Last Wednesday I was out on mountain bike ride in the desert, enjoying a peaceful interlude in my workday. When The post You Reap What You Sow appeared first on The Neshamah Center.

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You Reap What You Sow

Last Wednesday I was out on mountain bike ride in the desert, enjoying a peaceful interlude in my workday. When I got home I was shocked, as was almost everyone in the nation, to see that an insurrection had broken out in Washington, D.C., and an armed mob had stormed the nation’s capitol.

In times of trouble, I turn to the Torah and Talmud to try and find sources that can help make sense of madness. Here are a few things I’ve been thinking of this past week.

Jews traditionally include a prayer for the government in our prayer services. The reason why is explained in a passage from the Talmud:

…just as in the case of fish of the sea, any fish that is bigger than another swallows the other, so too in the case of people, were it not for the fear of the ruling government, anyone who is bigger than another would swallow the other. And this is as we learned in a mishna (Avot 3:2) that Rabbi Ḥanina, the deputy High Priest, says: One should pray for the continued welfare of the government, as were it not for the fear of the government, every man would swallow his neighbor alive.

Babylonian Talmud Avodah Zara 4a

The events showed what happens when the control of the government is weak. The Capitol Police were unprepared for what hit them. They shouldn’t have been – the FBI’s Norfolk office had sent warnings about what was going to transpire. Second Amendment notwithstanding, the government contract is that the government has a monopoly on the use of force. It keeps us from killing each other. That contract broke down last week, resulting in five deaths and serious risk to the Vice President and other elected officials.

There is a proverb that says, “you reap what you sow.” Proverbs applies that teaching to our situation today: “Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity.”

The injustice that was sown by the Trump administration – denigrating minorities, being disrespectful to anyone who dared to disagree with the leader, fanning flames of hatred, spreading lies about a stolen election, certainly resulted in the calamity we saw last week, when, for the first time since 1814, the capitol building was stormed by hostile forces.

The Talmud teaches us:

Anyone who can protest against [something wrong that] one of their family [is doing], and does not, is punished for the sins of their household. [All who can protest against something wrong done by citizens of] their city, [and do not], are punished for the sins of their city. All who can protest against [something wrong done by] the whole world, [and do not], are punished for the sins of the world.

Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 54b

All of the Republican members of Congress who stood by, or even cheered Trump on as the president made false claims about election fraud – claims that were rejected by every court that considered them, including courts with judges appointed by Trump – shares responsibility for what happened. Perhaps some of them realized the folly of that path as they lay huddled under their desks waiting to be evacuated to a safe location. Unfortunately, some of them, like Josh Hawley, clearly did NOT learn anything from the experience.

God willing, next week when Joseph R Biden is inaugurated as the 46th president of the United States of America we will instead see a time when the guiding principle is one pronounced by the prophet Hosea:

Sow righteousness for yourselves; Reap the fruits of goodness.

Hosea 10:12

The House of Representatives is almost certainly going to impeach Trump a second time; there’s actually a chance that the Senate will convict. Trump is going down with the worst track record of any president – the only president to be impeached twice, the first president since Herbert Hoover to lose the White House, House of Representatives, and the Senate in one term, and the only president to lose the popular vote twice. But those of us who are relieved that his reign of madness is nearly over should not rejoice, as Proverbs cautions us:

Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles; lest the Lᴏʀᴅ see it, and it displease Him, and He turn away His wrath from him.

Proverbs 24:17

Schadenfreude is not a Jewish attitude. At the same time, even though we’re not supposed to rejoice, I’m sure many of us will breathe a very deep sigh of relief, and will pray that America can get back on track and recover from the horrors of the last few months, and the damage done over the last four years.

PS: There are some who say we shouldn’t blame all Trump supporters, etc. Not everyone at the demonstration at the capitol was a rioter. Here’s a helpful guideline I found, not sure who wrote it, but it’s a useful way to tell if you’re on the right side or not:

A helpful rule of thumb I borrowed from a friend: Huge numbers of our population believe in a complete alternate reality. Alternate facts as it were. But just as intensely as I believe they are deluded, they think I am the one who is deluded. Maybe I am. So how can I be confident in my perception?

It can be quite difficult. But, I have found that in times of political confusion, particularly when emotions are running high and creating tunnel vision, the presence of Nazis can be an extremely helpful indicator.

If I am attending a local demonstration or event and I see Nazis…neo-Nazis, casual Nazis, master race Nazis, or the latest-whatever-uber-mythology-Nazis, I figure out which side they are on. And if they are on my side of the demonstration? I am on the wrong side. It is tough to argue moral equivalence when I am standing next to a Nazi. Look to my right. Is there a guy wearing a 6MWE (6 million wasn’t enough) t-shirt? I am on the wrong side. Look to my left. Is that guy wearing a Camp Auschwitz t-shirt? Wrong side. Are speakers being applauded for referring to things that Hitler got right? Wrong side.

Team-spirit face paint and hat with animal horns? This is actually an unclear indicator that could mean anything, but safest to keep my distance from that guy anyway, even at a football game.

However, I can always, always, always rely on the presence of Nazis as a guiding light through a fog of disinformation. Some things are relative, and politics can absolutely have its opposing sides and grey areas. But evil and good are absolute. So, just look for the Nazis, and make your own decisions.

The post You Reap What You Sow appeared first on The Neshamah Center.


Trump and Torah

This feels like the most momentous election of my life. I haven’t written anything with my views on the incumbent president. When I was serving as a pulpit rabbi, it was partly because I didn’t want to alienate any congregants. But I’m not in a pulpit now so I’m truly free to speak my mind.

But then I thought, “What do I have to add to the conversation that other people more articulate than me haven’t already said?” I haven’t really seen anything that just talks about Trump, the person and the policies from a Torah perspective. Doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, just that I haven’t seen it. But here are my views on what the Torah would teach us about Donald Trump and who to vote for in the American election. And yes, we’re three days from election day as I write this, so it’s somewhat last minute. But some people haven’t voted yet! Not that I expect this to change anyone’s mind. We’re long past that. But I needed to get what I believe on the record.

Trump as a Leader

In the Torah Yitro, Moses’s father-in-law and the first management consultant, gives Moses advice on the king of person he should choose for leadership:

And you shall choose out of all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating unjust gain;

Exodus 18:21

Let’s take these one at time:

  1. Able men. Able, capable, up to the task. Reports from people who served in senior positions in the White House indicate that Trump has the attention span of a two-year-old. He never reads books. He can’t sit through a briefing on a vital, but complicated topic. He is incapable of the kind of deep thought and background reading required to make intelligent, informed decisions. Clearly seems that when it comes to making some of the most important and fateful decisions facing us, he’s ill-equipped. The decisions he has made – from picking a futile trade war with China to abandoning allies and cozying up to dictators to his disastrous handling of the coronavirus crisis depict a hard to believe level of incompetence on the part of someone in the Oval Office.
  2. Such as fear God. I don’t believe anyone could honestly describe Donald Trump as a God-fearing person. I hate Mike Pence’s politics as much as I hate Trump’s, but I would at least give him credit for being a God-fearing person. Trump uses the Bible as a prop, utterly ignoring the values inside that same Bible. Oh, and he held the Bible upside down when he was using it as a prop. He couldn’t name a favorite verse or chapter in the Bible, or say whether he preferred the Old Testament or the New Testament.
  3. Men of Truth. All presidents have on occasion told untruths to the American people, sometimes for good reasons, sometimes for self-serving reasons. But Trump seems to relish making things up and passing along outrageous conspiracy theories as truth. The Fact Checker found that from his inauguration through July 9, 2020, Trump made an astounding 20,000 false or misleading claims. An average of 12 a day! If we have ever had a person in public life in America who was LESS truthful than Trump, I have no idea who that would be.
  4. Hating unjust gain. Trump relishes gain, and just as he doesn’t care if what is says is true or not, he doesn’t care if his gain is just or not. He bills the US taxpayers $650/night for Secret Service agents to stay at his property when he’s at Mar a Lago. By hosting visiting foreign delegations at the Trump Hotel in Washington Trump is lining his pockets as visitors spend money at his properties to get on his good side. When he was sued under the emoluments clause, the Supreme Court didn’t take the case not because they didn’t think he was guilty, but because the Democratic lawmakers bringing the case didn’t have standing to bring it. He was also happy to accept help from Russia in the 2016 election, even if he didn’t out and out collude with them. Trying to use the Justice Department as his personal legal department is also a form of unjust gain.

The Torah in Leviticus 19:15 tells us, “Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.” A few verses further on, we’re told (all of us, not just leaders) “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Trump has so many prejudices and biases that it’s hard to know where to start. Women are objects to Trump. Most of us have seen the video ourselves, where Trump says,

You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful—I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.

What did Trump say about Mexican immigrants? “They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists.” He did throw in, “And some, I assume, are good people.” But he’s already judged most of them as criminals. What did he say about the white supremacists who attacked demonstrators in Virginia? There are “very fine people on both sides.” Sorry, Mr. President, anyone who is a white supremacist is not a “very fine person.” Racist anti-Semites are not “very fine people.”

Trump’s Policies

Some say Jews should support Trump because he’s been so good for Israel. That’s debatable. Many people, including here in Israel where I am as I write this, believe it was a mistake to pull out of the Iran deal – Iran is now closer to nuclear weapons than it was before. Many feel that moving the embassy to Jerusalem was not helpful, and Trump has decreased the chances for a two-state solution with the Palestinians by making clear that the US is not an honest broker for peace (at least under Trump), it’s a partner of the Israelis. I’ll give him credit for normalization of relations between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain. That’s a good thing that clearly benefits Israel. But that one thing doesn’t come close to offsetting the negatives.

The Torah tells us over and over – 36 times in fact – that we should love and take care of the stranger, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt. Trump ran his campaign on inciting fear of the stranger – as mentioned above, saying the Mexicans coming to America were drug dealers and rapists. He said he was going to build a wall, and Mexico was going to pay for it. So far under the Trump administration 400 miles of barrier have been built – but only nine miles were “new.” The rest were replacements for old or broken barriers. And Mexican hasn’t paid for any of it.

In many places the Torah commands us to take care of the poor. Deuteronomy 15:11 says, “For the poor shall never cease out of the land; therefore I command you, saying: ‘You shall surely open your hand unto your poor and needy brother, in your land.’” What have Trump’s policies toward the needy been? He pushed through rules that cut 3 million people off of food assistance. Why? To pay for the tax cut he gave billionaires. His administration issued a plan to lower the poverty line – a move that would make millions, possibly tens of millions of people ineligible for benefits such as Medicaid, school meals, or emergency assistance. Trump clearly is favoring the rich over the poor.

In the Jewish tradition, pickuah nefesh, saving lives, is considered the ultimate value. We consider human lives of infinite value. We’re taught someone who saves one life is like someone who has saved a world. Over 200,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus. America has had more deaths from COVID-19 than any other country in the world, including China and India, countries that have 3 to 5 times the population of America. It’s debatable how many lives have been lost due to America’s botched handling of the coronavirus, but it’s safe to say that it’s in the tens of thousands, if not over 100,000. Each of those deaths a lost world, a life cut short, because we have a president who ignores science, calls people who wear masks weak, and has been obsessed with trying to save the economy over saving lives.

The Jewish tradition places great value on protecting the environment. We understand that when God tells Adam the world is his to rule over, it means it is his to take care of. We are charged with being guardians of the planet, to use it for our benefit, but to also tend to the planet. Trump has dismantled one environmental regulation after another. As of October 2020, over 100 of them, pulling the US out of the Paris Climate Accords, weakening Obama-era limits on CO2 emissions, removing protection from over half the wetlands in America, opening up more land for oil and gas by limiting protection for wildlife, and more. He’s been a disaster for the environment.

It looks, God willing, like Trump will be voted out of office on November 3, even if the results aren’t immediately known. Biden is ahead by 9 points in the average of national polls. Even if that number is accurate – it might not be – I’m astounded that given the man’s many character defects, especially his utter lack of integrity and empathy, so many people could still be supporting him.

The latest analysis from FiveThirtyEight says Democrats have an 80% chance of taking the Senate. Perhaps voters have been shaken out of their complacency, and November 3 will put both Congress and the White House back in the hands of the Democrats, giving them an opportunity to repair the grave harm that’s been done to the country by the Trump Administration.

America deserves better. We deserve a government that works to bring people together, not drive people apart. We need a government that protects the weak, the poor, the disadvantaged (just as the Torah charges us to care for the widow, the stranger and the orphan). We need a government that will take charge in combatting climate change so that the impact on my grandchildren’s...


Yom Kippur in Pandemic Times

I had a surprisingly spiritual Yom Kippur.

I’m currently in Jerusalem; you might think the default should be it would be spiritual, but this year in the days and weeks leading up to the holiday, I wasn’t feeling it.

As I wrote in blog post on August 31, this year I felt like I didn’t have the energy to do the traditional cheshbon hanefesh, taking stock, examining my deeds. It’s been a rough year, for all of us.

Rosh Hashanah I still wasn’t really feeling it. I think all the judgment stuff just was not where my head was at this year. Services were nice enough, we had a nice holiday meal, but I still didn’t really feel connected and into it.

So it came as a pleasant surprise that Yom Kippur was very different. I did feel very spiritually connected. Sitting outside for Kol Nidre, saying those solemn prayers with the setting sun and the darkening sky suited me well. The more urgent pleas we make on Yom Kippur, “Come on God, give us another chance…yes we screwed up, and here’s a laundry list of all the ways we’ve screwed up, and we’ll repeat it until we’re sick of it, but please God, give us another year…” really resonated. I’m so done with this last year. In the Unataneh Tokef prayer when we ask, “who will live and who will die,” the line mi b’magefah, who by plague, had a completely different meaning and feeling than in years past, as the world now has a million people who’ve died from this horrible virus.

Yom Kippur morning was also lovely. I went to a 7:30am minyan. I’m an early riser anyway, and while on Shabbat I like to lounge in bed with coffee, breakfast, and the newspaper, that wasn’t happening on Yom Kippur so I figured I might as well go to the early minyan and beat the heat. Again, it was lovely sitting outside in a shady spot with a bit of breeze, praying in a small group of probably 16 or 17 people.  The service was much shorter than usual, we finished by about 10:30. Three hours for Yom Kippur is short. Four to five hours is more usual.

One of my daughters invited to come and teach something to her friends, and I really enjoyed digging into the meaning of the book of Jonah with a group of engaged and knowledgeable young people with a lot of interesting ideas. We sat on the grass near the tayelet, where we could look out and see the exact place where the Cohen Gadol did his elaborate ritual for the last time 1,951 years ago. So of course that was spiritually uplifting, and fun.

And for Neilah, the closing service, I was back with another minyan in the street, praying with another one of my daughters and a few friends.

I’m so glad I was here, and had these wonderful outdoor minyans, instead of in the US, either leading a service on Zoom, or participating in a service on Zoom. I have to admit, I’m not a huge fan of Zoom services; if I wasn’t leading services, I probably would have just prayed on my own.

I think Yom Kippur worked much better for me this year than Rosh Hashanah because the idea of a fresh start, of putting the pain of the past year behind me, was so attractive. Most of the time I think I’m coping with the coronavirus restrictions and changes pretty well, most of the time I feel like it hasn’t impacted my mental health that much, but then sometimes I get hit by it, and it’s like “wow…this IS getting to me…”

Most post-holiday communications from synagogues are saying things like, “next year may we be back together as usual,” but I actually had a much better experience this year, being outdoors with a small group, than the usual experience of being indoors with a big group.

My prayer is that next year we’ll have the option – able to gather in a large group indoors as “normal,” but also able to pray with a small group outdoors if that’s what you find more spiritually uplifting.

The post Yom Kippur in Pandemic Times appeared first on The Neshamah Center.


Elul 5780 – Focus on the Good

We are well into the month of Elul, the month on the Jewish calendar when we typically spend time doing cheshbon hanefesh, examining our deeds, looking for things we did wrong last year, looking for character traits we need to mend. For a description, see my post on “Spiritual Accounting” for Elul.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I don’t have the koach, the energy, to beat myself up this year and look at my flaws. I’m actually doing a fairly good job of maintaining my mental health in these crazy times, but I also feel that doing that is a little bit like riding a bicycle with my hands off the handlebars – not very steady, have to keep moving, and it wouldn’t take much to knock me over.

I think we should all cut ourselves some slack with cheshbon hanefesh this year. It’s been a very strange time since March. There are so many external reasons we may be feeling out of sorts, have taken it out on others, have gotten angry, have been unproductive at work.

My suggestion this year is that instead of looking for what we did wrong, let’s look for what we did right. In his famous teaching Azamra, Rebbe Nachman taught there’s a good point in everyone. Give people the benefit of the doubt, look for that good point, nurture it. Encourage it. Help the good point to grow, and don’t focus on the negative stuff.

Which is similar to what the famous management consultant, Peter Drucker, said: “Build on strengths.” Focus on what you’re good at and become even better at it.

As we approach the awesome Day of Judgment, judge yourself and others favorably, and let’s pray the Holy One judges us all favorably and cuts us some slack because of these crazy times!

The post Elul 5780 – Focus on the Good appeared first on The Neshamah Center.


Peace in the Middle East?

In a surprising turn of events, Israel and the UAE have announced the normalization of their relationship – meaning opening embassies, direct flights, easy for citizens to visit the other country, economic cooperation, etc.

Is this a big deal? Is it a good thing?

I’m not a politician, and I’m not a diplomat. But I follow this stuff closely enough to have an opinion. If you want to see the opinion of a diplomat, check out this piece by Daniel Shapiro, former US Ambassador to Israel, who has continued to live in Israel after completing his term as ambassador. I agree completely with what he says.

The solid majority of Israelis think the deal is important, and a good thing.

The far-left doesn’t like it – they think the UAE has thrown the Palestinians under the bus, abandoned the cause, all in favor of its own narrow self-interest. Well countries do pursue their self-interest, don’t they?

The far-right doesn’t like it – they think Netanyahu has reneged on his promise to annex the settlements in exchange for a photo op and some good publicity at a time when he’s struggling in the polls.

Both views are probably correct, but there’s more to it.

Even though the Palestinians are crying and saying it’s setback to the possibility of peace, I disagree.

It seems to me that both Israel and the Palestinians need some external pressure if we’re going to see a reasonable two-state solution, which is what I still hope for. It’s not enough to just pressure the Israelis – the Palestinians have shown themselves unable to say “yes” to reasonable deals that were put on the table before.

This move could put pressure on both the Palestinians AND the Israelis – which is a good thing.

The pressure on the Israelis is obvious – they already gave up on unilateral annexation of Palestinian territories in exchange for this deal. I don’t think Netanyahu really wanted to move ahead with unilateral annexation – he knew the price to Israel in condemnation from the international community was going to be very high. This deal gave him a graceful way out. But it also applies pressure going forward – if the agreement actually moves forward, Israel will have more to lose if it tries to move ahead with unilateral actions.

There’s also more pressure on the Palestinians – they now see that moderate Arab states are tired of waiting for them to get their act together, and there are many very real benefits that can accrue from welcoming Israel as a member of the Middle East community of nations. The big alignment in the region is the one for and against Iran. In that calculus, Israel is much more important than the Palestinians. And the possible benefits of economic and technological cooperation between Israel and its Arab neighbors is great. So far the peace agreements with Jordan and Egypt aren’t delivering everything that had been hoped for, but the situation with the Gulf States is different – for one thing, they have a lot of money.

As is well known, I’m no fan of Donald Trump or Jared Kushner, but I give credit where credit is due, and this deal is a great piece of diplomacy that could actually turn out to be a good thing, even if the three leaders all entered into for their own selfish interests.

It will be interesting to see if any other Gulf States follow suit.

The post Peace in the Middle East? appeared first on The Neshamah Center.


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