Views on the News

Let's Come Clean

February 19, 2009

A recent study conducted in Britain revealed that people who feel physically clean cut others more moral slack. The study involved two experiments conducted on a small number of university students. In one experiment a group played a word unscrambling game before being asked to rate – anywhere between "perfectly okay" to "completely wrong" – a variety of moral lapses. Those students whose prearranged word lists included terms such as "pure," "washed" or "pristine," judged the moral transgressions less harshly than their counterparts whose lists contained only neutral words.

In the second experiment, students were asked to watch a movie scene depicting despicable acts. Half the group washed their hands, and all were then requested to give their opinion on what they had seen. Those who washed their hands gave more benign evaluations than the others.

Researchers are now further examining the implications of this study on juror decisions, voters' temperaments, and the effect that personal cleanliness has on many other decision makers of impact.

It is widely accepted that our decisions and reactions are influenced by many factors besides our conscious, "rational" thought-process. A major determinant in how we relate to others is our feelings of self-worth. If we are displeased with our own condition, we project these feelings upon others. I believe we can all relate to the idea that when we are feeling lousy – whether because we failed to meet a work deadline, got a speeding ticket, got into a row with a spouse, or any of another million reasons – we treat others curtly (at best) and certainly find it difficult to muster the necessary emotional strength to deal patiently with real or perceived affronts. The whole world is suddenly viewed in shades of black.

But this study suggests that even a seemingly minor act such as washing hands – or even teasing the mind with cleanliness-related words – can have a significant impact on the way we judge and treat others.

Here are my thoughts. If we want to make the world into a friendlier and gentler place, we should launch a Do a Mitzvah a Day Campaign. Undoubtedly, feeling spiritually fulfilled provides a much stronger sense of self-worth than what anything physical can provide.

If washing hands makes us feel better about ourselves and less judgmental, how much more so the wonderful feeling that accompanies giving charity to a worthy cause? Or taking a few moments to connect with G‑d in prayer? Or practicing self-restraint and taking the effort to go to the kosher eatery? Or how about ________ (you fill in the blank)?

And in case we thought that a particular mitzvah is too "small" to make a real difference in our day, now we have a study that suggests otherwise...

Okay, I'll agree that starting global campaigns is an ambitious undertaking. Let's start with you and me.

Do it for your spouse, your kids, your friends...

Some More Journalistic Bias, Please?

February 12, 2009

Following the news coverage of the events in Israel, I sometimes doubt my sanity. Or is it them perhaps? Has the rest of the world lost its collective mind?

I see a clear-cut, black and white situation.

There is unspeakable evil out there. People who glorify death and cold-blooded murder; people who aim deadly rockets at centers of civilian population; people who rejoice when lives and families are irreparably destroyed. Hate courses through their veins.

Then there's a democracy, one that values human rights and human life. A nation that wants to live in peace, but has no choice other than to defend herself against a mortal enemy. A nation that does all in its power to protect human life—both its citizens as well as the hostile civilian population wherein the enemy is embedded.

So simple... Evil must be destroyed—utterly and completely.

Yet others view the situation very differently.

Various public personalities have accused Israel of the "slaughter and systematic murder of innocent Arabs..." Others called on the international community to guarantee the immediate halt of the "disproportionate, unlawful use of force by Israel . . . and the immediate cessation of the bombardment of the civilian population in the Gaza Strip."

And then there are Israel's well-intended friends, who "respect Israel's right to defend herself," but are feverishly working to bring about a truce. Which puts them more or less on the same boat as our "unbiased" media who take great pains to present the news "objectively." Both these groups accomplish the same goal: they lend legitimacy to the cause of evil, they portray the conflict as one between two "sides."

What two sides?! Does a news story also highlight the "side" of a serial murderer? Do we try to bring a "truce" between him and the families of his victims?!

Which brings me back to my original question—who has lost their mind, me or them?

Upon awakening in the morning, we recite a series of blessings, called Birchot Hashachar, thanking G‑d for the various gifts He grants us on a daily basis.

After thanking G‑d for restoring our souls into our bodies, the very next blessing thanks G‑d for "giving the rooster the wisdom to distinguish between day and night." It's curious that this is so important that it precedes the blessings thanking G‑d for other, seemingly more basic needs, such as sight, mobility, clothing and more.

Interestingly, the daily Amidah prayer follows a similar pattern. Its first three blessings offer praise to G‑d, in the following thirteen we petition G‑d for our basic needs. Here's the first of those thirteen: "You grant knowledge to man, and teach him understanding. Grant us, from You, wisdom, understanding and knowledge. Blessed are You, G‑d, who grants knowledge."

On the evening prayer following Shabbat and Jewish holidays, a Havdalah insert is added to this blessing, wherein we recognize that G‑d separated "between the holy and the profane, between light and darkness... and between the Shabbat and the six workdays." In explaining why this insert is added specifically to this blessing, the Talmud simply states, "im ayn daat, havdalah minayin?" If there is no wisdom, from whence derives the ability to discern and make distinctions?

It's very telling that both the morning blessings as well as the Amidah accentuate the significance of the wisdom to discern between light and darkness, placing it well ahead of all the other needs we request of G‑d.

Contrast this approach with today's society, much of which prides itself on its ability to obfuscate the boundary between light and darkness. In the name of objectivity and progressiveness, we try to explain away evil as "misunderstood good." Incredibly, often times, the only people that "enlightened" minds choose to vilify and label as evil are those who have the courage to point a finger at evil and identify it for what it really is. Such people are described as "intolerant," "narrow-minded," and a threat to progress.

There is no good and evil, we are taught to believe. Everything is relative. It all depends on the perspective you choose to adopt.

Torah tells us otherwise. There is good and evil, life and death, and we are enjoined to "choose life!"

And identifying evil is the first step in eradicating it. In Hebrew there is an aphorism: "awareness of the disease is half the cure." Historians today argue that Reagan's dubbing the USSR as the "evil empire" – though many pilloried him for his audacity at the time – laid the groundwork for its collapse.

Sometimes good and evil are readily distinguishable, doing so requires merely the recognition that making this distinction is vital. Other times, we need a measure of wisdom to differentiate—such as when two people are both brandishing weapons; but one is an offender and the other is a defender.

It's not a virtue to confuse the difference between good and evil. The best journalists labeled 9/11 as an awful and sad day—without concern that their credentials as unbiased reporters would be sullied. When you turn on the news and hear vicious crimes described as tragic and horrific, or when you hear people's charitable works described as heartwarming and exemplary, that is good. It shows that as a society we – at least sometimes – see the difference between good and evil.

It's time now for the world to wake up about the true situation in Israel. It's time that everyone realizes that if you want to call it a battle between two sides, at least identify the diametrically opposed nature of each side.

Because there comes a situation when "unbiased" journalism is nothing more than a tool that guarantees the survival of the evil and darkness it chooses not to identify.

Ready, SET, Stop!

February 12, 2009

Our rocky economy has made financial security, long considered a right for those who played by the rules, seem like a cruel joke. Savvy investors who thought they had stashed enough away are now panicked that they will outlive their money. Scary times.

There was once a time when "being set" seemed attractive and attainable. Not ostentatious wealth, but simply being comfortable and secure was a laudable goal. Ten months ago many thought they had achieved that, only to see it disappear. Spending is down, charitable giving is being reduced, and investment and risk-taking are deemed foolish—as people race to get to the security of hard cash.

Hunkering down and hoarding cash is suddenly in vogue—with a vengeanceThe shake up is far more than financial. This phenomenon has engendered cultural and social reformulation too. In the wake of a failing economy new perspectives are being created. Hunkering down and hoarding cash is suddenly in vogue—with a vengeance. Stifling panic and a "batten down the hatches" mentality have replaced optimism and the entrepreneurial spirit.

I'd like to submit to you what I feel are the spiritual underpinning of this economic downturn as well as the map for its solution. (Disclaimer: Anyone who makes investment decisions based exclusively on a blog-writing rabbi's financial direction gets the returns he deserves... The following is more of a life strategy than an investment one).

Torah's message is infinity; everywhere, all the time and in all matters. We do not aspire merely to "fixed incomes," or fixed anything else. That strategy has been tried and the results weren't pretty.

Pharaoh's Egypt was all about getting everything "locked away." They reasoned that the Nile River could supply their riches, but even that had a start and stop point—it couldn't be expected to sustain the whole world. So this resource had to be guarded; its wealth distributed with utmost caution.

The resultant xenophobia of ancient Egypt even tried to keep G‑d out. The economists forecasted the market based on the static state of the Nile (the market of its time) and any mention of something not conforming to those algorithms was squashed—a lot like Communist Russia.

Does this sound uncomfortably familiar? Do you see yourself afraid to share your potato chips in the schoolyard, fearful that you'll run out? Or too spooked by the Dow Jones plunge to lend your brother-in-law some money?

G‑d took us out of Egypt, and it took a mighty hand to do that. Maybe that is why matzah is called the "Food of Faith," because leaving the culture of absolute certainty to enter the unknown and the unquantifiable demands faith.

When we seek our "comfort level," we surrender the opportunity for G‑d's infinite blessing. When we think we "have it made," we discover that we may have our finances assured – or not – yet our sense of purpose, our need for companionship and our drive for transcendence can't be squeezed into tidy numbers. Our culture encourages financial planning based on "all things being equal" (the Nile will flow forever), only to find out that all things are never equal (G‑d turned it into blood), and "oops!" our perfect scheme collapsed leaving us lonely and broke.

An ailing chassid once asked the Rebbe for a blessing that he choose the proper doctor to heal him. The Rebbe expressed disappointment that he didn't ask for a blessing to be rid of the illness entirely. Don't aim for something as trivial as security when the infinity of G‑d awaits you. After all how much is enough? Sadly the answer tends to be "just a little bit more"—like tomorrow, we can see it from here but we never achieve it. Ironically we are infinitely in pursuit of the finite—forever chasing "enough."

So while we do not ascribe to the credo "greed is good," Judaism does teach that "satisfaction" is often a mask for complacency and the false sense of control which money markets and guaranteed returns pretend to offer.

Don't confine G‑d's blessings to our often undersized goals; open up to infinity and G‑d will provide.

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...
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