Practicing Unilateral Virtue in the Face of Evil

If you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything.”

– Gordon A. Eadie

Blaming the Jews

My husband was shaking his head as he was scrolling down the text on his cellphone. “Who do you think Greece blames for the collapse of its economy?” “I dunno…” I replied offhandedly, “must be the Jews.” I thought I was being sarcastic. My husband then read out loud the vilest invectives spewed by political and “religious” Greek leaders, laying the blame not just for Greece’s financial woes, but pretty much all of the problems of the world – since time immemorial – at our Jewish feet. “Who do you think is getting the blame for the shooting of police officers in Dallas,” I shot back. Israel, of course. In twisted minds, dots connect in bizarre and irrational ways.

These days, the news, in general, seems pretty bad; the news related to Jews, however, is once again reaching unimaginable lows. For example, a new adventure is being advertised, entitled, “Auschwitz Tag,” which allows “fun-seeking” participants to play tag – while frolicking in the nude – at Auschwitz. Seriously? Playing tag in the buff at a concentration camp – as a summer outing? What kind of mind conceives of this? What kinds of people attend? And what kind of world allows this?

The previous Torah portion, “Balak,” is named after one of the most paranoid and mentally disordered anti-Semites recorded in the Torah. This week’s Torah portion, “Pinchas,” is named after the Jewish hero who foiled Balak’s attempt to destroy the Jews in the dessert. Pinchas was not originally included in the priestly class, but as a result of his zealous courage, he was elevated into the priesthood and bestowed with an eternal covenant of peace, kinda like the Nobel Peace prize, but much better.

Is it a “coincidence”, that Pinchas follows Balak? I never noticed this before, and now I am wondering whether these two Torah portions are best understood as being a pair and that somehow “evil” and “peace” are package deals. Like “growth” through “adversity,” Balak’s plot to destroy the Jewish people gave Pinchas the opportunity to rise to the occasion, and in so doing, Pinchas changed the fate of the Jewish people as well as his own destiny.

 Practicing Unilateral Virtue

When the news brings us daily reports of implacable hatred and inhuman brutality, how do we react with a response that is nevertheless rooted in humanity? And is there a way not just to retain our humanity in the face of an evil that wants to seduce us away from it, but can we use that very evil to bring out our personal best?

Says Rick Hanson, a psychologist famous for using neuroplasticity to create positivity in people’s lives, “One of the hardest things to do is to remain reasonable, responsible, and ethical ourselves when others don’t.” In a challenging situation, how do you want to be? Can you live by your personal code even when it’s hard? What is your own code? What is your integrity system? What kind of honorable person are you moved to be from the inside out?

Personal Power

When we blame someone or something else for our perceived problems, then we are out-sourcing the solution as well. For example, if it were Balak’s fault that the Jews in the desert were suffering, then only Balak could change the situation. This belief creates the dis-empowerment of the victim mentality. Pinchas, on the other hand, didn’t waste any time on the “blame game.” Instead, he took action where he could and focused on remedying the negative behavior he was witnessing in the Jewish people.  

What is perhaps even more amazing is that he went against his nature to do what he did. It would be easy to think, “Well, I am no Pinchas. I’m not bold like that, daring and courageous.” But neither was he! The text explains that he took after his grandfather, Aaron, whose temperament was compassionate and peace loving.

And yet Pinchas killed, acting in complete opposition to his nature. And in so doing, he did what needed to be done. As explained by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, “he transcended his inborn instincts to bring peace between God and Israel.” Pinchas fought an external enemy by correcting an internal fault in the Jewish people.

The very purpose of negativity is for us to change it. We change “it,” however, when we change ourselves. Just like the slogan, “Think globally – act locally”, when you work on yourself you are affecting the world. If you stop feeding negativity anywhere, it will starve everywhere. 

For example, when Jacob was preparing for his famous encounter with his brother, Esau, whom Jacob feared could still want to kill him, Jacob prepared in three ways: he brought gifts, he prayed and he equipped himself for war. And so dealing with evil is never a “one solution fits all” kind of approach.

While politics and military operations may be necessary, at the same time, we must also regard the spiritual realm as every bit as real and powerful – if not more so. Realistically, isn’t that the realm that most of us can access anyway? The daily dose of bad news can depress you, enervate you, or leave you trembling with fear waiting for horror to strike.  That is, however, precisely when we need to bring our A-Game. 

May we use these times when we are surrounded by the evil of modern-day Balaks to rise to the occasion and actualize our potential of unilateral virtue, integrity and courage. We can all be winners of the peace prize, and thereby, we may change not only our own fate, but also the destiny of the whole world.

Internalize & Actualize:

  1. Think about a situation in your life where you began with a “Balak” situation and ended with a “Pinchas” one (something that started negative and ended positive). Looking back, do you think you appreciated the outcome even more because of the hard start?
  1. When have you gone against your nature and done what was needed in the moment, when you probably would not have if you had the time to really think about it. What did you learn from the situation? Have you tapped into this part of yourself more often because you now know it is within you? 
  1. We all deal with situations we are convinced are the fault of another. What is something that you blame someone (or something) else for? What will change if you can take responsibility for it? Even if you can’t control what is happening or has happened, you can control how you respond and react to it. Write down three things you can do differently in this situation.



Chukat – Finding Meaning in the Mystery

The best teachers are those who show you where to look but don’t tell you what to see.”

Alexandra K. Trenfor

Forty-two is the number of stops we had during our forty years in the desert, with some stops lasting a few days, and some for years. It is said that each of us also has forty-two stops in the journey of our lives. After my Bat Mitzvah, and obligatory party feted by champagne and my family’s business friends, I was released at last from the obligation of having anything more to do with Judaism. And so my Jewish journey had a stop that lasted for the next 25 years.

The Wake-Up Call

Fast forward to my mid-thirties, and I was at a “duty funeral” for the wife of someone my fiancé knew. I could not have anticipated that the death of a stranger would be a life-changing event for me. Hearing how active and vital this woman was in the Jewish community and feeling alarmed over the impact and void left by her death, my heart awakened and, much to my surprise, I felt I wanted to make a difference.

But how? Until that moment, I didn’t even identify as Jewish, much less being part of a community. And so I started on my spiritual journey again, making a series of stops here and there, looking for my Jewish identity and yearning for connection.

For a while, my journey took me to a synagogue, which had an unusual custom. The rabbi’s sermon was interactive and participatory. Once again, I could not have anticipated how a rabbi’s sermon would have a life-altering effect, but it did, and the sermon in question happened to be the Torah portion, “Chukat,” otherwise known as the “Red Heifer.”

The command to find a perfect and completely red cow, without a single white hair on its body (try to find one), sacrifice it and use its ashes for ritual purification are incomprehensible and irrational, in that the same ritual results in opposite effects – it causes both purification and contamination.

Upon hearing this, a man stood up and said, angrily, “What is this, Nazi Germany, that we just have to follow blindly orders that make no sense?” I looked around at the heads nodding in agreement and a silent rabbi. Before I even knew what I was doing, I was on my feet protesting the comparison of God to Hitler and the laws of the Torah to the laws of Nuremberg. The rabbi sincerely thanked me for my “God-oriented comment” and I sat down, my face flush and tears oddly in my eyes.

If one’s agenda is to conclude that Torah is arcane, obsolete and without relevance or purpose, and if you want to view those who live a Torah–observant life as blindly following irrational orders, then this Torah portion, Chukat, fits the bill.

People tend to think that Torah laws come in two categories – rational and irrational, laws that make sense and are good to live by – and everything else. Once we determine that something is “irrational,” we so-called “rational beings” feel free – obligated, even – to discard it and dismiss anyone who takes it seriously.

An Inconvenient Truth

But the problem with that much “certainty” is that it closes off exploration, and it shuts off possibility. You have come to the end of the line of inquiry, and you are also intellectually dishonest because you are selective with irrationality.

Where is this so-called world of “reason” to be found? Anyone who thinks we don’t live in an irrational world has not had to apply for a driver’s permit in Pennsylvania or had to try a legal case in Rhode Island (where the courts shut down every week because there are insufficient sheriffs to unlock the courtrooms), or had to deal with divorce clients.

And if I were a truly rational person, I would never eat foods that I know are bad for me. I would never use negativity to try to create positive change and I wouldn’t bother taking off glasses that weigh two ounces before I weighed myself. But I live an irrational life. We all do, and we just accept that quality in ourselves.

But the laws of the Red Heifer and many laws for which we see no rational basis, are not irrational. They are, rather, “supra-rational,” meaning that they are outside of rationality. It’s just not “figureoutable” and your attitude to that gap between you and the unknowable is a good indicator of where you are in your faith and relationship with God.

And so, if you want an example of the ability to live with the mystery of the supra-rational, and to find deep meaning and fulfillment in the encounter with another realm, then this Torah portion, Chukat, is also the Torah portion that fits that bill as well.

The Covered and the Uncovered

Fast-forward my life another 20 years, and many more stops, to by being at an Orthodox wedding. On the chair was a pamphlet explaining the different parts of the ceremony for people who may be unfamiliar with the customs of Orthodox weddings, and I read the description of the “bedecken,” which takes place right before the ceremony when the groom looks at his bride and then covers the bride’s face with a veil. With this simple gesture, the groom is making a profound promise to his bride: I will cherish and respect not only the “you” that is revealed to me, but also that about you, which is “covered” from me. As I bond with you in marriage, I am committed to all of you – all of the time.

And I joyfully realized that this, at last, was the answer to the man who compared God to the Nazis. When we, the Jewish people, stood at Mt. Sinai and accepted Torah, we became eternally betrothed to God, to the parts of God that are revealed, as well as to the parts of God that are covered – to all of the parts of God – all of the time.

That is the basis of true commitment, because no relationship, however deep and intimate, can fully uncover or completely unmask another. We contain unmapped territories, hidden even from ourselves. How much more so with God?

And when we accept that, then the very questions we ask change. We don’t have to be churlish and demand instant answers to everything, especially since answers can trivialize serious issues and are far from soul satisfying.

So when you are challenged, frustrated, afraid or uncertain when aspects of God, or your spouse, or yourself, or life are covered and unrevealed to you, or seem irrational or supra-rational, do not fall into an easy and false certainty that cuts off possibility and stops your journey to growth and transformation.

Embrace the struggle that is part of a nuanced and complex life. Be humble and stay open to the lesson. As the poet Rilke said, “Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart…. Live in the question.” May we all be poets in our soul, find meaning in living with and within mystery, and keep our journeys going!

Internalize & Actualize:

  1. We all encounter situations that we can’t understand. Think about something you have been asked to do that doesn’t make any sense to you, then write down what positive lessons you can learn from doing something that you may not understand yet is important to someone or something else.
  1. Now think about your own needs. What is something you ask of someone else that may not make rational sense but makes a difference to you? How does it make you feel when someone complies with this request even though it is not something this person would think to do on his or her own?
  1. Everyone in our lives knows us in a different way. Some of our characteristics are more revealed, some very concealed–sometimes even from ourselves. Write down five things about yourself that few, if any, know. How do you think people would react if they did know these parts of you?





Korach – The Power of the Question

“…And for the child who does not know how to ask,

you must teach him how…”

– Passover Haggadah

Power Struggles

The Torah portion, “Korach,” is the name of one of the most famous attempted power-grabbers in Jewish history. In the story line, the priestly honors and appointments were doled out long ago to Moses and his brother Aaron. Korach, their cousin, was left out of this honor society and was resentful. However, Moses was untouchable as a leader, and so Korach kept his bitterness to himself.  

Times had changed, however. After the incident with the spies in the previous Torah portion of “Shelach,” when the people knew they were not going into the land of Israel but were condemned to die in the desert, it was a time of crisis and unrest. Moses’ ratings were down, thus giving Korach the perfect opportunity to capitalize on the situation and to try to usurp Moses as the leader.

 And Korach did so by posing a simple question to Moses and Aaron: “The entire community is holy, and God is within them; why do you raise yourselves over the congregation of God?” That doesn’t sound too bad – does it? Korach is saying, “If we’re all holy, then what makes you guys so special?  I’m every bit as special as you.” Korach even got a few hundred guys to agree with him because his platform was essentially that he was the champion for the masses, he stood for the little guy, and that everyone is equal – perhaps the first Jewish communist.

 But Korach wasn’t looking to make everyone the same. He wasn’t looking to make this an equal opportunity procedure. This wasn’t the Biblical version of: “I’m holy. You’re holy. And that’s OK.” Korach wanted to be the High Priest, and assuming he was to overthrow Moshe and appoint himself, by the time his groupies figured out that nothing changed for them, well you know what happens in takeovers.

Selective Questioning

As fascinating as the story line is (and to find out what happened to Korach, read The Book), what interests me is the use of the question. When Korach asked, “What makes you holier than me?” it wasn’t an honest inquiry at all. He was looking to find fault with Moses, and he was trying to get others to join in, to see reality his way, and he did it through the use of questions, because – and this is important to understand – the reality that we see depends on the questions that we ask.

 Why is that? Our brains take in billions of bits of information per second, but it can only process about 60 bits per second, less than an infinitesimal sliver. You know how people can experience the same thing so differently? That is because they are focusing on their selective 60 bits per second. And I use the word “selective” deliberately. We can actually select which sliver to focus on, and the way we do that is by the questions we ask.

Isidore Rabi, winner of a Nobel Prize in physics, was once asked why he became a scientist. He replied, “My mother made me a scientist without even knowing it. Every other child would come home from school and be asked, ‘What did you learn today?’ But my mother wanted to know something else. ‘Izzy,’ she always used to say, ‘did you ask a good question today?’ That made the difference.”

Let’s look at relationships. In the infatuation or romantic phase of a relationship, the part of the brain associated with critical thinking is dysfunctional. When that part of our brain comes back on-line, and critical thinking resumes, we start asking ourselves – “What’s wrong with my spouse? What’s wrong here? What happened to the person I married, etc.?”

And when we turn these questions inward we create inner shame. The brain doesn’t like unanswered questions and so when you ask a negative question (What’s wrong with me?), your brain will only supply a negative answer (I’m such a loser, mess, etc.).

 And while we mustn’t turn a blind eye to problems, the tendency to focus only on the problems–to allot our 60-bit sliver of reality to the negative–shuts out all of the good and wonderful aspects of a relationship. It’s as if we are wearing blinders, and if we can’t see it, then these things don’t exist, even if they are right in front of us. Incidentally, I think this is one of the main reasons relationships fail or suffer, because we become very good at being fault-finders, and we lose the ability to see the good.

Changing What We See

Therefore, if the questions we ask create the reality we see, it stands to reason that we can change our reality by asking better questions. When you change your question, you change what you are looking for. By understanding this dynamic, you can engineer a more positive life and relationships.

 Chassidic thought teaches that there is a seed of greatness in every moment and a spark of holiness in everything – even more so in people. Try looking for it with positive questions. “What is working? What is going well? What is there to be grateful for? When are things good and what factors make it happen? What’s my role in that? What do I do well and how can I do more of that? What are the blessings in this situation? How is this situation calling for me to serve, to act, to change, to grow?”

Here’s the secret, and it’s a phrase well worn into me by Tal Ben Shahar: “When we see the good, the good appreciates.” And we see the good by asking good questions. When Korach looked at Moses, all he could ask was why was he not getting what he wanted, why others were being elevated over him, and why was he being denied what he thought was coming to him. In a situation flowing with lemonade, all Korach could do was make lemons. Let us not make the same mistake. Let us look for the good, see the good, and enjoy the many blessings in our lives.

Internalize & Actualize:

  1. We all have someone in our lives that makes us jealous. Think about that person and then write down the questions that pop into your mind (ie. “why her and not me?). Now…take those very same questions and ask change them around to focus on positive growth and development for yourself.
  1. Think about a question you have asked yourself (or another) that had a transformative effect on who you are today. What about the question or answer was made such an impact?
  1. Being able to question another or our situation takes a lot of strength. What questions do you have for yourself that perhaps you have been avoiding asking? Write down three questions that you may not yet have the answers for but can begin to work on.