Thursday, June 21, 2018

Love Your Fellow--Faith and Friendship

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Yehuda Lave, Spiritual Advisor and Counselor

Think Before Taking Action

Action will enable you to accomplish and achieve. But something must come before taking action: thinking.

Think first. Yes, think big and think bigger, but always think first.

Taking action without thinking will lead to many avoidable mistakes and errors. Taking action without thinking first will lead to unnecessary quarrels and arguments, hurt feelings, and misunderstandings.

Taking action without thinking will lead to wasting much time and energy.

Taking action without thinking might get you far, but it's likely to get you far in the wrong direction.

When you spend time thinking about your options and about consequences, you will be able to learn from each experience to think even better and wiser next time.

Love Yehuda Lave

Faith and Friendship By Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

In  parsha Beha'alothta Moses reaches his lowest ebb. Not surprisingly. After all that had happened – the miracles, the exodus, the division of the sea, food from heaven,What is striking is the depth of Moses' despair water from a rock, the revelation at Sinai and the covenant that went with it – the people, yet again, were complaining about the food. And not because they were hungry; merely because they were bored. "If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt for free—and the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic."As for the miraculous "bread from heaven," although it sustained them it had ceased to satisfy them: "Now our appetite is gone; there's nothing to look at but this manna!"1

Any leader might despair at such a moment. What is striking is the depth of Moses' despair, the candor with which he expresses it, and the blazing honesty of the Torah in telling us this story. This is what he says to G‑d:

"Why have You brought this trouble on Your servant? What have I done to displease You that You put the burden of all these people on me? Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth? Why do You tell me to carry them in my arms, as a nurse carries an infant, to the land You promised on oath to their ancestors? … If this is how You are going to treat me, please go ahead and kill me—if I have found favor in Your eyes—and do not let me face my own ruin."2

Every leader, perhaps every human being, at some time in their lives faces failure, defeat and the looming abyss of despair. What is fascinating is G‑d's response. He does not tell Moses, "Cheer up; pull yourself together; you are bigger than this." Instead He gives him something practical to do:

"Gather for Me seventy of the elders of Israel …I will take some of the spirit that is on you and put it on them; and they shall bear the burden of the people along with you so that you will not bear it all by yourself."

It is as if G‑d were saying to Moses, "Remember what your father-in-law Jethro told you. Do not try to lead alone. Do not try to live alone. Even you, the greatest of the prophets, are still human, and humans are social animals. Enlist others. Choose associates. End your isolation. Have friends."

What is moving about this episode is that, at the moment of Moses' maximum emotional vulnerability, G‑d Himself speaks to Moses as a friend. This is fundamental to Judaism as a whole. For us G‑d is not (merely) Creator of the universe, L‑rd of history, Sovereign, Lawgiver and Redeemer, the G‑d of capital-letter nouns. He is also close, tender, loving: "He heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds."3 He is like a parent: "As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you."4 He is like a shepherd; "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil for You are with me."5 He is always there: "G‑d is close to all who call on Him – to all who call on Him in truth."6

In 2006, in the fittingly named Hope Square outside London's Liverpool Street Station, a memorial was erected in memory of Kindertransport, the operation that rescued 10,000 Jewish children from Nazi Germany shortly before the outbreak of war. At the ceremony one of the speakers, a woman by then in her eighties who was one of the saved, spoke movingly about the warmth she felt toward the country that had given refuge to her and her fellow kinder. In her speech she said something that left an indelible impression on me. She said, "I discovered that in England a policeman could be a friend." That is what made England so different from Germany. And it is what Jews discovered long ago about G‑d Himself. He is not just a supreme power. He is also a friend. That is what Moses discovered in this week's parsha.

Friends matter. They shape our lives. How much they do so was discovered by two social scientists, Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, using data from the Framingham Heart Study. This project, started in 1948, has followed more than 15,000 residents of Framingham, Massachusetts, examining their heart rate, weight, blood levels and other health indicators, on average every four years. Its purpose was to identify risk factors for heart disease. However, Christakis and Fowler were interested in something else, namely the effects of socialization. Does it make a difference to your health whether you have friends, and if so, what kind of people they are?

Their discoveriesNot only does having friends matter, so does having the right ones were impressive. Not only does having friends matter; so too does having the right ones. If your friends are slim, active, happy and have healthy habits, the likelihood is that so will you, and the same is true of the reverse. Another study, in 2000, showed that if at college, you have a roommate who works hard at his or her studies, the probability is that you will work harder. A Princeton study in 2006 showed that if one of your siblings has a child, you are 15% more likely to do so within the next two years. Habits are contagious. They spread through social networks. Even your friends' friends and their friends can still have an influence on your behavior.7

Jordan Peterson, in his 12 Rules for Life, marshalls his own experience and that of his contemporaries, growing up in the small, isolated town of Fairview, Alberta. Those who chose upwardly mobile individuals as friends went on to success. Those who fell into bad company fared badly, sometimes disastrously. We can choose the wrong friends, he says, precisely because they boost our self-image. If we have a fault and know we do, we can find reassurance in the fact that the people we associate with have the same fault. This soothes our troubled mind but at the price of making it almost impossible to escape our deficiencies. Hence his Rule 3: Make friends with people who want the best for you.8

None of this would come as a surprise to the sages, who pointed out, for example, that the key figures in the Korach rebellion were encamped near one another. From this they concluded, "Woe to the wicked and woe to his neighbour." In the opposite direction, the tribes of Yehudah, Issachar and Zevulun were encamped near Moses and Aaron, and they became distinguished for their expertise in Torah. Hence, "Happy the righteous and happy his neighbour."9 Hence Maimonides' axiom:

It is natural to be influenced in character and conduct by your friends and associates, and to follow the fashions of your fellow citizens. Therefore one ought to ensure that your friends are virtuous and that you frequent the company of the wise so that you learn from the way they live, and that you keep a distance from bad company.10

Or, as the sages put it more briefly: "Make for yourself a mentor and acquire for yourself a friend."11

In the end that is what G‑d did for Moses, and it ended his depression. He told him to gather around him seventy elders who would bear the burden of leadership with him. There was nothing they could do that Moses could not: he did not need their practical or spiritual help. But they did alleviate his isolation. They shared his spirit. They gave him the gift of friendship. We all need it. We are social animals. "It is not good to be alone."12

It is part of theFaith is the redemption of solitude intellectual history of the West and the fact that from quite early on, Christianity became more Hellenistic than Hebraic, that people came to think that the main purpose of religion is to convey information (about the origin of the universe, miracles, life after death, and so on). Hence the conflict between religion and science, revelation and reason, faith and demonstration. These are false dichotomies.

Judaism has foundational beliefs, to be sure, but it is fundamentally about something else altogether. For us, faith is the redemption of solitude. It is about relationships – between us and G‑d, us and our family, us and our neighbors, us and our people, us and humankind. Judaism is not about the lonely soul. It is about the bonds that bind us to one another and to the Author of all. It is, in the highest sense, about friendship.

Hence the life changing idea: we tend to become what our friends are. So choose as friends people who are what you aspire to be.

Footnotes 1. Num. 11:4-6. 2. Num. 11:11-15. 3. Psalms 147:3. 4. Isaiah 66:13. 5. Psalms 23:4. 6. Psalms 145:18. 7. Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, Connected: the Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, Little, Brown, 2011. 8. Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules for Life, Allen Lane, 2018, 67-83. 9. Tanhuma (Buber), Bemidbar 13; Bemidbar Rabbah, Korach, 18:5. 10. Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Deot, 6:1. 11. Mishnah Avot 1:6. 12. Genedsis 2: 18. By Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

What is lashon hara? One who speaks disparagingly of another person, even though he may speak the truth (Orchos Tzaddikim, Chapter 25).

One mussar spokesman said that there should never be any need to speak about another person. "If you wish to speak of someone's praises, praise God instead. If you wish to find fault with someone, you would do better to focus on your own defects."

The second statement takes on additional significance in light of what psychologists have learned about lack of self-awareness. Some have suggested that when people talk about other people, they turn the conversation away from themselves and, by focusing on other's shortcomings, they avoid the need to focus on their own. Slandering other people thus sets back the struggle for self-awareness, which is essential for optimum emotional and psychological health, because it directs one's attention away from oneself and onto the defects in others. One thereby does not have the information necessary to improve.

The Talmud states that lashon hara adversely affects three people: the one who speaks, the one who listens, and the subject of the conversation (Arachin 15b). We can easily understand how it hurts the last two, and we now have another insight into how gossips actually hurt themselves.

Today I shall ...
assiduously avoid talking about other people's faults, and instead try to find my own, so that I can improve upon them

Blues Brothers

Awesome clip - what a movie this was! 

One who is needy and refuses to accept help, it is as though he shed innocent blood (Jerusalem Talmud, Peah 8:8).

Maimonides extols what he calls the golden path, the middle way which a person should follow in life. He states that every trait has two opposite but equally undesirable extremes. The proper degree of any trait is not necessarily the median; it may be more toward one of the two poles, but it is never the extreme.

Self-sufficiency is certainly a desirable goal, and striving for independence is commendable. Some indolent people do not even try to carry their own weight. Their parasitism may be so reprehensible to other people that the latter may react by going to the opposite extreme and refusing to accept help when they need it. They may sustain physical injury by starvation or exposure, rather than accept a helping hand.

While accounts of great tzaddikim who subjected themselves to extreme degrees of deprivation do exist, these people had reached a level of spirituality so high that this deprivation would not harm them. For the average person, Solomon's caution, "Do not attempt to be too much of a tzaddik" (Ecclesiastes 7:16), should prevail. To do so may simply be an "ego trip." Some bridges can support vehicles of any tonnage; other bridges have a limit on the tonnage, lest they collapse under excess weight.

In this trait, like so many others, people may not be the best judge of their own capacities. Their best move is to seek competent spiritual guidance.

Today I shall ...

allow myself to accept legitimate help and be cautious of over-reacting in any extreme.

Just Because

Just Because By Lazer Gurkow My Favorite Card

The flower shop I go to sells all kinds of cards: congratulations, sympathy, bereavement, etc. My favorite is the "Just Because" card. You can say it with flowers for all kinds of reasons: Because your wife did or said something special. Because your wife gave birth. Because your wife turned 40. Or "just because."

Just because is special because it transcends virtue. I know When you love someone just because, you can overcome many obstacles that my wife is beautiful; I know she is smart; I know she is kind; I know she is devoted; I know she is a fabulous mother; I know she is a great teacher. But these qualities are not why I love her. I love her for who she is. Just because.1

When you love someone just because, you can overcome many obstacles. Consider the relationship between G‑d and our ancestors. The Jewish nation was traveling in the desert in high style: daily fine dining, a climate-controlled atmosphere, clothing with built-in laundry and stretching ability. Every need and luxury was provided for, yet the people complained, again and again.

The complainers were often punished, but there were many moans and groans that went unpunished. Despite the constant grumbling, G‑d continued to care for them, continued to love them. Why? What did they do to deserve His love? The answer can be summed up in two words: "just because."

A Tale of Two Brides

The Talmud records a famous debate between the schools of Hillel and Shammai:

What does one sing when dancing before the bride? Beit Shammai said, "The bride as she is." Beit Hillel said, "The bride is beautiful and graceful." Said the school of Shammai, "What if the bride is lame or blind, can we call her beautiful and graceful? Did the Torah not prohibit lying?" To which Beit Hillel replied, "When someone makes a purchase, shall we praise it or criticize it?2

Most students assume that Shamai was scrupulously honest and Hillel was gracefully generous. Hillel was willing to tell a white lie for the sake of peace. Shamai was not. But here is a different approach.

The Torah tells us to love our fellow, irrespective of who they are and how they behave. It is easy to love and respect our friends. People with grace and charm are not hard to like. But what about those who are rude and uncouth, grumpy and mean? What about those who are cruel and hound us, or those who put on airs and ignore us? It is difficult to love them. And yet we must. How?

This was the crux of the debate between Hillel and Shammai. The lame bride is a metaphor for friends who are never there for you, who never come to your aid. The blind bride is a metaphor for people who won't even acknowledge your existence. How can you find something nice to say about these people? It's easy to compliment and love your close friends, but what about those who don't treat you well?

Look Again

Beit Hillel says: Everyone has a saving grace, and if we haven't found it, it means we haven't looked hard enough. Someone who made a purchase did so because he saw something worthwhile in his find. The groom who married this bride saw something beautiful in her. If you haven't found value, it is because you haven't looked in the right places or in the right way.

When we encounter the socially blind and lame and can't find a kind thing to say about them, Hillel advises us to look again. Don't assume they have no heart. Don't assume they are made of stone. If someone out there loves them, and if they love in return, they must have some good qualities. Don't give up on them just because they ignore you. One day, you will see their heart.

Just Because

Shammai says: There is no need to search for their heart. You can love them even without seeing their heart. You can love them "just because," just as they are. "The bride as she is." When you see someone's strengths and beautiful traits, you love them for their traits. But when you see someone with no redeeming traits, no discernible value, there is an amazing opportunity, a chance to love them as they are, just because.

Who says love must be reciprocated? For the most part, we want those we love to love us in return. But we can also love without rhyme or reason. Most people don't give us the chance, but when you encounter a social misfit, who gives you every reason to hate him, you have a chance to love just because.

This person may not be likable or kind or considerate, but he is your fellow. This kind of love is not so different from a parent's love for their child. Surely a parent finds reasons to be proud of their child. They boast of the child's knowledge, talents and achievements, but these qualities are not why they love their child. In love, they transcend all the child's character traits and features. They love just because.

With friends you hardly get that chance. Says Shammai: When you run into the fellow you can't stand, don't treat him as an inconvenience to flee from. This person presents an opportunity for you to embrace.3 And when you do open yourself to this love, you might even enjoy his company. You never could have imagined it, but once you arouse in yourself a sense of fellowship, you might trigger a real bond with this person.

Now you can love him for real. Not because he changed his stripes, but because you touched his truth—buried under layers of fears and insecurities. This is why the Talmud concludes that at weddings in Israel, the common refrain was, "No powder, no paint, no hair-waving, and yet graceful." I might not be able to find a single redeeming feature, but when I insist on loving despite it all, I discover the grace within the other person.

Love Is Blind

This is the kind of love that G‑d displayed toward our ancestors. At times they behaved as children should, and gave G‑d pleasure. AtWhen you open yourself to it, you might even enjoy his company such times, their relationship was robust. Then there were times when they pestered G‑d with petty and wicked complaints. And then the relationship would deepen even further. Just because.

When the Babylonians broke into the Holy of Holies when the first Temple was destroyed, they found the Cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant facing each other, a sign of G‑d's love for His children.4 G‑d was punishing them by destroying the Temple, and yet He was loving. Because intrinsic love depends little on good behavior. On the contrary, it is strongest when our behavior is atrocious. When necessary, G‑d does punish, but always with love. The transcendent and unlimited love of just because.5

Footnotes 1. One of the reasons a bride wears a veil under the chupah is to proclaim that her inner value exceeds her outer beauty. 2. Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 17a. 3. As with most of Shammai's ideas, this is a tall order. But we can try it, even if we don't master it completely. 4. Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 54b. 5. This essay is based on Likutei Torah, Bamidbar 8A. By Lazer Gurkow

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Love Yehuda Lave

Rabbi Yehuda Lave

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