The Power of Humility

In last week’s Torah portion, events just went from bad to worse for Joseph. In the beginning he’s hated by his brothers, then sold into slavery, then made a prisoner, then forgotten by the one person who could possibly help him.

The common theme to all of these events? Arrogance.

He starts off the story as a brat, tattle tailing on his brothers and sharing dreams about how one day he will lord over them. The brothers sell him into slavery, and everything he touches is blessed. He’s proud of his success, proud of his beauty, and even when fighting off the advances of his master’s wife, manages to tell her of his greatness. In prison, he’s again blessed with success in all he does, yet still maintains that he’s been wronged and deserves much better than what he’s gotten.

Yet, an amazing thing happens at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion. For the first time in the Joseph story, we witness him without a shred of arrogance. When Pharaoh remarks on Joseph’s great powers, he replies that all power rests with God. Immediately, he is taken from the lowest of places, a prisoner in a dungeon, to second in power to Pharaoh himself.

We see in Joseph that he had greatness within himself from the beginning. Yet, as long as he attributed the greatness to himself, he only knew misery. Once he recognized that the greatness within him flowed from a higher source, immediately his life was transformed.

Why did he have to suffer so much? Why couldn’t he have gone through life with a bit of ego, like the rest of us? I believe it’s because the role he was to play in the unfolding of our story was so great. The task was given to him to save his entire family, to pave the way for the children of Israel to come to Egypt, where they could blossom into a nation.

Imagine if Joseph had it easier. Imagine if he ascended to second in power in Egypt before he’d fully dealt with his own issues of pride. Surely such an ascension would only cause the pride to grow. Then what would he have done when the very people who sold him into slavery appeared before him? Having the power of life and death over them, it would have been a simple thing for him to take revenge, and the story of our people would have ended then.

Instead, he recognized that everything in his life was part of a bigger plan. With this knowledge, he was able to be the family’s savior, sowing the seeds for all of the greatness that was to come.

It took Joseph thirteen years to deal with his arrogance, yet once he did, once he became the person capable of filling the role set out for him, his ascension was immediate.

I bless us all to recognize the greatness that flows through us, and to understand that we are not the source of our own greatness. Once we do, we’ll be capable of filling the roles set out for us in the continuing unfolding of the human story.

The World’s Not Ending, a Chanukah Story

According to the Jewish creation story, the formation of the world began five days before Rosh Hashanah. Adam and Eve came on Rosh Hashanah itself. So did their eating of the forbidden fruit (a rather eventful day).

Eating the fruit resulted in their expulsion from the Garden of Eden, and caused them to become mortal. Their expulsion took place immediately, but their death was delayed. They knew it was coming, they just didn’t know when.

So picture this, it’s autumn, and everything that we’re used to happening in autumn is happening, but they’ve never seen autumn before. Adam and Eve are no longer in the Garden, and they know that death is coming for them. Each night they watch the sky, and see that the sun goes down later, and stays down longer. Within a month, it’s already down longer than it’s up. Each day keeps growing shorter, each night grows longer.

This, they determine, is death coming for them. The sun will keep appearing for less and less time each day, until it is completely gone, and then they must perish as well.

Then one day, the sun remains up just as long as it had the day before. The following day, it’s up for a bit longer.

According to the Midrash, Adam suddenly realizes that his mistake did not cause the darkness. This was not death coming for him, this was a natural cycle of the world.

His response? To immediately hold an eight day festival, during the darkest time of the year, celebrating the light.

It’s still a bit too early to call, but despite everything I read on Facebook these past few months, I do not believe the world is going to end in 2016.

This Chanukah is arriving unusually late. Normally, the darkness is still in increasing at the time of year that we light our menorahs outside our front doors or in our windows, casting our own light into the darkness. This year, the light has already begun to increase, and we get to join with it, illuminating the darkness.

Personally, I tend to hibernate in deep winter, bundling up and staying indoors. Yet, Chanukah in Nachlaot brings me out of my shell. The streets come alive. We visit friend after friend at their menorahs, joining them for singing, hot drinks, sufganyot, and to celebrate the tremendous beauty of our lights shining in the darkness. By the time the holiday ends, the land of Israel will already begin to bloom, and signs of spring will be everywhere.

Yaakov and the Curse of Indecision

In this week’s Torah portion, VaYishlach, we deal with one of the more difficult events in the Torah, the capture and rape of Yaakov’s daughter Dinah. One of the surprising aspects of the entire segment is the role of Yaakov. All eyes are upon him to see how he’s going to react. Is he going to seek revenge as his sons want, or is he going to allow Dinah to marry Shechem, her abductor, and settle among the people of the land? Yaakov responds by choosing—nothing.

I’ve come to learn that indecision can be far worse than any one of the options before you.

For an example of this principle, I need look no farther than my daily reality as a Jew living in Jerusalem. In 1967, a remarkable thing happened. A war that the entire world thought likely to result in the destruction of Israel, ended six days later with Israel suddenly holding onto territory that more than doubled its size. In the immediate aftermath, Israel expected to enter negotiations for the return of the territory to Jordan, Egypt, and Syria. However, these other nations adamantly refused to acknowledge Israel’s very existence. As negotiations, even for their benefit, would force them to acknowledge Israel’s existence, they never happened.

The problem with this territory of course is that much of it had people living in it. Many of them had close family who had been part of Israel since 1948, but hadn’t seen their siblings, cousins, etc. in 19 years. Reading the accounts of those days is fascinating. Those living in the newly captured territory looked at their family members who had been living under Israeli rule for the past 19 years and saw how much more affluent, worldly, and educated they were than themselves. At this point, there was a certain expectant curiosity. Were they also going to become citizens of Israel like their cousins and also achieve the lifestyle and education that came with it? Or were they going to be given back to the countries they lived in before? Or perhaps made their own independent nation?

Recall this was occurring in the Middle East, a part of the world where might makes right and dictatorships were the norm. Say what you will about the many horrors of dictators, failure to make clear decisions is rarely among their shortfalls. I believe those living in the newly captured territory were completely unprepared for the decision paralysis they found in Israel. Israel works on a bizarre parliamentary system that has never once in its history resulted in any political party having a majority. Governments are created by coalition, with a ton of negotiation and compromise required to amass enough votes to govern.

One of the weaknesses of this form of government is that the really difficult decisions tend to get swept under the rug. Israel is a country with no Constitution, because no one can agree what the essence of the country should be. Are we a Jewish country? Or are we a secular democracy? The way we deal with the really tough decisions is often to just avoid them.

So it was in 1967. There were those who wanted to annex the territory, and those who wanted to give it back. Those who wanted to give full citizenship to everyone living there, and those who feared that this would erode the Jewish majority of the country. So unable to decide, they simply made no decision.

The problem with making no decision, is that you pass your authority to decide to anyone willing to step forward and seize it. And those who do seize the authority for themselves are rarely the ones you want to deal with. So it was in modern day Israel. A full two decades passed between the Six Day War and the outbreak of the first Intifada. Those left in limbo decided to stop waiting for a decision on their future, and chose to force Israel’s hand in a direction that no one wanted. But failure to make a decision will never be a failure to get resolution, it just passes the power to decide to someone else.

So it was in the lifetime of Yaakov, the first one ever called Israel. All eyes turned to him to see how he would react to the devastating abduction and rape of Dinah. Yet, Yaakov did nothing, neither choosing the path or reconciliation or revenge. But decision or no, a resolution had to be reached. Seeing their father do nothing, his two sons who were most bent upon revenge took matters in their own hands. Shimon and Levy tricked the men of Shechem, killed as many of them as they could, and took Dinah back. Afterwards, Yaakov chastised them, for their actions threatened the lives of the entire family. Yet, Yaakov’s words were too late. His failure to decide left the opportunity open for whoever would seize the reigns, and all that was left to Yaakov was regret.

When two difficult paths appear before you, understand that failing to choose is also in itself a choice. Resolution will come one way or the other, but if a decision is put into your hand, it is your choice to make. If you don’t step forward to make it, you allow another to seize the decision and force your hand. I bless us all with decisiveness.

Speak Neither for Good nor Bad

In this week’s Torah portion, God appears to Lavan in a dream and tells him not to speak to Yaakov (Jacob) either for the good or the bad. I love this passage as it shows two principles, one about prophecy and one about the way we are to exist in the world.

Lavan receiving a prophetic dream is a rare instant of what I refer to as third person prophecy. Third person prophecy is when someone received prophecy not from their own merits, but from the merits of another. In other words, the power of the prophet can be so powerful that it can overflow to other non-prophets. We see this when King Shaul attempts to kill David. David flees to Shmuel (Samuel) who neutralizes Shaul and his messengers by causing them to experience prophecy.

So why is it that during this prophetic dream he is told not to speak to Yaakov either for the good or the bad. Not to speak for the bad seems obvious, but why not speak for the good? Lavan is one who likes to twist truth. We see throughout the story that he is constantly scheming and conniving. From such a person, even what sounds good can ultimately be bad. Thus, he is told to not speak at all.

We see from both of these aspects the tremendous impact that our own personal development can have upon the world around us. When you build yourself into a force for good, that goodness can elevate others as well. Yet, when you allow yourself to become twisted, you find that even the good you wish to do is unwelcome.

I bless us all strengthen ourselves, to bring so much light into our lives that it radiates out to all.

Shabbat Shalom

Singing in the Month with Joy

Today is both the first of the Jewish month of Kislev and the first of December. It’s not often that the firsts of the months coincide. Other than New Year’s Day and April Fool’s Day, I can’t think of anything special that we associate with the start of the months in the secular calendar. However in the Jewish calendar, the first of every month is a time of celebration.

This morning, we sang Hallel, songs of praise, and we sang them accompanied with guitars and dancing. The energy of 25 men singing and dancing together opened the month on an energetic high.

In Judaism, we put tremendous emphasis on the energy with which we enter into new beginnings, as this energy can impact all that comes afterwards. This is especially true with weddings, when we say it’s essential for the guests to bring joy to the bride and groom. By heightening their joy at the beginning of the marriage, we’re hoping to strengthen the rest of their lives together.

So I’m feeling great this morning after a high energy beginning to the Jewish month. I’d like to bless everyone with an incredible month, and to plant the seed to bring intention into all of your beginnings.

The Power of Gratitude

This Thanksgiving, I find myself thinking about the power of gratitude. Thanksgiving is a funny holiday in Jerusalem. So many of my friends here grew up in the US. A few of them try to do something Thanksgiving like (we like to make pumpkin pie), but for the most part it’s an afterthought. The two people I’ve wished a happy Thanksgiving to this morning both had the same reaction, “Oh right, that’s today, isn’t it?”

Growing up, Thanksgiving for me was about family getting together, it was about great food, it was about watching and playing football. While there was certainly some discussion during the meal about gratitude for all we had, it was never an essential part of my experience of the day.

Yet, today, thousands of miles away from where my extended family is getting together for their annual feast, I find my mind going back to the core of the day, to gratitude. I’ve learned in recent years the tremendous power of the gratitude. I remember when I first learned about the Jewish practice of Hitbodedut, which is simply the practice of talking to God, normally done in the woods or some other secluded, beautiful place. The very idea of just going off to talk to God made me uncomfortable. What would I speak about anyway? The Rabbi teaching gave a very simple piece of advice, “Just start with gratitude. Let everything else flow from there.”

The practice I do now has evolved somewhat from there, but it still begins with gratitude. From there it moves on to sharing areas where I’m struggling, and then it ends at vision/requests for the future. But both of those other areas, the focus on my struggles, and the focus on my dreams, are different when growing out of the context of gratitude. Remove gratitude, and struggles and dreams could become complaints, could arouse bitterness, could awaken dissatisfaction with my current state. Coming from gratitude, they’re completely different, they say “I am overjoyed with all that I have, with all that I am, AND I know I can do more, be more.” It’s acknowledging my wholeness, that everything in my life is exactly as it should be, and it leaves room for growth, to work on myself, to build the future.

I want to bless everyone with an amazing Thanksgiving, and that between the family, food, and football you should carve out a moment to grow the feelings of gratitude within yourself.

From Justice to Mercy to Stupidity

Growing up, my mother always told me, “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.” Innocent words could be transformed into the height of chutzpah through a slight change in tone. As an author, I must constantly examine the tones of my dialogs, relying upon context as much as the actual words to build the full meaning.

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayera, we see a dramatic change in tone in a dialog between Abraham and God. Unpacking this can illuminate an aspect of God’s relationship to the world that we might otherwise miss. The dialog starts when Abraham learns that God intends to destroy the wicked city of Sdom. Here is the first part of the dialog:

(23) Abraham came forward and said, “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? (24) What if there should be fifty innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it? (25) It would be a sacrilege for You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. It would be a sacrilege to You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” (26) And the LORD answered, “If I find within the city of Sodom fifty innocent ones, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.”

In this section, Abraham is on the attack. He is telling God that it would be a sacrilege to act this way. Now pay attention to the difference in tone in this next section:

(27) Abraham spoke up, saying, “Here I venture to speak to my Lord, I who am but dust and ashes: (28) What if the fifty innocent should lack five? Will You destroy the whole city for want of the five?” And He answered, “I will not destroy if I find forty-five there.” (29) But he spoke to Him again, and said, “What if forty should be found there?” And He answered, “I will not do it, for the sake of the forty.” (30) And he said, “Let not my Lord be angry if I go on: What if thirty should be found there?” And He answered, “I will not do it if I find thirty there.” (31) And he said, “I venture again to speak to my Lord: What if twenty should be found there?” And He answered, “I will not destroy, for the sake of the twenty.” (32) And he said, “Let not my Lord be angry if I speak but this last time: What if ten should be found there?” And He answered, “I will not destroy, for the sake of the ten.” (33)When the LORD had finished speaking to Abraham, He departed; and Abraham returned to his place.

Now Abraham is calling himself dust and ashes? Now Abraham is asking that God not be angry with his request? Where’s the attack? Where’s the sacrilege? And why stop at only requesting the city to be spared for ten righteous? Why not go on? The dialog ends with God leaving to destroy the city and Abraham saying nothing.

Personally, I read this segment as describing three levels of reality: Justice, Mercy, and Stupidity.

In the first part of the dialog, Abraham understands that God’s justice requires letting Sdom exist if fifty righteous be found. Why this is the level of justice I’m not sure, though I’ll share one opinion. Five cities were to be destroyed and fifty righteous would thus equate to ten righteous per city. Ten is a significant number, it’s the number of a minyan, and represents the minimum size of a core community. As long as it’s a question of justice, Abraham comes right at God in his attempt to dissuade him.

But under fifty people, justice apparently no longer requires that the city be spared. At that point Abraham drops the language of justice, drops the language of sacrilege. Now Abraham throws himself upon the mercy of the Court. Now, with the just result being destruction, now he steps gently. Now he’s making requests. Now he’s cautious of not overstepping his bounds.

But why does he stop? Why not continue to argue that if even one righteous person be found that Sdom should be spared? Because even mercy has its bounds. As long as there’s a core of ten righteous in all five cities combined, Abraham still argues for mercy. But he stops there, because if the region has grown so evil that even ten righteous can not be found, then even Abraham does not believe it should be spared. Fighting for its salvation then would be extending mercy into the realms of stupidity.

So what does this mean for us? It’s a core of our understanding of the story that Abraham’s petitioning God for mercy on behalf of the wicked strengthened God’s mercy in the world. We contrast this story with Noah remaining silent during the destruction of the world, wondering if Noah actually had the power to avert the flood had he similarly attempted to strengthen God’s aspect of mercy. So too, by strengthening mercy within ourselves, we believe that we can increase the amount of mercy in the world. Yet, we also see that mercy has its limits where it must give way to justice.

Casting your Lot with Sodom

I have a quiz, that I share with people on occasion, that assesses ones beliefs around wealth (email me if you want to take it). One of the beliefs it deals with is whether wealth will make you less spiritual, and I’ve repeatedly seen religious friends report that yes, they believe wealth will hurt their spirituality.

This week’s Torah portion deals with issues of wealth, and gives plenty of fodder for those claiming wealth undermines spirituality. After all, wealth drives Lot from his uncle Avram. He goes to live with the people of Sodom, who are known for both their wealth and corruption.

Yet, God also blesses Avram with great wealth, and this blessing doesn’t stop with him. All of our forefathers, and most of our greatest leaders in the Biblical period were blessed with great wealth. The Talmud even tells us that all of the prophets were wealthy.

So which is it? Is wealth a positive spiritual force or a negative one?

I like the characterization of T. Harv Eker, who argues that wealth is a lubricant. It doesn’t make bad people good or good people bad. Rather, it has the power to make your actions more effective, with the result that it can make bad people worse and good people better. One need only look at the efforts of the Gates Foundation to see that great wealth can fuel positive changes in the world that would be impossible without it.

What does this mean for us? It means that the pursuit of wealth should never wedge out personal growth and the refinement of the self. Constantly work on yourself, and wealth with magnify the impact of all that you do in the world, as it did for our forefathers. Neglect your own growth to pursue wealth, and that wealth may indeed feel like a curse, driving out your connection to anything greater.

May we all be blessed like Avraham, with both wealth and the capacity to use it for good.

Noah’s Complaint

After the flood, Noah fell into depression and got drunk. According to our oral tradition, he complained to God that it had been wrong to destroy the world.

God’s response: “Now you tell me? It’s too late. Why didn’t you say something beforehand?”

It’s a simple message, but so powerful. If you stay silent while something objectionable goes on, don’t later complain about the result.

I heard a statement recently that depression oriented toward the past, fear toward the future. Neither exist in the present.

Noah was the bridge between the pre-flood and post-flood worlds, yet, we never see him recovering from his depression. His focus remained on the past, and he played little part in rebuilding the post-flood world.

All growth happens in the present. We grow by doing, by learning, by contributing. When? Now.

Noah was the greatest man in his generation. Yet, when the rest of his generation was gone, he let part of him die with them and stopped moving forward.

I love that we read the portion of Noah at the beginning of the Jewish year. To me it’s a reminder that the mistakes of the past need to remain there, that this present moment has to be one for moving forward.

Embrace the Power of the Boring

I like being clever. I like being creative. I like them so much that I often try to find clever and creative fixes when tried and true solutions are available.

In some areas in my life, I think this is a great attribute. I’ve gone on some of my greatest hikes when leaving the trail and setting out to explore. Keeping to the trail can get rather dull, unpredictability can make for an awesome journey.

But sometimes when you’re setting out on the road, you aren’t looking to find a clever new route, you just want to arrive at your destination. Does taking the well worn path make for a boring journey? It certainly can. Is it effective? Hell yeah!

My new mantra is: Embracing the Power of the Boring!

What’s the power of the boring? It’s understanding that while your path is unique, there are others who have walked similar paths to great success. Many of them have been generous enough to make a map of all the pitfalls you’ll reach. Following the map has none of the fun factor of bushwacking, uses little of your personal creativity, and can make for a rather uninteresting journey.

So you must ask yourself, what are the areas of my life where I want excitement on the journey, and what are the areas where you prefer to safely reach your destination?

In those areas where I just want to safely reach my destination (business and finances are two of these) I’ve begun spending an hour a day reading, watching videos, taking courses from those who’ve had more success than myself, then following the steps they’ve given me.

Following this path has been a huge blow to my ego. I’m no longer the clever guy who can figure it all out, who spots the shortcuts no one else notices. I’m now the dumb kid, struggling through remedial math. But I’m not sitting in the back sneaking smokes, I’m sitting in the front row taking notes, knowing this is just a step on a greater path.

I invite to to join me and Embrace the Power of the Boring in crucial areas of your life. Become more committed to reaching your destination than having fun along the way, and I’m certain you’ll get there.