**The following article appears in The People & the Book column of the Jerusalem Report
Over three decades later, it is still considered one of the biggest marketing blunders of modern times. In 1985 one of the most recognized businesses on the planet admitted a newly-released product had flopped, and relaunched the product that had been superseded, to general satisfaction. We can learn a great deal from their miscalculation: more of this shortly.
This week’s Torah portion, Ekev, contains the second paragraph of the shema prayer, which begins by telling us that if we listen to God’s expectations of us, we will live a fulfilled and blessed life. “V’hayah im shamo’a tishme’u el mitzvotai.” This opening expression is awkward and indeed proves difficult to translate. Why does it mean to surely listen as opposed to just listen?
The eighteenth-century scholar, Rav Chaim Ben Attar in his commentary Ohr Ha’Chaim explains it as follows: V’haya, im shamo’a, if you listen – if you sincerely and genuinely consider what is being said – tishme’u, then you will hear. The verb was repeated to show that being an active listener is a prerequisite for true hearing, which is the cornerstone of a healthy relationship. This insight is not only true for our relationship with the Almighty and His messages and directives for us, but also critical for every relationship we have in life.
In his highly acclaimed Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, author Stephen Covey writes, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. They’re either speaking or preparing to speak. They’re filtering everything through their own paradigms, reading their autobiography into other people’s lives.” Imagine how our world would change, our relationships would grow, our opportunities would expand and our wisdom would increase if we learn to be better listeners so that we truly hear the words and messages coming our way regularly.
The great medieval commentator Rashi offers an alternative interpretation. Quoting the Midrash he says: “Im shamo’a b’yashan, tishme’u b’chadash. If you listen to the old, you will hear it in the new.” What does that mean?
Words have connotations. “Old” often has a derogatory undertone and implies outdated, antiquated, stale, tired and no longer useful. We use “new” to describe something fresh, exciting, cutting edge and superior. In our world, the old is obsolete and discontinued while the new is sought after and sold out.
Perhaps Rashi is telling us that this paradigm is flawed. The new is not necessarily an upgrade. The old is often superior and it is the standard by which the new is measured.
Let’s go back to where we started. In 1985 Coca-Cola was 99 years old and the company was concerned the drink was becoming stale and outdated. They therefore reformulated Coca-Cola and launched “New Coke.” Their extensive taste tests had convinced them that their new formula was more satisfying to “modern taste buds.”
It turned out that the old was much better and more sought after than the new. The public reaction was such that in less than 80 days, Coca-Cola announced that they were bringing back the original Coke, now branded as Classic Coke. It still sells over a billion bottles and cans a day.
In the world of marketing and products something is either old or new. However, in the life of a Jew committed to Torah there is no such dichotomy or clash between old and new; they co-exist and complement one another beautifully. The new must be built on the age-old; the old is its foundation, and it is the window and filter through which the new is viewed and received. The old, our heritage, tradition, teachings and values are the yardstick through which we measure, evaluate and absorb the new.
Never has “new” occurred at such a frantic and feverish pace. In our lives, the word upgrade is everywhere. We are bombarded with messages encouraging us to upgrade our cell phone, upgrade our software, upgrade our apps, upgrade our car and even upgrade our appearance.
The “new” in technology, medicine, social progress and even Jewish practices brings much opportunity and blessing that we should embrace and integrate into our lives. However, much of the “new” is incompatible with and rejected by our old, timeless and inviolate values, teachings and practices. In religious life, often ideas and practices that are presented as upgrades and progress are in fact downgrades and regress.
How do we know if we should embrace or rebuff, accept or reject the new? According to Rashi, the answer is in our portion and we repeat it each day in our Shema. “If you listen to the old, you will hear it in the new.” We must always investigate the “new” and see if we find echoes of the “old” making it a continuation of our tradition, not an abandonment of it.
adjective: conforming to a standard; usual, typical, or expected.
The people in Camp HASC are not “normal” in that they are anything but typical or usual. HASC campers include those in their 50’s and 60’s, wheelchair-bound, individuals with feeding tubes, and with every imaginable special need including intellectual and physical disabilities. The needs are so great that it takes over 500 staff members to care for 350 campers.
In HASC, “normal” is redefined. It is “normal” during meals for campers to start screaming spontaneously or pacing frantically. It is “normal” during davening for campers to be laying on the floor, hitting themselves or thinking they are the Chazzan. It is “normal” in Camp HASC for adults to require being changed, showered, and diapered.
My family and I had the great privilege of spending this past Shabbos at camp and after seeing firsthand this magical place, I can report that they are not just special needs children, they are just truly special children. They may have disabilities, but in their purity, innocence, and sweetness they are more functional than many fully-abled people. The holy neshamos of the campers of HASC lack inhibition and hang-ups, and they don’t sit in judgment of those around them. Many can’t communicate traditionally, but with a smile, a nod, a brush of the cheek or just a meaningful look, their inner goodness shines through.
HASC officially stands for The Hebrew Academy for Special Children, but unofficially, the acronym clearly stands for something else as well. HASC is The Hebrew Academy for Special Counselors.
The campers are not the only ones at HASC that are not “normal” and that are “special.” One cannot witness the love, attention and affection of the extraordinary staff and not be moved to tears by their selflessness.
In his book, The Road to Character, David Brooks describes ours as “The Age of the Selfie.” He writes:
People have become less empathetic – or at least they display less empathy in how they describe themselves. A University of Michigan study found that today’s college students score 40 percent lower than their predecessors in the 1970s in their ability to understand what another person is feeling. The biggest drop came in the years after 2000.
Public language has also become demoralized. Google algorithms measure word usage across media. Google scans the contents of books and publications going back decades. You can type in a word and see, over the years, which words have been used more frequently and which less frequently. Over the past few decades there has been a sharp rise in the usage of individualist words and phrases like “self” and “personalized,” “I come first” and “I can do it myself,” and a sharp decline in community words like “community,” “share,” “united,” and “common good.” The use of words having to do with economics and business has increased, while the language of morality and character building is in decline. Usage of words like “character,” “conscience,” and “virtue” all declined over the course of the twentieth century. Usage of the word “bravery” has declined by 66 percent over the course of the twentieth century. “Gratitude” is down 49 percent. “Humbleness” is down 52 percent and “kindness” is down 56 percent.
Numerous articles discuss the narcissism and self-centeredness of the millennial generation (commonly referring to adults born between 1980 and 1994). How will leaders capable of mesirus nefesh, self-sacrifice, emerge from a mostly privileged generation of individuals consumed with posting selfies and personal status updates?
Observing what is happening around us and reading the results of studies and analysis, it is easy to be judgmental about the next generation and pessimistic about our collective future.
But that would be a terrible mistake. Our future is very bright and if you doubt it, spend five minutes at Camp HASC or one of the numerous other programs and camps that serve our children and adults with special needs.
The amazing staff who work there are by all measures “normal.” They also take selfies and update their statuses. But in between they are engaged in truly “abnormal” acts of selflessness and giving. From feeding, administering medications, and pushing people in wheelchairs to changing adult diapers, showering, and shadowing, the staff shows incredible attention and care for each and every camper.
One would think this exhausted group of young people would look tired, depleted, or even sad and depressed by their work. Instead, their selflessness yields the greatest satisfaction, deepest fulfillment, and most genuine happiness. Not only does the staff care physically for the campers, but all of their giving and nurturing results in a true love for them.
Visit camp HASC and you see young men and women spontaneously displaying hugs, kisses and affection to campers they only met a short time ago but have come to love as their children. For seven weeks, because of the generosity and kindness of these staffers, parents of 350 extremely challenging children get a reprieve and relief and can only do so knowing that in their place are 500 special, not “normal” people who will love and care for their children as if they were their own.
As much as the staff gives, they get more in return. One young man described to me that he was concerned about his ability to work with this population and their needs. In the first few days of camp he hesitated and was repulsed by some things he needed to do. But it didn’t take long for him to develop a love and concern for another person and the same tasks that once made him gag are second nature because they are for someone he cares deeply about.
Another amazing counselor told me that before working at HASC he was very impatient. He would always walk briskly wherever he was going. His camper is someone who shuffles along incredibly slowly. It takes him fifteen minutes to walk to a destination that should take two. At first, the counselor would get antsy and anxious each time they had to go somewhere, but after a few weeks, he learned to be patient and forbearing. He has become a more easygoing person and for that and so much more, he is so grateful to his camper.
Not everyone is cut out for working in a place like HASC. Those fortunate enough to spend a summer there are blessed to come close with some holy neshamos and develop relationships with some truly special people. HASC alumni are among the most selfless community leaders everywhere and undoubtedly, the experiences they gain there contribute to learning the skills necessary to be a devoted and giving spouse, parent and friend.
While we can’t all work there, like many of their staff, we can and should leave our comfort zones and dig deep. We will find a capacity for kindness and love beyond what we ever imagined.
There are families with special needs in all of our communities who need support, relief, and love. We can provide it ourselves, and we should teach our children to do what they can. In our community, I know of several teenagers who go each Shabbos morning to watch children with special needs so their parents can go to Shul or get some rest.
In Parshas Mishpatim the Torah says: “Kol almanah v’yasom lo s’anun, you shall not cause pain to any widow or orphan.” The Chizkuni points out that all of the other mitzvos in that parsha are written in the singular. The obligation to show kindness and sensitivity to the widow and orphan are an exception. Explains the Chizkuni, this mitzvah is written in the plural, for the rabim. The community is measured by the standard it sets and the environment it tolerates when it comes to being sensitive to those who aren’t typical.
Rav Yaakov Zvi Mecklenburg, author of the Ksav V’Kabbalah, points out that the Torah doesn’t limit this mitzvah to the orphan and/or widow. The almanah and yasom are simply symbolic of those that are missing something, those that don’t quite fit the mold and therefore may feel isolated, alone or unnoticed. He explains that the world almanah comes from al manah, lacking a portion. In every community there are people that don’t fit the mold; they are al-mana, missing something. As a community, we are judged and measured by our sensitivity, kindness, awareness and inclusiveness of such people and their families.
Last year, Lincoln Square Synagogue, led by my friend Rabbi Shaul Robinson, introduced a fabulous new component to their Purim Carnival. It featured an early start time for children with sensory needs and other disabilities that may prevent full participation in the stimulating carnival atmosphere. A quiet sensory room was made available throughout the carnival for those children who could be overstimulated and needed some quiet regrouping time.
We all need to look at our programming, events, and membership services with an eye on how we can be the most inclusive and sensitive to the populations that often feel the most neglected and left out. Inspired by Lincoln Square, this year we hope to introduce youth programming especially designed for those with special needs and to make our regular programming more accessible and inclusive. For example, this Simchas Torah we will host a special Kol HaNe’arim for the children who cannot participate in the regular one. If you have other ideas and suggestions, please don’t hesitate to share them with us.
In HASC normal and not normal are relative terms. Our communities cannot provide year-round what HASC does for seven weeks. But, we can be more special in the way we relate to and provide for our special children. Doing so won’t just help those with special needs, it will help us and the next generation have a bright future ahead.
There are countless lessons to extract from the Olympics beginning in Rio. The tenacity, resolve, grit, discipline, drive, and sense of teamwork of each athlete is simply inspiring and can serve to motivate each one of us to pursue our dreams relentlessly. Olympians serve as models of being extraordinarily focused and determined to realize the goals they have set for themselves. They are not satisfied with anything less than putting forth their very best effort and achieving the best results. Watching them obligates each one of us to identify at least one dream or goal for ourselves and to pursue it with everything that we have.
But there is another lesson that strikes me during this Olympic season and it too is applicable to our lives. Most of us tend to devalue time. Young people think that they will live forever and have endless days before them. Older people sometimes feel that the prime of their lives is over and spend the days trying to pass the remainder. Contemporary society has even developed an idiom, “killing time.” Technology has made this task easier as we can pass the hours mindlessly surfing the web, playing on our smart phones or flipping the channels.
There is no place that we see the value of every second more sharply than the Olympics. Athletes train their entire lives building up to this moment. Whether diving into a pool or pushing off the starting line of the track, everything they have worked for comes down to this. Races are often decided in the fraction of a second. The difference between qualifying or staying home, winning a medal or simply showing, being celebrated or a forgotten can be a millisecond.
From a Jewish perspective, killing time is a crime tantamount to murder–only when you do it, you are both the perpetrator and the victim simultaneously. Time is among the most precious commodities that we have. Once it has passed, it cannot be recovered. If it is wasted, it cannot be made up. There is a limited amount of it allocated to each one of us and with every passing second we come closer to emptying our account. As badly as we would like to slow it down sometimes, or speed it up at others, we cannot control time. It moves along at a steady pace entirely beyond our manipulation.
Each moment of our lives is precious and pregnant with possibility. We have the choice to fill our time with noble pursuits like helping others, improving ourselves, challenging our minds, developing our souls, caring for our bodies or connecting with family and friends. Or, God forbid, we can allow time to pass without anything meaningful, squandered, wasted and unused.
Not only must we make every day in our lives count–every hour, every minute and as the Olympics teaches us, every millisecond matters. It can make or break us. If we combine all those milliseconds that we waste, we can find the time we think we don’t have, to pursue noble endeavors and to achieve our goals, aspirations and dreams.
A Jew once asked Rav Yisroel Salanter, “If I only have 15 minutes a day to learn, what should I learn: Chumash, Gemara, Navi or Halacha?” Rav Yisroel answered: “Learn Mussar, character development, and you will realize that you have much more than 15 minutes a day to learn.”
The following poem articulately reminds us of the value of time:
Every Moment Is Precious (Author Anonymous)
To realize the value of ONE YEAR
Ask a student who has failed his exam.
To realize the value of ONE MONTH
Ask a mother who has given birth to a premature baby.
To realize the value of ONE WEEK
Ask an editor of a weekly newspaper.
To realize the value of ONE DAY
Ask a daily wage laborer who has 10 kids to feed.
To realize the value of ONE HOUR
Ask those waiting for a loved one in surgery.
To realize the value of ONE MINUTE
Ask the person who missed the train.
To realize the value of ONE SECOND
Ask a person who has survived an accident.
To realize the value of ONE MILLISECOND
Ask the person who won a “silver” medal in the Olympics.
Take advantage of every moment and be a champion at whatever you aspire to do!
The most remarkable thing about the failed coup in Turkey last week is how utterly unremarkable it actually was. While this particular coup was unsuccessful, since 1960 Turkey has been overthrown four times through takeovers organized and perpetrated by its own military.
Much more remarkable than Turkey’s latest coup attempt is that in its 240 years, America has never experienced anything similar. One of the most wonderful reflections on our great country and its citizens is that no matter how vociferous and strident the debates and campaigns, when the final ballot is counted and a new president is elected, he or she is the undeniable, undisputed leader and Commander in Chief.
When George W. Bush served as president, he garnered great opposition and disapproval, but nobody of consequence seriously suggested or attempted to overthrow him. Over the last eight years President Obama has garnered tremendous discontentment and vocal disagreement, but not a coup or a takeover.
Which brings us to this coming November 9th, the day after the coming presidential election. Like it or not, ecstatic or deeply depressed, unless something extraordinary occurs, Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump will be elected the 45th president of the United States of America. He or she will not be the president just for the percentage of the population that votes for them. He or she will be the president of every single American, no matter how distasteful or repulsive that may be for those who will vote for the losing candidate or perhaps don’t vote at all.
Elections consistently bring out rigorous debate and raucous disagreement. However, this election feels particularly negative due to the fact that only a minority of Americans actively like either of the candidates. Undeniably, there are qualities and behaviors in both candidates that are disheartening and deeply concerning.
A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll shows that 6 out of 10 Americans describe themselves as dissatisfied with the choice between the presumptive nominees. That means that most people cannot focus on what they like about a candidate, only about how they dislike and distrust the other candidate more. This reality breeds a culture and atmosphere of even greater rhetoric, contentiousness, and name-calling among the electorate than usual. Rather than advocate for their candidate, most people simply cannot imagine voting for the other candidate and have lots to say about those who can.
Recent elections of all sizes, from president to state senator to local school board, have brought out a lack of civility and caused great damage that remains long after the polls close and the inauguration balls conclude. The decibel level of the debates and the personal attacks in the discussions around Shabbos tables, at kiddushes in shul or at the gym have led to the breakup of friendships, and to families whose members can barely tolerate one another.
If that was true in the past, what will be left in the wake of this upcoming election? How will we overcome the polarization that is rapidly and increasingly developing before our eyes? Will the people who swore to leave the country if the other candidate is elected start packing their bags and booking their flights?
How will we resume talking to one another civilly and lovingly on November 9th when we will be living in a country being led by someone for whom many have contempt and disdain and it is the fault of the “other,” namely, those that voted for him or her?
As this election season rages on and will only grow more intense, it is not too early to be thinking about the morning after and the impact of the tone, tenor, and vocabulary of the conversations we are having now.
Certainly we are entitled to, and to some degree have a responsibility to, make our voices heard, to express our concerns, criticism, and critiques. It is a hallmark of this great republic and a foundational principle of democracy that we debate freely and advocate unreservedly. But nowhere in our law books or in our traditions does it mandate that we call people with whom we disagree names or question their character to make our point. Indeed, at the core of our democracy is the recognition that others are entitled to see things differently and to share their point of view without fear of being slandered or of being slammed.
The Gemara (Berachos 58a) states, “Just as the faces of people do not exactly resemble one another, so too their opinions do not exactly resemble one another.” What is the comparison between faces and opinions? Rav Shlomo Eiger (1786-1852) explained that we would never become exasperated or disturbed that someone’s facial features are different than ours. We wouldn’t condemn or criticize someone for having different color eyes or hair than we do. We implicitly recognize that everyone is created differently and it is our differences that weave the wonderful tapestry of our interconnected lives. Similarly, we should recognize that everyone’s opinions are the result of their being created differently and raised differently. Just as someone is entitled to look different, so too are they entitled to think differently and approach things differently without harsh disapproval or condemnation.
Our practice of taking three steps backward at the conclusion of the Amidah comes from a Gemara in Yoma (53) which states, “Hamispaleil tzarich she’yafsiah shelosha pesios l’achorav v’achar kach yitein shalom. The one who prays must take three steps back and only then pray for peace.” R’ Menachem BenZion Zaks (in his commentary on Pirkei Avos) explains that we cannot pray for, nor achieve, peace if we are not willing to step back a little and make room for others and their opinions, their tastes and personalities.
After stepping back, we ask “oseh shalom bimromav,” God, please bring peace, and we turn to the right and to the left. Explains R’ Zaks, achieving peace and harmony means bowing towards those on the right of us and those on the left of us, not just straight ahead on our path.
Maintaining the capacity and the will to bow towards those on the right and left of us religiously, politically, and in every other way is a prerequisite to the peace we claim we desperately seek and yearn for.
While America has never experienced an overthrowing of its government, we the Jewish people twice experienced foreign bodies invading our land, destroying our Temples, and dispersing us into exile. When analyzing the underlying cause, our Rabbis did not provide a political or military reason, but rather suggested a spiritual source. We practiced sinas chinam, baseless hatred: intolerance, incivility, coarseness, and hyper criticism of one another. In an environment and atmosphere of hate, the house of love and Godliness simply could not continue to exist.
We know (Yerushalmi, Yoma 1:1) that in every generation in which the Temple is not rebuilt, had it existed it would have been destroyed. In other words, two thousand years later we continue to embrace a legacy and culture of sinah, of hate and disdain.
This Sunday marks the beginning of the Three Weeks, the period designated on our calendar to introspect and contemplate the Jewish condition, its causes and its roots. Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook famously said (Orot HaKodesh vol. III, p. 324), “If we were destroyed, and the world with us, due to baseless hatred, then we shall rebuild ourselves, and the world with us, with baseless love — ahavas chinam.
Over the next three weeks and continuing through the election and beyond, before each conversation we have let’s ask ourselves will this topic, my opinions, and the way I am expressing them contribute to repairing the world with baseless love or destroying it with baseless hatred. Why even participate in conversations with others on topics in which we know we disagree strongly and in which the most likely outcome is not one of us convincing the other, but rather a bitterness and hostility between the two?
So if you can’t understand for the life of you how someone could support the candidate or the ideology or the lifestyle on your right or on your left, take a step back and make room for their opinions anyway. Bow towards them in a bid for a friendship and a family loyalty that transcends our differences. Doing so may just finally bring the elusive peace we are so desperate for.