Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Opinion of Others


28th Tishrei, 5772
October 26th, 2011

Don Marquis, an American humorist jack-of-all-trades, once said, “If you make people think they’re thinking, they’ll love you; but if you really make them think, they’ll hate you.”

He’s right, and his being right is huge problem for us all.

You and I learn how to be good through others’ approval. When we’re children, people’s response to us teaches us whether we’ve done right or wrong. So, the inclination to care what other people think starts early and runs deep.

But with a constancy that bespeaks the immutability of human nature, making people think does not win their kindness. Rather, when you speak up for justice, when you poke holes in facades covering societal ills, when you question the way things are, be assured that you will make a lot of people very, very angry.

Anger is understandable. Human beings are bad at change, and readily prefer the evil they know over the good they don’t. Even when change is in our self-interest, it is our nature to resist it. The people of Israel to Moshe and Aharon, “…May the Lord look upon you and punish you for making us loathsome to Pharoah and his courtiers…” (Exodus 5:21)

What this anger means, though, is that sometimes we have to lean against our instinctual tendency to want approval. The opinions of others are not the sign of our merit.

About Noah, the Torah says, “…He was a righteous and blameless man in his generation…” (Genesis 6:9) I have no doubt that his contemporaries thought well of him, and praised his holiness. But a more holy man would have fought for the fate of the earth, pushed people to be better, and accepted the wrath he incurred thereby. There is a reason we call ourselves “the seed of Avraham,” and that Noah’s name is left behind.

True Religion


Hoshanna Raba
21 Tishrei, 5772
October 18th, 2011

The University of Minnesota just put out a groundbreaking study, massive in both size and scope – 39,000 women over nearly 20 years. What it revealed was that taking vitamin supplements did not help these women live any longer. In fact, those who took supplements died three to 10% earlier.*
But what I know for certain about this study is that it will not change anything. Belief in the power of multivitamins will prevail. The vitamin industry will stay strong. All this is because, in this country, health is religion, not science.

If well-off Americans have one true religion, it is our health and the health of our children. We treat received knowledge about health and illness as articles of faith: once we’ve accepted a health factoid as true (anti-oxidants prevent cancer*, vaccines cause autism*) no amount of evidence to the contrary can shake our belief in it.

Sartre writes, “How can one choose to reason falsely? It is because of a longing for impenetrability. The rational man groans as he gropes for the truth; he knows that his reasoning is no more than tentative, that other considerations may supervene to cast doubt on it…But there are other people who are attracted by the durability of the stone…What frightens them is not the content of the truth…but the form itself of truth, that thing of indefinite approximation.”

Part of the honest life, even in the face of disease, is acknowledging that there are few givens and little surety when it comes to our health. The truth of our bodies, as Sartre says, is indefinite – stated in probabilities, not absolutes. Honesty means giving up certainty and living well and boldly nonetheless. It is strange for a rabbi to say, but we could do with being a little less religious.

* Just to be clear, there is no claim that supplements negatively impact one’s health. Three to 10% is in the realm of statistical variance. The study simply indicates that multivitamins have no positive effect on longevity.
* From the National Cancer Institute: “However, information from recent clinical trials is less clear. In recent years, large-scale, randomized clinical trials reached inconsistent conclusions. 
* The study suggesting that autism and the MMR vaccine were linked was retracted by The Lancet, the British medical journal which originally printed it. Significantly, the NYT article reported these comments: “’It builds on the overwhelming body of research by the world’s leading scientists that concludes there is no link between M.M.R. vaccine and autism,’ Mr. Skinner wrote in an e-mail message. A British medical panel concluded last week that Dr. Wakefield (the author of the study) had been dishonest, violated basic research ethics rules and showed a “callous disregard” for the suffering of children involved in his research.”

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Journey, Foreigner, My Sukkah

Erev Sukkot,
14 Tishrei, 5772
October 12th, 2011

A friend of mine graciously invited me along to the Bowl last night, for what sounded like the Greatest. Concert. Ever. That’s right, 80’s throwbacks, I saw Journey and Foreigner live.  I was a juke box hero. I was ready to rock.

The stress of the High Holy Days always turns freneticism into normality. There’s simply so much to do, so much to worry about, that my mind continually darts from mental place to place without any sense of stillness. Though I love the Days of Awe, they rarely bring me peace.

I stepped into that concert with that stress still on my shoulders. But at some point in the middle, I realized that I was a different person. The old me had returned.

So what was it about an awesome, cheesy, big-haired 80’s concert that transformed me? Simply that, in the midst of 18,000 people, you can’t really go anywhere but the bathroom. And that, with 80’s rock decibels, you can’t really do anything but listen to the music (and rock out, of course).

There are many blessings to not being able to leave. There are even more to having to pay attention to where you are. The problem with contemporary life is that there’s too much of it: we rarely have the opportunity to let our minds rest on any one thing. At ridiculous power-rock concerts, one doesn’t have much of a choice.

The introduction to Sukkot is clear and inevitable: “A person should live in the sukkah seven days, just in the manner that a person resides in his house during the rest of the year.” We just pick up our lives and move them to the sukkah. For seven days, space and attention are changed. If we do it right, it’s hard to exit into real life. And that’s the point: only when we can’t really leave does the magic take over.

May nothing take you away from your sukkah,
Hag Sameah,
Rabbi Scott Perlo