Friday, August 27, 2010



Parshat Ki Tavo

My short time as the rabbi of Adat Shalom has been one of immense theological growth and newly gained insight. 

Why? There is a concept in the Psalms and Torah of the “enemies of God.” This idea has always been deeply problematic for me: if God created everything, how can there be enemies of God?

But now I understand. There is such a thing as an enemy of God, and I have discovered its name: spam email. After years in existence before me, the rabbi@adatshalomla email has the apparent distinction of traversing from one spam list to another and another. Every day brings a fresh barrage.

The vast majority of the spam we get seems to flow straight from the id of a late middle-aged Italian gangster: porn, fake Viagra, the occasional bogus stock tip, and rolex watches. I also receive near constant viruses attempting to invade my computer under false pretenses.

What’s fascinating -- and this is the real point -- is that spam offers the worst things in the world. Not the most evil, simply the worst: the most base; the most confused; the least sophisticated and intelligible; the most likely to defraud you in small ways (and sometimes big ones); the least likely to satisfy us in any real way. Spam is the externalized real form of the all the little evils that inhabit the world.

Yet the messages keep coming. The larger email servers, who employ increasingly effective spam filters, report that they block over two billion spam messages a day and still many get through. My concern is not for the moral degradation of society (these paltry impulses have always been there), nor for the way that spam might lead us astray (do we really think we’re getting a genuine Rolex?), but simply for the fact that we’re being numbed by an overwhelming tide of small evils. And small evils are so much harder to effectively address than great ones. Kierkegaard writes:

“What I complain of is that life is not like a novel where there are hard-hearted fathers, and goblins and trolls to fight with, enchanted princesses to free. What are all such enemies taken together compared to the pallid, bloodless, glutinous nocturnal shapes with which I fight and to which I myself give being.” Either/Or p.45

 What Torah demands from all of us is to ever enlarge our acuity of perception; to become more sensitive, not less: “and God will circumcise your hearts...” Devarim 30:6 It is not clear how we can attain such sensitivity in the midst of such numbness, and thus I think of spam as an enemy of God. Far be it from me to suggest political action, but I would vote for an anti-spam bill in a heartbeat. And after Shabbat, I’m buying a better spam filter.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Yamim Noraim 5771, Part 3: Making Tikkun


Parshat Ki Tavo, 5770
Of the panoply of terms rabbis throw around, tikkun, being one half of tikkun olam, is one that has true saturation in the minds of Jews. Tikkun means “fixing,” and it has special relevance when talking about another one of those terms we throw around, teshuvah.

Teshuvah is a long process, beginning with the recognition of the need for change and the desire to effect it, and ending with our full internalization of that change into our lives. Within teshuvah lives the process of tikkun, in which we identify and engage in the right behavior that will push us towards the change we seek. Tikkun is the lever that moves teshuvah.

An example: during the first night of Shavuot, the celebration of the Giving of Torah, Jews stay up all night studying. This process is called a Tikkun Leyl Shavuot, “the Fixing of Shavuot Night.” So what is it fixing?

Rabbi Hanina said: In the third month the day is double the night, and the Israelites slept through two hours of the day, as sleep on the feast of Shavuot is pleasant, as the night is short. And Moses went forth and came to the camp of the Israelites, and he aroused them from their sleep, saying to them: "Get up! God desires to give you the Torah! Already the groom wishes to meet the bride and enter the marriage canopy (chuppah). The hour has come for giving you Torah!" Pirkei d’Rebbe Eliezer, 41 

It turns out that we overslept the Giving of Torah, which would be comparable to almost sleeping through your own wedding.

Only the Jews.

So every year we put in place a tikkun, a fixing, to prompt us towards greater presence, greater wakefulness to the wonder waiting for us in the morning. The challenge is for each of us to discover the tikkun for the change we wish to see: to know the lever and the fulcrum of our psychology, and then to shift the burden accordingly. Don’t waste time engaging in sisyphean endeavours; don’t despair if the method you’ve chosen isn’t working; before you start down the path of effecting teshuvah, make sure you find your tikkun.

Thursday, August 19, 2010



Parshat Ki Tetze, 5770

Rabbi Harold Kushner thinks there’s too much anger in the world*, and I believe him.
He’s not the only one: more and more thinkers, scholars, therapists, and even humble rabbis adopt worried tones when commenting on the anger they’re picking up on out in the world.

These days, we experience most of our anger in a blare: from whichever partisan news channel happens to be on; from whatever political pundit holding forth on the radio; from the almost defiant conversations other people have around us, or that we sometimes have ourselves.

Righteous anger is a good sign in a human being – the ability to be stirred to passion is a blessing. But its perseverance will destroy us all. Anger is the sign of a problem, not its solution.

Rav Kook writes about the phenomenon of persistent anger: “In regards to anger, we must hate it with all the depth of our being. With great anger, but one that is measured and settled, we need to hate spiritual anger, which scrambles the mind…When we see some group or party that speaks always in anger, this is in fact a sign to us that they have no real knowledge, and no content to fill their emptiness, and in fact they are angry at themselves…  (Orot haKodesh)

The surety that we hear in the angry voices around us, especially of those with whom we agree, is illusive. The warmth of anger may seem comforting, but we should not draw too close to the fire that is its source.

*His excellent talk on his new book, Conquering Fear, can be heard on the Big Ideas podcast:

Yamim Noraim 5771, Part 2: Introspection Is Only Part of It


7 Elul, 5770

This is the season of examination. This is the time to look within, to ask important questions of ourselves, to prepare to become the people we want to be but are not yet. This is the time for introspection.


The extraordinary Rav Kook reminds us that, although the first step is look within, to remain solely within is a mistake.

One of our great problems as human beings is that we often do not love enough. Think of the litany of life areas in which we would like to be better: spending more time with our kids, appreciating our spouses more, being kinder, being more patient; all these are expressions of love, directed either at others or at ourselves, which we should engage in more.

Ironically, not loving enough will also prevent us from making real teshuvah. Because we struggle to love, we are unlikely to look at ourselves with love. We will often assess behavior that is perfectly acceptable, or needs minor adjustment, with an eye that is far too critical. In his words, “do not call a sin all that the imagination calls a sin… [rather have] ‘just balances and just scales’” (Leviticus 19:36). And while our eyes are focused on our illusory faults, what really needs to change will be left behind.

Introspection alone may lead us astray.

So, says Rav Kook, we need to turn to something external. Something constant, even eternal, that stands outside of our emotional ebbs and flows. We need to find something that is a “just balance” and a “just scale,” against which we can measure our perceptions. And we need to find something that has, mixed with its judgment of what is right, a great deal of love for humanity.

First we need to look within; then we need to learn Torah.

Yamim Noraim 5571, Part 1:Introspection: Beginning the Process


My teacher Reb Mimi Feigelson sometimes won’t teach people certain texts. They’re called mussar, which is the Jewish practice of self-discipline and radical self-actualization: essentially the practice of how to change.
            She, being one of the most sincere, committed people I know, quite surprised me with this revelation. I had expected that she’d be all about hardcore teshuvah.
When I asked why she has these rules, she explained that there are times when deep introspection can be unhealthy; it can destabilize our psyche rather than strengthen it; merely disassembling someone’s heart is pain without point.
The month of Elul, the month that begins of introspection and self-correction called teshuvah, begins tomorrow. Even morning we will blow shofar to wake ourselves up, to stir ourselves to be better; however, that process can only begin if we have a strong sense of the goodness of who we are, if we are able to look at our lives with joy.
The Ben Ish Hai – the brilliant leader of Baghdadi Jewry of the 19th century, teaches that excessive sadness itself is a transgression for which we must account on Yom Kippur. It is critical to look towards the process of our own change with joy, for the potential to always become better is in truth a gift; moreover, a gift whose preciousness gives to us as long as we draw breath. Indeed, the Talmud teaches that there are few days of joy to compare to Yom Kippur, for when else do we so fully celebrate the possibility for renewal?
May we receive the season of teshuvah in joy.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010


Parshat Shoftim, 5770

Let us speak in praise of anxiety.
It’s practically its own Jewish value, considering how prevalent it is in the psychology of most Jews, and we’ve devised a thousand stratagems, pharmacological or otherwise, to manage it so that it does not overwhelm our lives. The paralysis it can bring is real and not to be underestimated.

But for a moment, let us talk about its worth: for the pure root of anxiety is concern, and the ability to be concerned is the root of a mature morality. According to the psychologist Eric Fromm, the ability to be concerned for the needs of others and the needs of one’s own self is the very definition of psychological health. When one adds God’s needs into the equation, we call such a person a tzaddik – a righteous one; we have no greater praise.

In the midst of a completely tangential issue, the Talmud teaches an extraordinary phrase, “Our rabbis were anxious for the requirement of the daughters of Israel…” (Ketubot 2b) In this instance, our teachers chose to make law based on the needs of others – they gave in to holy anxiety.

May the Holy One bless us to direct our sometimes overflowing anxiety. May it find its home in concern for real needs: our needs; others’ needs; the needs of this world; what God needs of us.  And may pharmacology, not excepting that it is rather helpful at times of true exasperation, never replace for us the gift of concern.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Loving the Questions

Parshat Re’eh, 5770

Being a teacher means constantly asking yourself about the point of education. We teachers often have to get quite creative about this process. The thousandth time that student has forgotten what was taught the day before can be quite disheartening (though such forgetting is, in truth, the most natural of processes).

Moreover you learn as a teacher that information, even demonstrable facts, are only the raw material of education, as useless and as unappealing to students as a pile of bricks abandoned at a construction site.

Learning is about the art of the question. The masters of our tradition were not only masters of information (a lower level of proficiency), they were masters of the asking.

This does not obviate knowledge. There are such things as poor questions, and their poverty is often founded on a lack of information. Rather, it is to praise the way that they employed knowledge. Much of time we assemble information to reinforce opinions that we already hold. The brilliance of our teachers was that they arranged what they knew to explore what was unknown to them. 

The hope of every teacher, especially of those who teach young adults, is that their minds may learn to dance in the space between what they know, that learning do more than confirm what they already believe, that it open worlds that they barely suspect. The Talmud teaches that “there is no comparison between one who studies a text a hundred times and one who studies it one hundred and one times.” (Hagigah 9b)  I assure you, the text is no different on that 101st review; what we ask of it is.

You are so young, so much before all beginning, and I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer. Perhaps you do carry within you the possibility of creating and forming, as an especially blessed and pure way of living; train your for that - but take whatever comes, with great trust, and as long as it comes out of your will, out of some need of your innermost self, then take it upon yourself, and don't hate anything. 
- Ranier Maria Rilke, Letters to A Young Poet