This article appeared in Mishpacha Magazine last week
The wedding was magnificent. A beautiful chuppah took place on the beach as the sun set, and then it was time to go inside for the reception. I looked at my place card and went to my assigned table. When I got there, I was startled to discover that I was seated at a table of the chassan’s young friends, many of whom I had never met. I looked around the ballroom and noticed both a rabbis’ table and a table of community members, either one of which would have been a much more logical placement for me. I engaged in great conversation with the young men at my table and I enjoyed the evening, but I must admit, I was bewildered and confused as to why I was put at that table. To be honest, I was more than just perplexed. I was insulted and offended and felt somewhat singled out.
The final dance concluded, sheva brachos were recited, and I headed to the valet to retrieve my car. I reached into my suit pocket for the ticket, and immediately I felt like a fool. In my pocket were two place cards that looked exactly alike, with nearly identical envelopes and calligraphy. In truth, I had been assigned to sit at the table with my peers. Unbeknownst to me, however, a place card from a different wedding had remained in my pocket, and when the time came to find my seat, I had taken that old place card out instead of the one I had been assigned at this wedding.
The Gemara (Bava Basra 60b) tell us, “Keshot atzmecha v’achar kach keshot acheirim,” which is usually translated as, “Correct yourself first and only then correct others.” Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch suggests an alternative translation. The word keshot appears a number of times in the tefillah of Berich Shmeih — as in Oraisei keshot u’neviohi keshot — and it means “truth.” Based on this, Rav Hirsch explains the mandate of our rabbis as, be truthful with yourself and only then examine others.
They say that when you point a finger at someone else, three more point back at you. In my case, it became obvious and undeniable that although I was pointing a finger at my hosts for having seated me in the wrong place, the blame lay entirely with me.
Often, life is more complicated and less clear. And yet how often do we rush to judgment, failing to pause and reflect on our role in any given situation? How often do we draw unfavorable conclusions regarding those around us, even our good friends?
The Mishnah (Avos 1:6) tells us: Aseh lecha rav u’kneh lecha chaver, v’hevei dan es kol ha’adam l’chaf zechus — Make yourself a rav and acquire for yourself a friend, and judge each person in a favorable manner. What is the connection between the injunction to give the benefit of the doubt and the imperative to acquire a friend?
Rav Menachem Benzion Sacks, in his commentary on Pirkei Avos, explains that the capacity to give the benefit of the doubt is a prerequisite to being a good friend. Nobody is perfect. Everyone has flaws and deficiencies. Shlomo Hamelech, in his great wisdom, observed, “Ki adam ein tzaddik ba’aretz asher yaaseh tov v’lo yecheta — there are no fully righteous people in the world who only do good and never fall short.”
We cannot have real, meaningful, and enriching friendships if we cannot favorably judge the people we interact with. Nobody wants to be judged negatively. None of us wants to be caught, criticized, or condemned by our friends.
To be a good friend means to allow other people to be imperfect and vulnerable and to give them the confidence that you will be loyal — which means giving them the benefit of the doubt and assuming the best, whenever possible.
So they didn’t e-mail, text, or call you back immediately. Perhaps they never received your message or were preoccupied with a pressing matter. So they haven’t reciprocated by inviting you for a Shabbos or Yom Tov meal. Maybe they cannot afford to entertain guests, or they are insecure in their ability to host a proper or meaningful Shabbos or Yom Tov seudah. So they said hello and shook hands with others at the kiddush or simchah and ignored you like you were invisible. Maybe they simply didn’t see you or were distracted at the moment.
To be a good friend is to be forgiving, flexible, and willing to cut others slack. It is to see the best in them, not look for the worst. To find an excuse or explanation for their behavior, not to compile the evidence to support a case against them.
Of course, not everyone deserves the benefit of the doubt, nor does everyone deserve our friendship. But if we seek to develop lasting friendships and acquire real friends, not just passing acquaintances, we must be more forbearing, and train ourselves to give the benefit of the doubt and not jump to assume the worst.
Rav Menachem Benzion Sacks points out that the Mishnah subtly includes a strategy for judging others favorably. Rather than say hevei dan ha’adam l’chaf zechus it says hevei dan es kol ha’adam l’chaf zechus, judge the entire person favorably. The key to drawing positive conclusions is to look at the entire person, including his finest qualities and your whole history with him, rather than concentrate on the isolated negative incident alone. To be a good friend is to see the totality of the person, including who he strives to be, and not just focus on the reality of that particular moment.
Next time you are tempted to point your finger at another, check your pocket. You may just find that the fault lies with you.
“It’s a Fitbit.”
“Why do you wear it?”
“It tracks how many steps I take each day, the quantity and quality of my sleep, and other important pieces of information.”
“C’mon Rabbi, sounds like shtick to me. Do you really need that? What does it do for you? You already know you should be active each day and that you need to get enough sleep, so just do what you are supposed to, why do you need to wear something?”
I thought about his question and it struck me as compelling. We know what we need to do in life, so why not just do it? Why involve outside “shtick”? Isn’t it just a distraction?
And then I remembered an excellent quote from the great management expert Peter Drucker: “What Gets Measured Gets Managed.”
“The value of wearing a Fitbit,” I told my friend, “is that it holds me accountable to achieve my commitment and forces me to confront the reality of falling short, rather than at the end of each day bluffing or fooling myself about what had in fact transpired that day.”
Across the world from Professor Peter Drucker lived another management expert, only he specialized in personal management. Rav Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, Hy”d, also known as the Piaseczno Rebbe, was a Chassidic Rebbe in Poland who served as the Rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto and, after surviving the uprising, was later shot dead by the Nazis in the Trawniki labor camp. Among his many talents, he had incredible insight into human psychology.
In his spiritual diary called Tzav V’Ziruz he writes the following entry (#15):
If you have been able to draw up personal rules for your spiritual growth, consider this a success. But if you have not, then either you have not devoted your life to personal growth or you are blind to your own failures and successes.
Because the spiritual seeker who channels his efforts to his inner world will inevitably be faced with difficulty and distraction – not only external ones like supporting his family but also in his inner world such as indolence, negative tendencies, destructive character traits, and so forth – and because the spiritual seeker is constantly involved in this inner battle, sometimes winning and sometimes losing, he will inevitably come to conclusions: which strategies work for him and which ones bring out his weakness.
So someone who cannot draw such conclusions is not engaged in the battle – he neither wins nor loses. Or else he is unaware of both his inner weaknesses and strong points. (Translation from Yehoshua Starret)
Essentially, the Piaseczno Rebbe says that when it comes to our character, our personal growth and becoming the best version of ourselves – what gets measured, gets managed. One cannot claim to care about growing spiritually and fail to devise a plan or a strategy, set goals, and, most importantly, identify how progress will be measured.
It is one thing to say you want to work on having greater patience and being slower to anger and another to articulate a plan for how. Does the plan answer questions such as: What triggers your anger? Why do you lose patience? How will you learn to react differently? How will you measure and track if you are improving in this area?
It is one thing to say you want to work on improving your davening and another to design a strategy to actually grow in your prayer experiences. Have you considered what is your biggest challenge connecting in prayer? When has prayer uplifted you in the past and what elements contributed to that positive experience and result? How will you improve? Will you read a book on prayer? Listen to classes on prayer? What are the metrics you will use to measure your growth in davening?
The difference between a desire to grow being just lip service and empty words versus the beginning of real change is designing our personalized Spiritual Fitbit – a Spiritbit.
Here are a few things to consider when programming your Spiritbit:
- Limit – Identify one or two areas you want to work on at a time. Taking on too much at one time makes it overwhelming and intimidating, making it almost impossible to make real progress.
- Be Real – Be realistic in setting the goals. Don’t pledge to make radical changes that are impossible to achieve and unsustainable to maintain.
- Plan – The Rambam writes that to authentically accomplish teshuva, vidui, articulating what we have done wrong, must be done out loud. Only by saying or writing what went wrong and what we will do to repair and improve in the future can we avoid bluffing ourselves or our way through this process. Putting our plan and goals into words causes us to be thoughtful, strategic, honest, and gives us a reference to measure against.
- Accountability – Involve a family member, friend, or confidant in holding you accountable for doing what you say you are going to do. Choose someone trustworthy, kind, and who is more interested in helping you grow than in catching you fail.
- Schedule – Most businesses and companies have employee reviews. A good review seeks to validate and accentuate the positive while identifying and isolating areas that need improvement. Without scheduled reviews, it is unlikely time would be taken to reflect and to plan. Put in your schedule designated times to review your progress.
- Celebrate – Make space to celebrate your progress and growth. Be proud and use that pride to be motivated to grow further.
- Start Again – Don’t stop just because you accomplished your particular goal. Set more goals and pursue them with the same resolve that brought you success the first time.
Get more sleep, lose weight, have less anger, stop feeling jealous, improve davening, be more scrupulous in following Jewish law, set aside time daily for Torah study – whatever the area you want to work on, this can absolutely be your year.
But it won’t happen if you don’t design a Spiritbit, a mechanism to be honest and to track results. Wear your Spiritbit and finally become the best version of yourself.
The home of the great composer Ludwig van Beethoven has been preserved and serves as a museum in Bonn, Germany. One historical gem in the museum is the piano upon which Beethoven composed most of his renowned works. The piano is estimated to be worth more than $50 million and is understandably roped off and out of the reach of the thousands of visitors who pass it by each day.
A group of students from Vassar College was once visiting the Beethoven museum. Matthew Kelly tells the story of how one of the students came to the room that held the pian and couldn’t resist the temptation to ask a museum guard if she could play it for a moment. The guard allowed himself to be influenced by her generous tip and let the young woman beyond the ropes for a few moments. She sat at the famed piano and knocked out several bars of Moonlight Sonata. When she finished, her classmates applauded.
As she stepped back through the ropes, the young woman asked the guard, “I suppose over the years, all the great pianists that have come here have played the piano?” “No, miss,” the guard replied. “In fact, just two years ago I was standing in this very place when Ignacy Paderewski visited the museum. He was accompanied by the director of the museum and the international press, who had all come in the hope that he would play the piano.
“When he entered the room he stood over there, where your friends are standing and gazed at the piano in silent contemplation for almost fifteen minutes. The director of the museum then invited him to play the piano, but with tears welling in his eyes Paderewski declined, saying that he was not worthy even to touch it.”
Non-human mammals get what we call goosebumps, the constriction of skin surrounding hair follicles, when they feel threatened or attacked. Only human beings get goosebumps for a different feeling: awe. Awe is the feeling of being in the presence of greatness, of being exposed to that which is transcendent or extraordinary. Paderewski was in a room with Beethoven’s piano and was frozen with awe. The young student saw the piano and thought it would be cool to casually play it.
Researchers believe that we are living in a time of awe deprivation. Technological advances have made things once thought impossible not only real, but normal, expected, even mundane and unimpressive. We FaceTime with people on the other side of the globe without another thought, we have search engines that access millions of pages of information in nanoseconds, we instinctively use global positioning satellites to find the quickest route and avoid traffic. The result of the speed with which breakthrough, change, and advance happens leaves us struggling to be impressed with anything.
We have gone from calling everything “awesome,” to reacting to everything by saying (or thinking) “eh.” The byproducts of being awe-deprived are increased arrogance, decreased empathy, greater challenge to find meaning, and even failing health.
A Wall Street Journal article describes how current research shows that the capacity to feel awe makes people more empathetic, generous, kind, and humble. The actual feeling of awe and the experiences that inspire it make us healthier, improve our relationships, and give more meaning to our lives. The author writes, “Awe is an emotional response to something vast, and it challenges and expands our way of seeing the world. It might be triggered by an encounter with nature, a religious experience, a concert or a political rally or sports event. We’re not likely to find it on a treadmill at the gym.”
She goes on to describe that some experienced awe at the birth of a child, others watching a meteor shower, others visiting the Pine Forest in California, and interestingly, others who found it awe-inspiring to work with homeless people and witness their resilience and kindness. Dr. Dacher Keltner from UC Berkeley found that feeling awe can help fight depression and can even help reduce inflammation in the body. Dr. Paul Piff from UC Irvine explained that “awe minimizes our individual identity and attunes us to things bigger than ourselves.”
We have officially begun Elul and with it the countdown towards the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe. On Rosh Hashanah we will coronate God as King of the Universe and remind ourselves of His awesome omnipotence and omniscience. On Yom Kippur, we will be evaluated and judged to determine if we are fulfilling our role in His renewed kingdom and the purpose for which we were created. As described in U’nesaneh Tokef, these days are in fact, norah v’ayom, they are simply and literally awesome.
But we will only be moved by the awesomeness of these days if we still have the capacity for awe, reverence, and veneration. If everything is so utterly unimpressive, uninspiring, and ordinary, these days will be ritualistic and ceremonial, empty and devoid of meaning and transformation.
Rav Yitzchak Hutner z”tl explains that Amalek is the archrival of the Jewish people because their philosophy is the very antithesis of ours. When recounting Amalek’s attack on the Jewish people, the Pasuk says, “Asher karcha baderech – they happened upon you.” Amalek believes in mikreh, in chance, randomness, and happenstance. They see nothing as chashuv, nothing as significant, meaningful, or worthy of awe. As a result, Amalek’s attitude is to denigrate, to knock down, to destroy, to be cynical, and sarcastic. Amalek mocks and makes fun, they look at something or someone others are in awe of and they seek to demolish, to degrade, to vilify.
We, the Jewish people, are charged to live life with the opposite attitude and approach. Our mission is to live life with awe, to see ourselves as a small part of something much greater. Our charge is to see and create meaning and purpose, to lift up, to build, to admire, to revere, and to venerate that which is worthy and important in the world.
Rav Hutner describes that the battle between the attitude of Amalek and the attitude of the Torah is the battle between what he calls the ko’ach ha’chillul and the ko’ach ha’hillul. The ko’ach ha’chillul is the power of skepticism, the influence of that little voice inside each of us that, like Amalek, tries to get us to be cynical, to mock and belittle, rather than to respect and be filled with awe. The ko’ach ha’hillul is the capacity to praise, honor, identify and admire the beauty and the greatness which is sometimes beneath the surface.
Preparing for the Days of Awe includes working to defeat the Amalek inside us. It demands we weaken and eliminate the ko’ach ha’chillul, our tendency or inclination towards cynicism and skepticism, and strengthen and build up our capacity for ko’ach ha’hillul: to see that which is impressive, remarkable and praiseworthy in people, places, and things all around us.
Awe is not only the result of being in the presence of, or exposed to, something worthy of awe. Awe results from an openness, willingness, and interest to see greatness and be moved by it. My brother Judah pointed out to me that when Yaakov Avinu first encounters Har HaMoriah he is unmoved and in fact goes to sleep. Only after his dream and epiphany does he awaken with a sense of “Mah norah ha’makom ha’zeh, how awesome is this place?” Even a great person like Yaakov could encounter the holiest place in the world and at first find no meaning in it. Only with new insight and a changed attitude did he see beyond the ordinary stones and identify the place for what it truly was: norah, awesome.
The WSJ article suggests that to preserve and expand our capacity for awe, we must make an effort to have three awe experiences a week. This Elul, look at something, study something, contemplate something, admire someone, experience something that makes you feel “Wow! That is awesome.” “That is incredible.” “That is humbling.”
Albert Einstein is quoted as saying, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle, the other is as though everything is a miracle.” As we prepare for the Days of Awe, let’s choose to see everything as a miracle and be filled with awe as a result.
**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.