Mindset of Abundance: Heart-Inspired Living

generosityIf you have ever been solicited by a charity (or cousin out of work), you may have been told outright – or made to feel – that you should “give until it hurts.” In this week’s Torah portion, “Terumah“, we see how giving is not about “hurting” but about “healing.”

In the story line, the Jewish People left Egypt, stood at Mount Sinai, received the Ten Commandments, and then, in one of the worst fits in our history, thinking that Moses was dead, we built a golden calf to be his replacement.

After those responsible had been duly punished, God decided that what we needed is a good building project to boost morale. He commanded us to build the Mishkan, which is the portable tabernacle that we carried with us in the desert that housed the tablets of the Ten Commandments.

In order to build this portable tabernacle, a lot of building materials and precious metals were needed. Imagine how challenging this must have been for a slave population suddenly made free, suddenly going from rags-to-riches, now being asked to part with their newly acquired possessions.

Unlike any other financial levy that had ever occurred in the ancient world, however, God told Moses to collect these offerings from “every heart-inspired person,” leaving it up to the dictates of each person’s heart not only how much to donate, but whether to donate at all.

In a way, discretionary giving can be harder. For people accustomed to having no choices, being told to give a certain amount is probably not too difficult. But what personal experience could the Jewish People draw on to make this type of decision?

Perhaps the deeper lesson that God was teaching the Jewish People was that in becoming givers, they would not only become free, but happier as well.

Living From Abundance

In freedom, there isn’t always a script or a set formula. It’s the sum of your choices that makes you who you are. And unless you have the right to say “No,” what is the real value of your “Yes”? A defining moment for the Jewish People—the exercise of giving freely (or not) – allowed them to transition from being a slave to a free-willed human since the nature of a slave is not to be a giver or a decision-maker.

The Jewish People in the desert responded to this challenge and gave and gave until Moses had to tell them to stop. Their generosity did not necessarily stem from the fact that they suddenly had something to give. Have you ever known someone who experienced depression or lived in poverty as a child, and then, despite how wealthy the person became later in life, his or her worldview never changed?

Perhaps – and this is just a suggestion – the feeling of closeness and connection that the Jewish People had with God at that time, allowed them to tap into their Godly essence – an inspired heart, which means living from the place of abundance. As Wayne Dyer points out, “Abundance is not something we acquire. It is something we tap into.” And that creates joy because giving makes us happier.

The Joy of Giving

People who give money to charity are vastly more likely than non-givers to say that they are “very happy” about their lives. It’s not always about giving money either, as research shows that volunteers are much happier as well. A Harvard Business School study concluded that giving not only increases happiness but happier people, in turn, give more and that these two relationships may operate in circular fashion. It should come as no surprise that doing good correlates to feeling good. So doesn’t it make sense to be on the lookout for ways to increase your own happiness, as you are increasing happiness in the world?

Don’t worry – I would never suggest that you become a doormat or give indiscriminately. Giving from the heart doesn’t mean that we leave our brains out of the equation. I am suggesting, however, that we take a cue from “Terumah” and understand, as Eckhart Tolle pointed out, “Sometimes letting things go is an act of far greater power than defending or hanging on.”

So as you go through your week, notice when you are giving – whether it’s writing a check, shoveling snow for an elderly neighbor, giving up a parking spot, throwing a quarter in a stranger’s expired meter, or giving someone a shoulder to cry on. Make a conscious effort to honor a request from a loved one, give some space and breathing room to a partner, hold back a zinger, or find a way to say the right word at the right time.

And pay attention to the many gifts and blessings that you receive as well. And in so doing, may you feel more inspired to live from a “heart-inspired place.”

Questions to Ponder –

Think for a moment about what enslaves you. What makes it hard for you to be generous or to let go?

What would it take for you to shift from a feeling of lack to a feeling of abundance?

What would happen if you went through life asking yourself – what does this person, this situation, my community, or the world need from me – whether it’s giving up resources, time, a need to control, a need to be right, a need to judge, or a need to look good?

Could that increase your sense of freedom and joy?




Mishpatim – Wholly Love

“How you do anything is how you do everything.”

imagesSometimes everything aligns to come together in one perfect moment.

This morning, my daughter had asked me to make her a cup of tea to take to school. I looked in the cabinet. Her favorite brand was right there. Check. Her favorite organic sweetener was right there. Check. I opened another door to search for a disposable travel cup. Right in front were the cups, with the exact corresponding number of lids, and the exact number of cardboard sleeves that slide over the cup to make it easy to hold. Check. I made the tea, looped the string over to the right, snapped the lid into place aligning the opening just right, and looking at this cup of tea; I felt that everything was in order and utterly perfect.

A moment later, my daughter was gagging and spitting out her breakfast. I had made eggs, and I grabbed an unwashed spatula out of the dishwasher, forgetting that I had used that very spatula last night to scoop salmon out of a pan.  Ok, so even though the perfect moment only lasted a moment, it didn’t make it any less perfect. Moments have magic in them, and the mundane is anything but. When we live only for the high points, the grand gesture, and the peak experience, we miss out on where life happens.

And so it is with this week’s Torah portion, “Mishapatim”, which is sandwiched in between two peak experiences. In last week’s Torah portion, “Yitro”, we received the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. In next week’s Torah portion, “Terumah”, we read about the building of the holy Tabernacle, the Arc of the Covenant, and the indwelling of God’s presence.

In between these spiritual high points lies this week’s Torah portion, “Mishpatim”, which means “Laws,” where we read the seemingly mundane laws of damages and compensation for various types of injuries and losses.   Commentators explain that “these laws” – which are pretty hard to get excited about – nevertheless are part and parcel of the Ten Commandments, no less worthy, no less holy, no less divine.   In fact, the Torah, which is divine, cannot be compartmentalized at all, because it is not the nature of divinity or holiness to be stratified, to be “less than”, or “more than”, “a little” or “a lot.”

Because our minds are linear and compartmentalized, however, we need to learn all of the separate parts of Torah, to come to understand its wholeness.   Unlike the way we view things, Torah doesn’t differentiate between any and all areas of life, or between the so-called “worldly realm” and the sacred realm”, because these realms are inexorably intertwined and connected. Our days and lives are not divided between “God’s time” and “our time”, “God’s domain” and “our personal space”.   It is one holistic connection, regardless of our inability to perceive it as so.

In “Mishpatim,” God tells us what holy looks like – Act responsibly with people and their possessions. If you hurt someone, make it right. Be exceedingly careful and honest in this world… – because our character shows up in how we handle all of the day-to-day things, no matter how small. And while there are many times when we feel especially elevated and close to God, such as the High Holy Days, or the Sabbath, or a peak life experience, it is also through the day-to-day seemingly ordinary and routine behaviors that we are just as connected.  Thus, the ordinary becomes extraordinary.

In his famous poem, William Blake writes:

To see a world in a grain of sand

And a heaven in a wild flower,

Hold infinity in your hand

And eternity in an hour.

Infinite holiness lies in doing the right thing or the kind thing, even when unnoticed or appreciated.   In the loving comfort of a cup of tea is an eternal heaven. The wholeness that we all seek can be found in a moment of holiness. You just have to notice them.