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When People are in Power

Have you been on a flight lately?

Even if you have not flown recently the news media has been carrying detailed reports regarding the most recent developments of beefed up security measures at the airports across the United States.

The developments are that any security agent has the discretionary right to select an unsuspecting traveler at random, and subject him or her to a more scrutinized and analyzed security check. This is done by leading the passenger to an X-ray machine that takes a picture of his or her entire body. The passenger who refuses to be X-rayed is subjected to a shameful, invasive pat down. These procedures have left many of the country's citizens with considerable negative feelings.

Almost every human being is in a position of power and controlIn truth, security measures are an unfortunate development produced by our times. Evil would love nothing more than to cause widespread harm, torture and death to common men, women and children. Cracking down on these people in order to protect the rest of society is absolutely necessary.

I have experienced this security process first hand over the past few weeks, having flown several times in and out of Atlanta.

My very first experience was at an airport in Florida, returning to Atlanta. I was asked to empty my pockets of all their contents, sending those objects through the regular screening. They did return my money to me after I had been X-rayed, which I duly returned to my pocket.

One of the security agents began screaming at me to take out what I had placed in my pocket. I just looked at him trying to understand what he meant. And so he yelled a second time, "Take that out of your pocket immediately!"

I did what I was told. I held the cash for another ten seconds, and then, when all my objects were returned, I placed them and the money back into my pockets.

I commented to the security agent: "You seem like a gentle and sweet soul, who is quick to laugh and wants to please. Does talking this way make you feel good?"

My point was, of course, to express to this pitiful person that yelling and intimidating people is precisely what portrays this experience in a negative light.

Almost every human being is in a position of power and control. From bosses and security agents, to parents, teachers and even to drivers of vehicles, everyone wields some form of power. Power, though, is not there in order to demean others by being rude, mean or offensive.

All decent people realize that their position of power and control is simply there to lead others in the right direction. When a gift is bestowed upon a person, its purpose is to be utilized for good, as the Torah teaches with an episode at the beginning of Exodus.

After the baby Moses was discovered floating on the Nile River by Pharaoh's daughter, the infant was taken to the palace, which is where he grew up.

As soon as he was old enough, Moses "went out to his brothers and he saw their burdens. He saw an Egyptian man striking a Jewish man, one of his brothers… He struck the Egyptian and buried him in the sand. He went out on the second day, and saw two Jewish men quarreling. He said to the wicked one, 'Why would you be striking your friend?' The man responded, 'Who placed you as the man, a prince, and a judge over us? Do you plan to slay me as you have slain the Egyptian?' Moses became frightened and said, 'Indeed, the matter has become known.' Pharaoh heard of this incident, and he attempted to kill Moses. Moses fled from Pharaoh and he settled in the land of Midian." (Exodus 2:11-15).

When Moses saw the two people quarreling with one another, neither one had hit the other. The wording of the Torah in Hebrew is, "Lomoh Sakeh, why would you be striking," not "why have you struck." The hand was raised in preparation to strike, but the hit had not yet happened. Yet, the aggressor is called wicked for simply raising his hand, before any action had actually been taken. Based on this verse, in fact, Jewish law maintains that a person is forbidden even to raise a hand against another person. "One who raises a hand against another, despite not actually hitting the intended person, is wicked." (Maimonides, laws of wounds and damages, 5:2).

Although a person raising a hand against someone else is about to go ahead with an evil intention, it still seems strange to accuse the said person with being wicked without actually having touched the victim! Is it right that one should be punished, or at least branded with a serious label of being wicked, due to an intention?

The answer is about using one's tool in the correct way and for the right reasons. A distinction exists with a human being's body structure, as opposed to the rest of the world: there is a marked difference between the hands and feet. With hands, a human creates, fashions, builds, and so forth. Feet, at the end of a person's body, are designed to carry and transport the person from place to place.

Is it right that one should be punished, or at least branded with a serious label of being wicked, due to an intention?In other words, hands are designed by the Almighty to give and produce. It is through the action of the hands that the human makes a difference, contributing to society and to the world at large. All good deeds are performed, if not practically then symbolically, through the hands.

When a person takes his or her hand and raises it in order to hit someone, the mere fact that the hand has been raised for the purpose of evil – even without actually performing that evil – means that he or she has now taken an action that is diametrically opposed to the hands' function: To give, to impart, to create.

And when someone utilizes a tool for the exact opposite purpose for which the Almighty bestowed it upon the human, this is wickedness.

Every person with tools and power – which is practically everyone – has the ability to utilize the tools and the power in the most positive ways. It is expected of everyone to be a builder, contributing to society and making this world into a better and more pleasing place. Those who abuse their tools and power have not merely missed a chance to contribute; they may be teetering on the brink of wickedness.

Heightened security measures will likely be in place for some time. Agents granted with this serious task and duty must begin to recognize that along with their power comes responsibility. It is their job to make all passengers feel safe and protected, not victimized. I hope that my small comment has made some kind of impact on the security agent I encountered. My goal was that he recognize that he can do his job in a more positive way, and I hope that he is now treating all travelers with the respect and dignity they deserve.

Facebook Revisited

With the announcement of Mark Zuckerberg as Time’s Person of the Year, I am reminded of an earlier article I wrote of a couple years ago, I Facebook, Therefore I Am?

The premise of that article was that many, myself included, at times seem to value their self-worth, or perhaps their organization’s worth, based on how many people “like” them. (Many companies are now offering large donations to the institution that can get the most people to be their—the company’s—friend.)

Not to toot my own horn, but I seem to have been ahead of the curveNot to toot my own horn, but I seem to have been ahead of the curve. I’ve gained a few hundred friends since then, many perhaps because of that article, but I’ve certainly grown in knowledge and maturity to realize that just because someone else thinks I am friend-status worthy, it does not make me more or less valuable as a human being.

Alas, this is not a new problem. Sadly, in extreme cases, kids have been shooting up their high schools, and crazies have attacked colleges, military bases and other locations, because someone else did or did not validate them. They were scorned by others, sometimes overtly, or more often by simply not noticing them. They justified their malicious behavior based on others’ noting or not noting their existence, basing their self worth on another.

Not that Facebook and social networking isn’t the “rage” right now—it is. And to say that it is all bad is also not true. It has many redeeming qualities, of which I myself, and our Chabad Center, take great advantage. However, it is simply amazing that so many can base their self-worth, and Time Magazine apparently agrees, on their “status” and number of “friends” on a pseudo–“social network” computer program. I’m not so presumptuous to say that 500 million members (of Facebook) all got it wrong, but to say that the creator of this computer program is the “Man of the Year” because he has helped redefine how people see themselves seems, in a word, ludicrous.

This week we begin the book of Shemot (Exodus) in our weekly readings of the Torah. The story is well known: we were enslaved, Moses came along, there were ten plagues, Exodus from Egypt, passing through the Sea of Reeds, receiving the Torah at Sinai.

Our sages teach us that in the merit of three simple good deeds the Jews were worthy of redemption. (After all, at some point in their engulfment in the depravity of Egypt, they started to mimic their masters. Stockholm Syndrome, perhaps?) 1. The Jews didn’t change their names. 2. They kept their language. 3. They kept their mode of dress.

I daresay that these three ingredients are what really define a person. Your name is your handle, not your hyphenated pseudo-description on your “info” tab on Facebook. Your name, according to Kabbalah, calls into your essence. This is why when one faints you call his name, because it calls his soul from hiddenness to a state of revelation.

Our language is the style in which we speak, the choice of words we use, the topics in which we engage, and the like. That defines what we are really. It isn’t an accident that we say daily in our prayers, Baruch She’amar vehaya ha’olam, “Blessed is He who spoke and the world came into being.” The power of the spoken word is such that it has the power to create and destroy; it is in our hands.

It is simply amazing that so many can base their self-worth on their “status” and number of “friends”Finally, our mode of dress, our modesty, how we present ourselves. What is that line, “you are what you wear”? Well, Jewish mysticism has a different take: your garments, your spiritual garments, as explained in the Tanya, are your thoughts, your speech and your actions. These are what and who you really are. Many style magazines beckon at us from newsstands in stores; websites pop up online to tell us what is the latest and greatest in fashion (and a whole lot more). The Jews, however, always had their own &147;code.” This is what separated them, and made them what they were, and are, truly worth.

So, as we enter the next book of the Torah, I beg to differ with the great Time Magazine. And while Mr. Zuckerberg sounds like a nice (and fabulously wealthy) Jewish kid, sure to have made his mother proud, I’d have picked someone else to be the Person of the Year. Not someone who helps us access, at times, our most shallow common denominator.

I am because I am (a Jew), not because I am on Facebook.

These Wikileaks have got me thinking. When is it appropriate to hide information? When is it immoral if not illegal? Is too much information harmful? Dangerous even? Deadly? How do we draw that very fine line between protection vs. suppression?

I really have no interest in debating the politics here or even dealing with the specifics of these leaks. I am also not going to venture to discuss the complex ramifications of the Jewish laws of gossip and slander (lashon horah) and how the intricate practical aspects of these laws would or would not apply to the Wikileaks.

But I would like to discuss the many parallels that we can use from this situation in our own lives.

Bottom line, we all have secrets. And we all should. As long as the information we are not sharing is in the best interest of both ourselves and the ones we are keeping it from. We all know that TMI (too much information) can push someone away. Only as things build and there is a basis and trust for sharing do we reveal more and more. It needs to be safe, and it needs to be beneficial to the growth of the relationship. But the more that happens, the more information is divulged.

This is clearly demonstrated in the sharing of information within one's own family. Specifically between parents and children. Whether it be how parents handle their finances, or the decisions they make concerning their children's needs, there are endless details and information that is kept private. Not only is it not appropriate for the child to know how decisions are calculated and determined, but it would be unhealthy for a child to know. So as parents we are constantly withholding information that pertains to our very children, but for the benefit of our children. And clearly what is revealed to a toddler vs. a middle schooler vs. a child in high school will vary greatly. The older the child becomes, the more will be discussed and shared. But even with an adult child, there are certain things that may never be explained or information that should never be divulged.

But this situation between a parent and child, or any situation where information is not being shared, can only work in a healthy way when there is …TRUST. Regarding something like money and children, our children must trust that when it comes to how we make financial decisions we are often trying to save money for them or if we are spending it, it is often for their needs and expenses. When they trust us they ultimately trust that both what they know and what they don't know is in their best interest. So when we keep something from them, it is because we are actually doing them a favor.

Unfortunately, it is the lack of trust that exists within governments and politics that has led to the Wikileaks in the first place. If we truly trusted that the information being kept from us was for national security and for our protection, no one would be interested in leaking anything! But we don't. We fear that information is being kept from us. That we are not being told things that we deserve to know. And because of that we are seeking ways of figuring it out on our own. This is how Wikileaks was born, and we see how quickly it grew from its infancy into quite a powerful thing.

When there is no trust, there can be no true relationship. And trust can only come about when you are sure that the one who is leading you has your best interest at heart. In Jewish Mysticism we see this very strongly. The aspect of leadership, of Kingship, of the ability to rule is the level of Malchut. Yet Malchut is considered the last, the final level of all the intellectual and emotive aspects, the sefirot. The reason for this is that a true leader in Judaism is the greatest servant. For to lead, one must be looking out and concerned for the needs of all those you are leading. And likewise, when you know your leader is there for you, and truly serving your needs, then you can trust that whatever decisions are being made are for the best.

It used to be very easy to hide information, to lie about facts. But times have changed. Through the internet and technology, everything is becoming more and more transparent. And for all the concerns and negatives, there is something very positive in it as well. We need to know as individuals that if you do something, even seemingly in private, it can take seconds to make its way to Facebook or go viral on YouTube. There is no longer such a thing as having a picture that no one else will ever see. Yet this means that we are that much more careful about what we will do or where we will be seen or how we will behave. And that is a good thing. For we should know that others are watching us and others are aware of our actions.

This new era of transparency is actually finally making us recognize that we are never truly alone and that our behavior, both public and private, affects others. Just like you drive slower when you see that a police car is behind you, so too, knowing that your actions can instantaneously become public means that those actions are going to be on their better if not best behavior. And let's be honest here…we are always being watched. Certainly from Above and more often than not, from those right next to us as well.

By no means am I advocating that everything become revealed and that we should have nothing that remains private or protected. But I am happy that we are reaching a point where we can no longer deceive, hide or lie about truths that others have the right to know about. And clearly with these Wiki Leaks it is not just us as individuals who are making such a discovery, but governments and countries are becoming more and more exposed. And that seems to be an important lesson for all of us. It is time we started recognizing that at the end of the day, once something leaves our private realm of thought and transfers into our speech and action, it has the potential of becoming public domain. Now that is something to think about, huh?!

How Words Can Kill

Mark Madoff
Mark Madoff

The headlines scream, "Madoff's latest victim" and indeed it is. Just hours ago we read how Mark, the married father of two children, hanged himself in his apartment while his baby slept in another room.

I can't imagine how desperate, despondent and hopeless this man could have felt to take his own life while his beloved two-year-old baby was there. Wasn't he concerned that his son could have woken up and found him? He did email his wife, who was out of town with his older child, alerting her that someone should check on the baby, but what if she hadn't seen that email for a number of hours? I simply find it incomprehensible. But then again, desperation usually leads to incomprehensible outcomes.

Suicide is always tragic. It is always heart wrenching. And it is ultimately a punishment not to the one who felt he didn't deserve to live, but for all those survivors who have to suffer with the guilt, the "what-ifs" and the lack of closure from such a loss.

But this particular suicide does not seem like it was an indirect punishment to those closest to him, but rather a very calculated one. By no means do I think it was coincidental that Madoff's son took his life two years to the day that his father was arrested for the biggest Ponzi scheme in history.

Mark Madoff's lawyer came out with the following statement following the confirmation of suicide:

"Mark was an innocent victim of his father's monstrous crime who succumbed to two years of unrelenting pressure from false accusations and innuendo," said Martin Flumenbaum, an attorney representing Mark and his brother Andrew.

I don't know about you, but I don't know anything about Mark Madoff. But I do know that just because his father was a corrupt, dishonest and immoral person, does not make his son one. And I also know that the anger, bitterness and hatred that must have been directed at the eldest son of such a character could not have been easy to live with. Clearly, Mark felt it was impossible to live with it.

Judaism recognizes the power of speech, both in terms of building a person up and likewise, in its ability to completely destroy. In Proverbs it states: Mavet v'chayim beyad halashon, "Life and death are in the hands of one's speech," (18:21). This is why there are numerous laws dedicated to shmirat halashon, guarding one's speech. Even more so, the commentaries explain that to publicly humiliate a person is akin to killing that person. For when someone loses their self respect to the extent that he or she cannot face others, that is likened to taking away that person's lifeline.

It was just a few weeks ago that we read in the Torah portion, Vayeshev, of the story of Yehuda and Tamar. Tamar was about to be executed for a crime she didn't even commit. She could have exonerated herself, but in doing so it would have caused grave humiliation to Yehuda. So instead she gave him the opportunity to speak up for himself. From this the Talmud explains that one should go to great extents to avoid embarrassing another.

Another case in which a woman taught us this lesson was with Rachel who was to be married to Jacob. Her corrupt father tried to switch her older sister, Leah, for the bride. Knowing this could happen, Rachel and her groom came up with special signs so that he would know if he was marrying the right woman. But Rachel couldn't go through with it. She couldn't put her sister through the utter humiliation of being detected under the major canopy. It wasn't Leah's plan to marry Jacob, it was her father's, so why should she have to suffer being found out? Rachel knew that embarrassing her sister like that that was tantamount to killing her. And so she had the self sacrifice to preserve her self respect, her life.

Mark Madoff turned his father in. He was never accused of any crime, nor has there been any proof that he was complicit or aware of his father's actions. And yet, time and time again he was brutally accused and blamed in the media. He was an easy target. His father clearly didn't care who he hurt or the pain he caused. His father is sitting in prison and doesn't need to face all those whose lives he destroyed. But Mark had to live out his father's true punishment; the day to day anger and rage that his father caused so many.

Bernie Madoff was certainly punished today. He lost his eldest son and regardless of how cold and callous he has been, there is no question that the deep pain and void will be overwhelming. But did anyone win? Is anyone satisfied? Did anyone want two little children to grow up without a father and for the youngest to one day realize he was in the next room when his father took his life? That this boy will always wonder how he was not enough to keep his father alive?

There is no question that every person, reporter, source or writer that lashed out against Mark Madoff was furious. But was Mark Madoff really the target? Was he the one deserving of those comments? We have a judicial system for a reason. And it is predicated on the concept that one is innocent until proven guilty. Not guilty until he can prove his innocence. And even when guilty, it is the court that decides the punishment, not the public.

Yet in today's day and age we don't need to wait for the courtroom to decide one's verdict. Through the blogsphere, social networking, email and web news we can pass judgment and give a life sentence in seconds. It doesn't take long for a rumor to spread. And yet, it can take a lifetime for the truth to come out and give someone back the dignity deserved.

According to the Torah commentaries, the distinguishing difference between us and animals is that we have the ability to speak. Human beings are called a "medaber" a speaker, for our speech allows us to share our innermost thoughts and feelings with another. Only through speech are we able to connect. Yet we must never forget how powerful our words are and the impact they can have.

Unfortunately, it seems that it was the misuse of speech that caused unending and unyielding pressure on Mark Madoff. Our words became the judge, jury and verdict. And today unfortunately, we unknowingly and unwillingly gave him a death sentence.

Making the Most of Each Day

Elizabeth Edwards (Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
Elizabeth Edwards (Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

We all have challenges and struggles in our lives. But how we live with them or through them is what defines the kind of person that we are. I believe that we have something to learn from everyone we encounter and everything we experience. Finding that lesson can be tricky, but when we view the world around us as bits of information to help improve our lives and our characters, it helps us connect to others in a way that we would otherwise dismiss.

A few days ago I read an article about how Elizabeth Edwards, the estranged wife of Vice-Presidential nominee John Edwards, had stopped her cancer treatment. The article stated that the doctors had told her that there was no point in further treatments, that they were speaking in terms of weeks and not months left for her, and that all that could have been done had been done.

And then late last night, as I checked my computer just one last time before going to sleep, I saw the headline that Elizabeth Edwards had passed away, surrounded by her loved ones, in her home. Maybe 24 hours or so from the first report that she had stopped her treatments. She did not have months left, she did not have weeks left, she maybe had a day.

As I read this article, I found myself crying. There was something so powerfully overwhelming about being told fairly definitively that you only had such a limited amount of time left in this world. And yet, in a strange way, I felt she was fortunate to have been given the advance notice. After all, none of us know how much time we have left. Yet most of us live like it is endless. We procrastinate because we can. We will spend more time with our kids on the weekend, we will get started on that project we have wanted to do for years, tomorrow. We will make sure next week to call our elderly relatives or check up on a friend. Today we are too busy with too many things to take care of all those important things that we will get to as soon as we have time.

Yet Elizabeth Edwards didn’t have that luxury, and from everything I have read about her, she recognized the importance in every minute that she had and tried to use it for the best. This was not a woman who had it easy. Not only did she suffer from an uncurable illness, she had suffered through the utter humiliation of her husband’s infidelity in the public eye and had lost a child in a car accident. And yet she always held her head up high. This woman had so many reasons to be angry, to be bitter and to spend her time feeling sorry for herself and her misfortunes. Yet she didn’t. She understood she didn’t have much time left, and she knew that she wasn’t about to waste it.

What impressed me most about her was her focus. It seems that her positive attitude and optimistic outlook was due to her recognizing that there were always others in a worse situation, and using that to appreciate what she had, and not what she didn’t have. She would speak about how even though she was suffering, she had an incredible support system of friends and family. She spoke about how she refused to focus on dying, because by doing that she was letting her illness win. Rather, she would live each day in a way that would impact others. And even when she was asked what she saw when she looked at her estranged husband, rather than answering with resentment or anger for the pain he caused her, she responded, “I see the father of my children.” And she continued that because she would not always be here for her children, she needed to ensure that he was empowered by her to be the primary parent and give them the love and support that they needed.

In Jewish law there is the concept of giving maaser, which is 10% of one’s income to charity. What is most interesting about this law is that the giving of this money is not a kindness, it is not in and of itself a charity, it is our obligation. There is the underlying understanding that 10% of what we make does not belong to us in the first place, therefore it is not ours to keep. When we give this 10% it is because it belongs to those who are helped by it.

So what happens when we are the ones in need of that charity? When we don’t have enough money to make ends meet? Do we still have to give that 10%? So the Lubavitcher Rebbe spoke about the importance of this law. And he explained that the power in giving this money was to acknowledge and recognize that even when we are struggling or even suffering, that others have even less than we have. When we can recognize that we might not be able to pay our mortgage, but we have a roof still over our heads, and someone out there is sleeping on a park bench, then we can appreciate what we have and not just focus on what we don’t have. More so, the Rebbe explained that by being careful with ensuring that we always give this 10%, it will actually be a spiritual impetus that will help us with our own financial situation. For when we put our focus on another, we then make the room for someone else to focus on us and help our needs.

Elizabeth Edwards did not have an easy life. But she had a meaningful one. And both in her life and even in her death she taught the power of a positive attitude, of recognizing the goodness in our lives and in focusing on what we can do and not just what we need. I have no doubt that her loss will leave a hole in the lives of all those who knew her and loved her, and yet the lessons she taught will provide the strength and direction for them to move forward. I for one, a complete stranger, hope to be able to tap into some of the lessons she taught. For she truly exemplified the meaning of the verse in Psalms: “Remind me that my days are numbered,” (39:4).

I was just in Staples when I heard a woman speaking with an Israeli accent. I asked her in Hebrew where she was from. She said "Haifa" and started to cry. I had never met this woman before, I had never seen this woman before, but there we stood, in the aisle of ink cartridges, hugging.

Perhaps this seemed strange to someone who didn't understand our connection. But we both knew it inherently. We both love the land of Israel. We both fear and mourn the loss of our brothers and sisters there. We are both Jews. Our reaction should not have been seen as extraordinary. I would like to think it is the typical response to sharing pain with another.

Fire is a powerful thing. It can either warm, illuminate, glow and sustain, or it can burn, disintegrate and destroy. The word in Hebrew for fire, Aish, is seen in both the words for man, Ish, and woman, Isha. The letters they share spell Aish, fire. The letters that distinguish them are a yud and a hei, which spells one of G‑d's names. This teaches us that when you put two opposites together, man and woman, between themselves they are only fire. They might burn passionately and spark, but with time that fire will either rage out of control and destroy, or will simply burn out and disappear.

It is the fact that there is a third partner in the relationship, that our Creator is inherently there, that provides a vessel, a containment, for that fire so that it can stay at a safe and stable level, so that it can provide warmth and light without going out of control.

We all have a fire within us. We choose how we use it. Unfortunately, there are many in this world that can't wait to add their fire to the fire that is currently destroying our precious land and resources. That same fire that has taken from us the lives of so many of our people.

But through this tragedy, we are already seeing how people from all different backgrounds are coming together to help. Like the woman in the Staples store, who may not have even looked my way before, became an instant friend. Became an instant sister. This fire is uniting us as Jews, both in Israel and abroad, for we realize that for all that differentiates us, we share a fire. We have passion, and love and compassion and the ability and desire to give and help another. This is the fire of the Jewish people. And more than that, it is uniting other countries to help. As of this writing, Turkey, Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, France, Britain, Spain, Russia, Bulgaria, Croatia and Azerbaijan had all sent aircraft to help in the effort, and the United States will also be sending in foreign aid.

And how can we ignore that we are fighting one fire at the very same time that we are lighting another. It is now, during Chanukah, that every night we increase with just one more flame. Tonight, as we pray for the raging fires to be contained, we will add even more light as we light the candles on the menorah.

This is how we respond to tragedy. We bring in even more light. We show that for every negative outcome that can come from fire, so much beauty and goodness can result from it as well, as long as it is being directed in the right way, contained in the right vessel and used for the proper purpose. When you light a candle for the purpose of bringing about illumination and goodness, all you need is that one flame to continuously light the flame in others and in no way will it diminish your own.

As we continue to pray for the well being of our loved ones in Israel, and as we mourn the loss of our brothers and sisters who perished, may we always remember the power of our flame within and our ability to overcome the negativity and evil that others send our way by diminishing their darkness with even more light.

What's the latest news? For that information, check your local or national news outlet. In this blog we will discuss the "why?"

Not "why did this event occur?" but "why did I find out about it?" There must be a reason. It must contain a lesson I can use to better myself and my surroundings. Together we will find the lessons...