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Preserving Privacy and Protecting Capacity for Intimacy

on Wednesday, February 10 2016. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

Despite what you may have been told as a child, sharing is not always caring.

We are living in a transparent generation where the trend is towards sharing in the extreme. Over coffee with friends, at the water cooler with co-workers, and increasingly on social media, people are revealing more and more about their personal lives, their innermost thoughts and feelings, and their most private experiences.

In theory, the movement towards greater sharing should yield better relationships, closer connections, and improved capacity for emotional intimacy. After all, being open with a person is a fundamental part of connecting with that person. And yet, more and more research confirms that in fact it is doing the opposite. An obsession with sharing and a proclivity for being revealing actually damages relationships, hurts self-esteem, increases anxiety, lowers self-control, and breeds narcissism.

In Judaism, the more valuable and treasured something is, the more private and protected we keep it. The more it is accessible, revealed, and exposed, the cheaper it becomes. Indeed, the Torah’s perspective is that genuine intimacy is achieved when something is private, exclusive, and inaccessible to others. This is true physically, emotionally, and spiritually. The less we practice privacy and modesty in each of these arenas, the greater the challenge we have achieving authentic intimacy in them.

A New York Times article on privacy and sharing on the Internet began, “Imagine a world suddenly devoid of doors. None in your home, on dressing rooms, on the entrance to the local pub or even on restroom stalls at concert halls. The controlling authorities say if you aren’t doing anything wrong, then you shouldn’t mind. Well, that’s essentially the state of affairs on the Internet. There is no privacy.”

The article continues by quoting research that confirms what the Torah has known all along: “The problem is that if you reveal everything about yourself or it’s discoverable with a Google search, you may be diminished in your capacity for intimacy. This goes back to social penetration theory, one of the most cited and experimentally validated explanations of human connection. Developed by Irwin Altman and Dalmas A. Taylor in the 1970s, the theory holds that relationships develop through gradual and mutual self-disclosure of increasingly private and sensitive personal information.

‘Building and maintaining an enduring, intimate relationship is a process of privacy regulation,’ said Dr. Altman, now an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Utah. ‘It’s about opening and closing boundaries to maintain individual identity but also demonstrate unity with another, and if there are violations then the relationship is threatened.’”

Our parsha, Terumah, introduces us to the layout and floor plan of the Mishkan, the holy Tabernacle. The outer courtyard hosted the altar where sacrifices were offered. The Kodesh, or the holy section, housed the menorah and the shulchan. The last section was the Kodesh Ha’Kadashim, the Holy of Holies that housed the Aron and was only entered by the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur. Our sacred ark which held our sacred luchos and the original Torah scroll was in the most private and inaccessible part of the Mishkan.

Rabbi Soloveitchik suggested that we model our personal lives after the structure and layout of the Mishkan:

From the time I was young, I learned to restrain my feelings and not to demonstrate what was happening in my emotional world. My father would say that the holier and more intimate the feeling, the more it should be concealed. There is a hidden curtain that separates between one’s interior and the exterior: “and the dividing curtain shall separate for you between the Holy and the Holy of Holies.” What location is more sanctified than the inner sanctum of one’s emotional life?

In this world “devoid of doors” we need to be all the more mindful to keep our paroches, our curtain up, and protect the Holy of Holies of our lives. This is not to suggest that one should not share his or her emotions and feelings at all and keep them bottled up; obviously that is unhealthy and potentially dangerous. But the Holy of Holies was seen by a selective audience, only the Kohen Gadol.

Share your strong feelings, innermost thoughts and personal emotions with your spouse, or a family member you trust, or a close friend or confidant. But, not every thought or feeling needs to be made public. Not every personal experience or event merits sharing. Not every moment of frustration or point of pride with your job, with your children, or with your experience at a restaurant needs to be fodder for Facebook or with friends.

Failing to be judicious and thoughtful in what and how we share profanes our lives and makes achieving intimate relationships difficult. Preserving our paroches, maintaining the capacity for privacy and mystery, ultimately protects our Holy of Holies and elevates all the relationships in our lives.



What is the Measure of a Great Community?

on Friday, February 5 2016. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

What is the measure of a great community? What are the metrics and tools we use to evaluate the success of a society?

In this week’s parsha, Mishpatim, the Torah tell us that we must not cause pain or suffering to a widow or orphan. So strict is this law, that God promises that one who aggrieves the widow or orphan will evoke His anger, and in turn, God will strike down the insensitive person, causing his wife to be a widow and his children to be orphans.

While Parshas Mishpatim is replete with mitzvos and laws, this one stands out. The Chizkuni, a 13th century French Rabbi, points out that all of the other commandments in our parsha, from civil law, jurisprudence, laws of loans, damages, shabbos, holidays and more, are all written in the singular. The commandments and obligations of Mishpatim are directed at individuals who must each feel the mandate and imperative to live inspired, ethical and moral lives with a loyalty and fidelity to Jewish law. The obligation to show kindness and sensitivity to the widow and orphan, however, are an exception as they are written b’lashon rabim, in the plural. Why, wonders the Chizkuni, should this mitzvah specifically stand out?

On April 12, 1999, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel gave an impassioned speech in the East Room of the White House as part of the Millennium Lecture series:

What is indifference? Etymologically, the word means “no difference.” A strange and unnatural state in which the lines blur between light and darkness, dusk and dawn, crime and punishment, cruelty and compassion, good and evil.

Of course, indifference can be tempting — more than that, seductive. It is so much easier to look away from victims. It is so much easier to avoid such rude interruptions to our work, our dreams, our hopes. It is, after all, awkward, troublesome, to be involved in another person’s pain and despair. Yet, for the person who is indifferent, his or her neighbor are of no consequence. And, therefore, their lives are meaningless. Their hidden or even visible anguish is of no interest. Indifference reduces the other to an abstraction.

In a way, to be indifferent to that suffering is what makes the human being inhuman. Indifference, after all, is more dangerous than anger and hatred. Anger can at times be creative. One writes a great poem, a great symphony, one does something special for the sake of humanity because one is angry at the injustice that one witnesses. But indifference is never creative. Even hatred at times may elicit a response. You fight it. You denounce it. You disarm it. Indifference elicits no response. Indifference is not a response.

The Chizkuni explains that evil is not necessarily perpetrated actively. There is such a thing as passive, non-aggressive malevolence. This commandment to be sensitive and kind to the orphan and widow is written in the plural because while there is a directive to the individual, the entire community is measured by this mitzvah. This mitzvah is written in the plural because the community is measured by the standard it sets and the environment it tolerates. Even those individuals not directly, actively guilty of oppressing the less fortunate are culpable because of their indifference and apathy.

Rav Yaakov Zvi Mecklenburg, author of the Ksav V’Kabbalah, explains that the Torah doesn’t limit this mitzvah to the orphan and 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, and unnoticed. The word almanah comes from al-manah, missing a portion. In every community there are people that don’t fit the mold, they are al-mana, missing something.

Ultimately, as a community and as a society we are judged and measured by our sensitivity, kindness, awareness and inclusiveness of people who feel invisible. “Indifference is not a response.” We must never be indifferent or apathetic, but as a community, we must always seek ways to make everyone feel included and cared for. That is the mark of a truly great community.



Wear Your Yarmulke – Because You Can & Because it is Good for You

on Tuesday, January 19 2016. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

The former CEO of Timberland, Jeffrey Swartz, has made numerous contributions to both his industry in particular and the corporate world generally. In addition to focusing on profits, revenue, and the financial bottom line, Swartz was among the first to emphasize a corporation’s social responsibility and duty. In his first “Corporate Social Responsibility Report,” issued in 2000, he wrote, “It is not enough for Timberland to make the absolute best boots, or shoes, or clothing in the world. We recognize we must also serve. Everything we do, everything we sell has an impact on the communities in which we live and work.”

In a recent article about him, Asher Schechter describes, “Jeffrey Swartz’s appearance is misleading. The former president and CEO of the footwear company Timberland is an affable Jew with a yarmulke, and as far as you can get from the rugged look of the shoes he sold until recently, a brand beloved by rappers and world travelers. Swartz dresses modestly and walks around without an entourage in tow – not what one may have expected from the CEO of a big company who made a $2 billion exit when he sold it less than a year ago.”

“An affable Jew with a yarmulke.” Most of us don’t have the platform or capacity of Jeffrey Swartz and yet we, too, have an opportunity to make a Kiddush Hashem each and every time that we publicly identify as an observant Jew. In the not so distant past, observant Jews in America could not wear their yarmulke to a job or school interview for fear it would handicap them. Many couldn’t wear their yarmulke to work for fear they would be discriminated against or even lose their jobs.

Recently, the head of the Jewish community in Marseille, France, called on Jews in the area to hide their yarmulkes. French President Francois Hollande called such a situation “intolerable.” A couple of French lawmakers even wore yarmulkes to Parliament in a show of solidarity.

In America, for the most part we are blessed to be able to wear our yarmulkes anywhere without giving it a second thought. My understanding is that today, wearing a yarmulke to interviews or to work in most parts of the country is no longer risky nor does it draw negative attention.

So, given the opportunity to wear a yarmulke so freely, why wouldn’t we want to proudly and confidently identify as Torah Jews and welcome the chance to make a Kiddush Hashem through our ordinary day? All around us, people are choosing to wear pins and ribbons that communicate their commitment to, and advocacy on behalf of, the causes that they care deeply about, including different forms of cancer and autism. Members of Congress wear pins and donors to the women’s division of Jewish Federation wear a Lion of Judah.

We also have an accessory that enables us to show our devotion to, and advocacy on behalf of, our cause, namely to fulfill our mandate of nekadeish es simcha ba’olam, to sanctify God’s name in His world.

Wearing a yarmulke or openly identifying as an observant woman doesn’t just serve the mission of sanctifying Hashem’s name, but it helps us be mindful of how we are behaving and the impression that we leave.

In an article entitled “The Trick to Being More Virtuous,” Arthur Brooks tells the story of how a briefcase changed his behavior:

Several years ago, I visited Provo, Utah — in the heart of what its residents call “Happy Valley” — to deliver a lecture at Brigham Young University. My gracious hosts sent me home with a prodigious amount of branded souvenirs: T-shirts, mugs — you name it. The Mormons are serious about product placement.

One particularly nice gift was a briefcase, with the university’s name emblazoned across the front. I needed a new briefcase, but the logo gave me pause because it felt a little like false advertising for a non-Mormon to carry it. Reassured by my wife that this was ridiculous, I loaded it up, and took it out on the road. In airports, I quickly noticed that people would look at my briefcase, and then look up at me. I could only assume that they were thinking, “I’ve never seen an aging hipster Mormon before.”

That gave me minor amusement; but it soon had a major effect on my behavior. I found that I was acting more cheerfully and courteously than I ordinarily would — helping people more with luggage, giving up my place in line, that sort of thing. I was unconsciously trying to live up to the high standards of Mormon kindness, or at least not besmirch that well-earned reputation. I even found myself reluctant to carry my customary venti dark roast, given the well-known Mormon prohibition against coffee.

Almost like magic, the briefcase made me a happier, more helpful person — at least temporarily.

But it wasn’t magic. Psychologists study a phenomenon called “moral elevation,” an emotional state that leads us to act virtuously when exposed to the virtue of others.

Long before psychology identified this phenomenon, a brilliant woman in the Talmud intuited it. “The astrologers once told R’ Nachman bar Yitzchak’s mother, ‘your son will be a thief.’ She therefore never allowed him to uncover his head. She told him, ‘cover your head so that the fear of Heaven should be upon you and pray for God’s mercies that the evil inclination will not dominate you.’” (Shabbos 156b)

Similarly, the Talmud (Kiddushin 31) teaches, “Rav Huna son of Rav Yehoshua did not go four amos with his head uncovered. He said, the Divine Presence is above my head.”

Dressing the part encourages us to live the part. Wearing the uniform makes us mindful to embody the uniform. The Jews were redeemed from Egypt in the merit of maintaining their names, their language, and their dress. Our Jewish dress redeems us and safeguards us from the temptations that surround us.

Jews in parts of the world cannot safely wear a yarmulke in public. We who can, should be especially eager to embrace our Jewish accessories and mode of dress and wear them proudly and with conviction.



Transforming “Jewish Time” into Being Punctual

on Wednesday, January 13 2016. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

The Powerball lottery and its record $1.5 billion jackpot has engendered great conversation about what we would do with the money if we won. Indeed, money is a tremendous commodity, a critical resource. And yet, there is an even more precious commodity that we waste all too often.

When it comes to money, if we run low, there are ways in which we can try to replenish. If we work harder maybe we can always earn more and, therefore, have more money to spend. But when it comes to time there is nothing we can do to earn more. No matter who we are, how smart or foolish, young or old, rich or poor, we all are bound by the same 24 hours in a day and 168 hours in a week. There is nothing we can do to expand or accumulate or grow more time. 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 control or manipulation.

And yet, despite its preciousness and irreplaceability, we tend to bring a casual attitude towards it, wasting it, and some even choosing to kill it.

Urban Dictionary, a web site dedicated to cataloging modern phrases and idioms, defines Jewish time as follows:

Not perfectly on time; possibly somewhat late, but no harm is done as a result. The implication is that there is no need to be exactly on time, and starting a little late is acceptable.

The term comes from Jewish culture, which is often relaxed about punctuality.

When an event is schedule to take place at 2:00 Jewish time, it could be at 2:05, 2:12, 2:15, or even 2:35, and everyone is satisfied.

“The wedding will start at 6:00 PM Jewish time.” “We will meet in the lobby at 4:30 Jewish time.”

One can debate why historically or sociologically the phenomenon of “Jewish time” being synonymous with being late developed, but whatever the reason, it is sad and unfortunate. Of all people, we are to have an acute time awareness, time consciousness, and profound appreciation for the value of time. Our Jewish lives are informed and directed by mitzvos, many of which depend on time; by prayers, which must be completed by a certain time; and by holidays that are determined by date and time.

Indeed, the very first mitzvah of the Torah, the first commandment that we received as a people, is to value time. “Ha’chodesh ha’zeh lachem rosh chodoshim, rishon hu lachem l’chadshei ha’shanah. Hashem said to Moshe and Aharon – This month shall be for you the beginning of the months; it shall be for you the first of the months of the year.” With this commandment comes the privilege and responsibility to control the Jewish calendar through testimony of the new moon and the determination of the human court of when the month begins and consequently when our holidays fall.

For two hundred and ten years, as slaves in Egypt, our people had no control over their own time or their own destiny. Our taskmasters and oppressors determined how we spent every single moment. It is specifically at that point, when the Jewish people are on the cusp of attaining freedom, explains the Sforno, that we are given the commandment about time. At the core of freedom is the ability to be the arbiters and determiners of our own time. Freedom and time are intertwined. Rabbi Soloveitchik saw the freedom to control time as the very definition of a human being and the very essence of consciousness. The only creature that can experience time, that feels its passage and senses its movement, is man.

Time awareness is at the core of our humanity and is the responsibility of freedom. Being relaxed about punctuality, running late, and having a casual attitude towards start times, is not Jewish time, it is the antithesis of the Jewish notion of time. Wasting time, bitul z’man, is tantamount to burning money, and killing time murders possibility and potential.

In a fantastic article in Forbes, “5 Minutes Early Is On Time; On Time Is Late; Late Is Unacceptable,” Brent Beshore shows how disrespectful, inefficient, and self-centered it is to run late. He writes:

  • Disrespectful: Being on time is about respect. It signals that you value and appreciate the other person. If you don’t respect the meeting’s participants, why are you meeting with them in the first place?
  • Inconsiderate: Unintentionally being late demonstrates an overall lack of consideration for the lives of others. You just don’t care.
  • Big-Timing: Intentionally being late is about power. It’s showing the other person, or people that you’re a “big deal” and have the upper-hand in the relationship.
  • Incredible: No, not in the good way. When you miss meeting times or deadlines, your credibility takes the trajectory of a lead balloon. If you can’t be counted on to be on time, how could you possibly have credibility around far tougher tasks?
  • Unprofitable: Let’s consider a scenario where five people are holding a meeting at 2 p.m. Your sauntering in ten minutes late just wasted 40 minutes of other peoples’ time. Let’s say the organization bills $200/hour. Are you paying the $133 bill? Someone certainly is.
  • Disorganized: If you can’t keep your calendar, what other parts of your life are teetering on the edge of complete disaster? Being late signals at best that you’re barely hanging on and probably not someone I want to associate with.
  • Overly-Busy: Everyone likes to equate busyness with importance, but the truly successful know that’s not true. Having a perpetually hectic schedule just signals that you can’t prioritize, or say “no,” neither of which is an endearing trait.
  • Flaky: Apparently some people just “flake out,” which seems to mean that they arbitrarily decided not to do the thing they committed to at the very last minute. Seriously? That’s ridiculous.
  • Megalomaniacal: While most grow out of this by the age of eight, some genuinely believe they are the center of the universe. It’s not attractive.

Beshore concludes: “Paying attention to punctuality is not about being “judgy,” or stressed. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. It makes room for the caring, considerate, thoughtful people I want in my life, whether that’s friends or colleagues. Think of how relaxing your life would be if everyone just did what they said they’d do, when they said they’d do it? A good place to start is with yourself and a great motto is something I was taught as a child: ‘5 minutes early is on time. On time is late. Late is unacceptable.’” 

Of course being late will happen. We run into emergencies and unexpected, uncontrollable circumstances. The decision we have to make is, for us, is being late an exception or the rule? Are we chronically late, or does it happen on occasion? Do we anticipate we will be late or do we make every effort to be on time? Are we ashamed when we are late and do we apologize and take responsibility, or have we become so habituated to not being on time that we no longer even notice?

Imagine how much time would be saved and how much good could be done if our simchas started and ran on time, if our classes and programs were punctual, and if we were always true to our word when meeting a friend or attending a meeting.

While we can’t expand or slow down time, we can make the most of it and value each moment. By learning to manage this most precious commodity, we will in fact have won much more than the lottery.