Blog: Hidden in the Headlines

Rosh Hashanah, Tailor-Made

The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, begins this Wednesday evening.  Our New Year’s resolutions are not optional.  We have an obligation to reflect on how we are living our lives as we celebrate the anniversary of the creation of the universe.  So I’m taking the opportunity to revisit these thoughts which, I believe, have relevance to all of us.

Best wishes for the coming year.

Nobody likes fundraising dinners. The speeches are dry, the menu is dull, and the seating arrangements seem to have been drawn up by the Marquis de Sade. No one looks forward to these affairs, and we attend them only out of a sense of obligation.

Since one dinner I attended last year, however, I have become more wary than ever of this kind of event.

The evening began unremarkably and proceeded unremarkably — up to a point. The food was better than usual, the speeches ran longer than usual, the company was as good as could be hoped for, and I never saw the dinner plate that slipped from the tray of the passing waiter and struck me squarely on the forehead.

icepack“I didn’t hit you, did I?” asked the waiter in response to the alarmed gasps and cries from the people who shared my table, several of whom assured him that he had, indeed, scored a direct hit.

“Are you all right?” he asked, inevitably. A silly question, really.

A pound-and-a-half of glazed ceramic packs quite a wallop after accelerating at thirty-two feet-per-second-squared from a height of six feet in the air.

At least I was still conscious, still sitting upright, and I didn’t think I was bleeding.

“Get a doctor,” someone said.

“He doesn’t need a doctor,” said someone else. “Get him a lawyer.”

The manager arrived with an ice pack. “Here, take this.”

“I was hoping for scotch with my ice,” I said.

He laughed, but didn’t bring me any scotch. “I’ll need your name and address, sir,” he said, handing me a pen and paper.

“Don’t sign anything,” yelled someone from the next table.

I scribbled my vital statistics. “I’m really very sorry, sir,” he said.

“Is there anything else I can do for you?”

“Just the scotch.” He laughed again and went away. I had figured the manager would offer me vouchers for a complimentary night’s stay. He hadn’t. (I never even got a letter of apology.) I hadn’t gotten my whisky, either.

I began regaining my bearings to a medley of more lawsuit jokes. From across the table, however, my next door neighbor offered the only profound comment of the evening: “What were you thinking about before you got hit?”

I knew exactly what he meant. According to Talmudic philosophy, there are no accidents, no coincidences, no random events. Everything comes about through the guiding hand of Divine Providence, the spiritual imperative that governs how the external world acts upon each and every one of us. In other words, if I got smacked on the head, I must have had it coming to me.

This is a far cry from the popular notion that whatever I want, I have coming to me. As much as contemporary culture may insist that privileges and entitlements are birthrights, the Talmud recognizes only our responsibilities, both to other individuals and to society. When we live up to our obligations, we may expect certain rewards to come our way. But if we do receive an apparently undeserved blow, great or small, we should assume that the equilibrium of the cosmic scales of justice somehow needed to be set back in balance, and we should reflect upon the message that has just been sent us from on high.

Sometimes we can easily identify a concrete lesson to glean from such mishaps. Other times not. But the principle holds, even when we can’t perceive any clear cause and effect: this was necessary; now we need to brush ourselves off and get on with life.

The traditional Yom Kippur liturgy provides a poignant example in its narrative concerning Rabbi Ishmael, the High Priest, who was cruelly tortured to death at the whim of the Roman governor’s daughter.

The heavenly court protested in outrage before the throne of G-d: “Is this the reward for living a life committed to holiness?” they demanded.

“Be silent!” commanded the Almighty, “or I will return the world to void and nothingness.”

180px-tailor-fit_800The incomparable 18th century genius, Rabbi Elijah of Vilna, explains G-d’s reply with this allegory:

A king once received a gift of fine Turkish wool, the most luxurious fabric in the world. It was so beautiful, in fact, that the king could not bear to think that even a tiny piece of it should end up as scrap on the cutting floor. He went to every tailor in his kingdom and asked each to make him a suit without letting even one thread of the wool go to waste. But every tailor claimed that such a feat was beyond his ability.

Finally, the king found a tailor who agreed to do the job. When the king returned to the tailor’s shop on the appointed date, he discovered that the tailor had indeed produced an exceptional suit of clothes. The king was elated.

“But have you fulfilled your promise?” asked the king. “Did you use every thread?”

“You really don’t know,” answered the tailor. “And the only way you will ever will find out is if you tear your beautiful suit apart and lay out all the pieces in the original shape of the fabric.”

Similarly, we often think that life is full of unfair knocks or is missing essential pieces. But to know for sure, we would have to see all of human history undone before our eyes. Only then would we have the right to assert that there were flaws in the slow sculpture of creation.

The days from Rosh HaShonnah to Yom Kippur — the traditional season of judgment — afford us the opportunity to strengthen our trust that the Master Tailor has done His job well, that He has stitched together the fabric of eternity according to a plan He understands far better than we do — even when bricks, or china plates, fall out of the sky upon our heads.

Should I have sued the hotel? the waiter? the school holding the event? the principal, who was speaking when I got hit? No doubt, I could have found any number of lawyers eager to take the case. If a woman could receive 4 million dollars for spilling a cup of coffee in her own lap, this should be worth at least as much.

But life is full of honest accidents resulting in superficial scrapes and bruises. It’s better for us (and better instruction for our children) to look for what we can learn from life’s bumps and knocks, not to look for whom we can blame and how much we can squeeze out of them.

b312248a90eac5da6778e184074f4ea9The waiter returned, contrite and apologetic, perhaps more shaken than I was. “In twelve years this has never happened to me,” he said. Evidently, he also had a date with Providence. “Is there anything else I can do for you, sir?”

“I wouldn’t mind a scotch on the rocks.”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

He did. It wasn’t four million dollars, but it was better than a knock on the head.

Originally published in 2000 by Jewish World Review.

Video — What are Ethics? The art of losing the deal

Irma and Harvey: a love story

If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore.
~Ralph Waldo Emerson

It’s a sad reality of human nature:  we miss out enjoying the blessings that fill our lives because we take them for granted.  Until we don’t have them any more.

How many hours do we fritter away on texts and tweets and Facebook updates?  Are these more satisfying than friends and family, more enlivening than smelling the roses and gazing at the stars?  Not in a thousand years.

We think we can have it both ways.  After all, the roses will be there tomorrow; and the stars will be there forever.

Until they aren’t.  Having been bred for beauty, many of our roses have no fragrance whatsoever.  And most of us have never beheld the wonder of the Milky Way.  It disappeared decades ago behind the veil of urban pall.

AWAKE, MY GLORY!

Nature has its own way of reminding us to pay attention.  Sometimes it’s through extraordinary beauty.  And sometimes it’s through awesome power.  Last month, the light of the sun disappeared at midday as the eclipse moved across the country.  This month, the fury of life-giving water uprooted the lives of millions.

Photo Credit: Washington Post

The misery inflicted by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma was horrific to watch, and exponentially more horrific to endure.  From thousands of miles away, Americans shook their heads at scenes of devastated communities, shattered homes, and displaced families.  We wrote relief checks, offered prayers, gave thanks for our own safety, and carried on with our lives.

We wished we could do more.  But what more we could do?

Consider this:  Maimonides writes that anyone who hears of human suffering and does not respond with repentance and good deed is a cruel person.

The most effective way to make the world a better place is by making ourselves better people.  Yes, I can work to save the rainforests and save the whales.  I can raise money for refugees and volunteer my time to Habitat for Humanity.  I can do these things, and I should.

Ultimately, however, the only thing I can be certain of changing is myself.

If I give charity out of guilt, I’m really just bribing my conscience to leave me alone.  If I write a check because I think I’m going to relieve human suffering, I’m merely indulging my ego.  It’s true, of course, that the recipients will benefit from any act of giving regardless of motivation.  But am I benefitting myself as well?

LEARNING TO LOVE

Acts of kindness and charity should be expressions of sharing another’s pain – a natural, reflexive response to human suffering.  When I give what I can, whether a lot or a little, I join with others to raise our collective voice and proclaim that we will not stand idly by and abandon others to their fate, even if we have no real control over how fate will deal with them.

Purely motivated giving transforms us into giving people.  By taking action when others are in need we learn to love our fellows as we love ourselves.  And when we do, we become more appreciative of the relationships that are the source of true happiness.

The Jewish prayer book contains a series of blessings we recite each morning to acknowledge who we are and why we exist.  Among those blessings we find the following:

Blessed are You, L-rd, our G-d, King of the universe, who stretches out the earth above the waters.

Our place in this world is precarious.  The laws of nature operate with both granite consistency and fickle unpredictability.  If we want to weather the storms of life, we need the support of others, which means we have to be there when others need support from us.

As individuals, we are exposed and vulnerable to the vagaries of happenstance.  As a community, we find that the winds of fortune will not overturn our lives, and the waters of uncertainty will never extinguish our spirit.  Out of the darkness of misfortune, the light of fellowship will shine down on us like the brightest of stars.

Published in Jewish World Review

Ethics earn trust, trust earns loyalty

How I didn’t get taken to the cleaners.

Click here to watch.

9/11 — Visionaries and Ideology: A study in contrasts

Always remember; never forget.

Yonason Goldson

brandhd2398_thc_dean_192832_sfm_000_2398_15_20160830_01_hd_still_624x352Originally published in 2015 by Jewish World Review.

Who knew a trip to New York could be so emotional?

I didn’t want to go in the first place. As my 92-year-old student likes to quote: Travelling is for peasants.

But my wife convinced me with simple arithmetic. Four tickets to bring three kids and son-in-law home or two tickets to visit them. No-brainer.

So I went grudgingly, confirming in the end the truism that some of life’s most profound moments come not only unexpected but against our will.

Our first stop was the 9/11 museum. I marveled at the artistic vision that had conceived the memorial pools, the water channeling down in rivulets that mirrored the face of the fallen towers, the continuous downward rush balanced by the redemptive feeling of water — the source of life — returning to the heart of the world. Here there was solace…

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Castles in the sky?

Caravan to Midnight 2

It was my pleasure to be invited for a return interview with John B. Wells on Caravan to Midnight.

Listen to the interview here:

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