Making Your Days Count

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When you waste a moment, you have killed it in a sense, squandering an irreplaceable opportunity. But when you use the moment properly, filling it with purpose and productivity, it lives on forever.          

the Lubavitcher Rebbe

Many years ago, a product came on the market called “Death Insurance.” The problem was that no one wanted to buy a “death insurance” policy. It was a huge flop – until someone had the bright idea to change the name from “Death Insurance” to “Life Insurance,” a much happier and more optimistic name (even though it was the same thing). That little change, however, turned that product from a dud into a gazillion-dollar business.

Chayei Sarah begins with the death of our matriarch, Sarah. “Chayei Sarah,” literally means, however, “the Life of Sarah.” So is this a switcheroo, a mere marketing gimmick to uplift us, or is it one of those paradoxical teaching moments?

The Talmud explains how those who are righteous, who fill their days in productive and positive ways, are considered alive when they are dead, while those who bring toxicity and negativity into this world are viewed as dead even while they are alive. So it is quite fitting, that following the death of Sarah, we focus on the meaning and influence of her life, who she was and what she accomplished, even though she is no longer living.

Sarah died at the age of 127, and rather than simply tell us that Sarah was 127 years old when she passed, the Torah describes her lifespan in a curious way: “Sarah’s lifetime was one hundred years, twenty years, and seven years.” And so, a year is not a year is not a year. (Just think if two hours watching an engrossing show feels the same as two hours sitting through a boring lecture. In one case “time flies,” whereas in the other, “time stands still.”) Time is relative. It is defined more by its quality than its quantity.

Choosing Ultimate Reality

There is a mystical idea that our days on earth will ultimately comprise the garments that clothe our soul after we die. These garments are those of “thought,” “speech” and “action.” The quality of these garments will not be determined by the years of our life, but by the “life in our years.” In other words, we stitch together these holy garments from our good deeds, (our mitzvot), and the moments we create that we endow with the quality of ultimate meaning – and therefore – infinite reality. For example, someone could live to a ripe old age, and yet, sadly, have lived a life of such little significance and substance, that his or her soul could be naked or virtually naked in the next world. As Eleanor Roosevelt said:

One’s philosophy is not best expressed in words; it is expressed in the choices one makes. In the long run, we shape our lives, and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And the choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility.

Each day of our lives presents us with endless possibilities. We constantly stand at the crossroads of choice. How many times have I thought, “Sorry God, I have no time to pray. I am just so darn busy. Catch you later. Maybe tomorrow?” Thinking I am choosing “reality,” you know, “getting stuff done,” I fritter away many moments of time that at the end of the day, evaporate like smoke. It’s like consuming empty calorie junk food instead of nutrient-rich food filled with vitality. I think I am eating, but, nutritionally, I’m not. It’s OK once in a while, but I certainly wouldn’t make a habit of it.

On the other hand, when we consciously embrace our lives moment-by-moment, cognizant of the power and significance of our choices, mindfully aware of our words and deeds, we can weave together holy garments that will wrap us like a hallowed shawl.

Close Versus Connected

The Hebrew word for sacrifice, namely the sacrifices that were brought to the Holy Temple, is “korban.” The root of that word is “makarev” which means “to bring/come close.” Hence, we are to understand that the purpose of bringing a sacrifice is to come closer to God, and we have opportunities every single moment, to actively move towards where we want to be.

The holiest offering which was brought into the Temple, however, was the “ketoret,” the incense offering. The word itself means “to bond” or “to connect.” It represents the weaving together of different elements to form one unified entity that does not come undone. It is here that I recognize how I am inextricably linked and interconnected with God. While I do my part by “coming close” in my “thought,” “speech” and “action,” my soul is already there and bonded.

Leveraging Time

And in so doing – since the soul does not die – it’s as if we don’t truly die. Sarah physically died. That’s the truth. But the opposite was also true. As a woman whose life was alive with the fullness of her choices, Sarah also lived, as death only marked a new form of her life. Sarah embodies the idea that we must not merely count our days, but we must make our days count.  

So make the most of every moment. Make your moments holy. Make your moments endure by weaving into them a sacred reality. By understanding the infinite power and potential of each moment, you can stitch together the fabric of your life so that your spiritual loveliness will be there to embrace and clothe your eternal soul.   Happy weaving!

 

 

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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.

 

 

The Jewish Paradox of Standing Tall and Being Small

“True humility is not thinking less of yourself;

it is thinking of yourself less.”

– C.S. Lewis

The Desert

The Torah portion, Bamidbar, which means “in the wilderness” or “in the desert” is always read before the holiday of Shavuot, which is when we received the Torah on Mount Sinai. The classic commentary on this is that the best state in which to receive Torah, is when we make ourselves into a desert, meaning that we nullify our egos and enter into a state of total humility. 

This makes a lot of sense. After all, the desert is an appropriate place for encounters with the Divine (think Burning Bush) as well as the setting for many spiritual journeys. In the desert, there are no material distractions, no cultural noise, and no exits from its stark reality.  

The opening line of the Torah portion is: “And God spoke to Moses in the desert.” The word “midbar” (desert) anddibur” (speech) share the same root, and so the relationship between the desert and speech – Divine speech – is beautifully correlated. For starters, speech represents freedom.  The First Amendment, which guarantees free speech, is considered fundamental and integral to a free society.   Slaves, on the other hand, have no voice. They are silenced. Their opinion is irrelevant, as they are not seen as people, but as property.

On Passover, which is the holiday commemorating the exodus from slavery into freedom, we read from the “Hagadda.” The word Hagadda derives from “lehagid” which means, “to tell,” and so integral to that transition is the telling of a story, that we re-tell every year. In her TED talk on vulnerability, shame researcher Brene Bown defines courage as the ability to tell the story of who you are – with your whole heart.

But speech only works when one is able and willing to both talk and listen. And to listen, and truly hear what the other is trying to say, requires patience, focus and humility. Therefore, the desert is the ideal location for the Jewish people to be open to this Divine speech for there is no distraction.

We don’t have to be physically in a desert to consciously strip away the layers of egocentricity that distort our clarity. By shutting out the noise that distracts us, we can transform ourselves into an appropriate desert of open receptivity. As the Lubavitcher Rebbe stated: “Without question, the material world and your everyday needs distract you from living meaningfully.” While this is the theme oft-repeated in this Torah portion, in my opinion, it’s only half of the picture. Focus on that idea alone (as great as it is) and we’re missing out on a really great paradox.           

The Jewish Paradox

The first line ends with God’s command to Moses to take a census. Rashi, the medieval commentator, teaches us to understand this to mean the following: that God loves us and counts us, just like we like to count our prized possessions. We are not counted by ability, wealth or status, but by identity – signaling that we are unique, precious and beloved. No two people are alike, no one can contribute to the world in the same way, and so, we are singularly purposeful.

On the one hand, we are elevated, each soul, a precious and unique possession, and yet on the other, we should be lowly, like a barren desert, indistinguishable and insignificant as shifting sand. So which is right? The Jewish answer is, of course, that both are right. It’s a Jewish paradox.

In fascinating research done at the Stanford Business School, Jim Collins was able to provide answers as to why some companies are visionary and successful and others are not.  It seems to depend on the companies’ ability to chose between contradictory concepts, and the ability to embrace both sides of the coin, adopting a strategy known as the “genius of the and” and rejecting thinking characterized as “the tyranny of the or.”  Being limited by either/or thinking isn’t good for corporations and it certainly isn’t good for people either.

When it comes to receiving the Torah, we must humble ourselves, create the space to take it in and learn, at times, to focus on our collective identity rather than our individual identity. As Marianne Williamson says, “When the ego steps back, the power of God steps forward.” But when it comes to living the Torah, we must stand tall and be counted and know who we are. We are created and yearn to reach our highest possibilities. Being a light unto nations and repairing the world is simply not a job for wimps. 

The paradox is that we must always be simultaneously embracing both sides of the coin if we are to understand either side of the coin, and that is a lesson, not just in preparation for Shavuot, but for any time of the year.

Internalize & Actualize:

  1. Write down five things that take up the majority of your time on a daily basis. Now, write down five things you would do and focus on if you had the time. This week, cut out ten minutes of each day to focus on one of those five. By the end of the week you will have spent more than an hour on something you find meaningful that you had previously not made time for.
  1. Think about someone or a situation that silences you–where you feel you had no say or that no one would listen to your opinion. How does that make you feel? Now write down what you want to say to that person or in that situation. Can you think of some practical ways you can begin to get that message across and reclaim your voice?
  1. We all struggle with our ego at times. And more often than not, it leads to avoidable problems. Where in your life could you use more humility? What do you think would change if you could lessen your ego?