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Do You Know Your Rating? I Was Shocked When I Discovered Mine

on Wednesday, August 15 2018. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

Image result for uber ratingI took an Uber a few months ago and noticed something that disturbed me greatly.  It wasn’t anything I found in the car, but rather something I happened to notice on the app.  I was well aware that Uber drivers carry a rating based on the score their passengers give them.  But I never knew that Uber passengers are also rated.

It turns out on a scale of 1 – 5, my Uber drivers had left me with an average of 4.77.  I was mortified.  Why not a perfect 5 stars?  What did I ever do to offend a driver?  I was always punctual, courteous, and clean.

With the proliferation of technology, rating others has become easy and accordingly common.  There are websites to rate your doctor or lawyer and even your kallah teacher.  There are apps to review all of your experiences from eating in restaurants to staying in hotels.  Nevertheless, rating others, especially if it will affect their income and reputation, is not necessarily the correct thing to do.

A college student recently asked me about the halachic permissibility of contributing to the website http://www.ratemyprofessors.com/.  She had a negative experience with a professor and wanted to know if it violates the laws of lashon ha’rah, gossip, to give the professor a poor rating on the website and to warn others not to take her.

Rating others may be fraught with halachic questions and we need to weigh them carefully before indulging in the rating game. That choice is ours.  Being rated, however, whether on Uber or elsewhere, is usually out of our control.  Though we may not ask to be evaluated by others, perhaps we can embrace our ratings and use them to be motivated and inspired to improve.

When I saw my less-than-perfect Uber rating, I immediately consulted Uber’s website and, as if they were writing to me, it says:

Very few people have a perfect rating, so don’t despair if your average isn’t 5.0.  Things that seem small to you can matter to your driver – it’s easy to accidentally slam a door if you’re not thinking about it.  Knowing a little more about the things that affect a driver’s happiness can help you be a 5-star rider.

I felt a little better, but I also became determined to raise my rating.  Each subsequent Uber ride since noticing my rating, I have waited for the driver on the curb to ensure he or she doesn’t wait, I have consciously closed the door gently, and I have made a concerted effort not to talk loudly on the phone.

I don’t know if my rating will improve, but I do know that my behavior and sensitivity improved simply as a result of the acute realization that I was being evaluated and scored by others.

In May, a couple in Portland, Oregon had a nightmare experience when the Amazon Echo in their home recorded their private conversation and sent it to one of the people in their contact list that they were talking about. The company acknowledged the glitch and said it happened because of an unlikely string of events and they were looking into it.

We each have something infinitely more powerful than an Amazon Echo recording us, not only in our homes, but everywhere we go.  The Mishna in Avos (2:1) says:

הִסְתַּכֵּל בִּשְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים וְאִי אַתָּה בָא לִידֵי עֲבֵרָה, דַּע מַה לְּמַעְלָה מִמְּךָ, עַיִן רוֹאָה וְאֹזֶן שׁוֹמַעַת, וְכָל מַעֲשֶׂיךָ בַסֵּפֶר נִכְתָּבִין

“Keep your eye on three things, and you will not come to sin: Know what is above you: An eye that sees, and an ear that hears, and all your deeds are written in a book.”

If you wouldn’t want what you are saying recorded, simply don’t say it, because it is being recorded and it is contributing to the rating of the kind of person you are.

Accessing your Divine rating is not as easy as finding your Uber rating, but just knowing that He is watching, listening and scoring all that we do should motivate us to want to constantly improve and strive for a 5 out of 5.

Although the theme of Rosh Hashana through Yom Kippur is judgment, which connotes harshness and strictness, in truth these days contain great mercy and Heavenly favor.  The Tur quotes the Midrash that it was on Rosh Chodesh Elul that Moshe ascended to receive the second set of luchos, tablets, after the first ones were broken following the debacle of the Golden Calf.  Moshe came back down on Yom Kippur with new luchos in hand, signifying Hashem’s forgiveness.  Therefore, these days from Rosh Chodesh Elul through Yom Kippur are a time of pardon and appeasement each year.

Hashem reaches out to us and invites us to confront what we have done throughout the year to lower our rating.  We take stock of the insensitivities, hurts, failures and shortcomings and we take responsibility for them and commit not to repeat them.

When He senses our sincerity, Hashem resets our rating and lets us start off the year with a perfect score, challenging us to maintain it.  That is a gift Uber doesn’t offer.  Let’s take advantage of it.

From Montana to New Square: What I Learned On My Summer Vacation

on Wednesday, August 8 2018. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

Countless stars filled the heavens, the Milky Way was visible to the naked eye and Jupiter was as noticeable as the moon.  A star shot through the sky.  As we stood there, 6,000 feet above sea level in Glacier National Park in Montana, it occurred to me that the magnificent view we couldn’t tear ourselves away from is actually present each and every night.  I had never seen it before—not because it isn’t available, but simply because I had never been in a place without artificial light and from which this magnificent, wondrous view could be seen. I went to sleep that night feeling closer to Hashem, more aware of the vastness of His cosmos and with the nagging thought of how incomplete my life would have been if I never got to see that, at least once.

What was true for the experience of stargazing was true about the entire trip to Montana.  Yocheved and I are grateful to Rustic Elegance, the wonderful tour company that invited us to participate as a scholar in residence on the extraordinary trip earlier this summer. Glacier National Park is 1.2 million acres of Hashem’s artistry. It is filled with snowcapped mountains, rushing waterfalls, stunning views, running rivers.  An encounter with moose, mountain goats, chipmunks, exotic birds and even bears is not unusual.

The sights, sounds and experiences in Glacier are breathtaking, but what enables the full enjoyment of them is the absence of any cell tower from the entire area.  From the time you enter the park until the time you exit you are in a place with absolutely no cell phone coverage. This means the time spent hiking, fishing, kayaking, or just plain sitting and contemplating, is done without distraction, interruption or competition for attention.

The Gemara (Berachos 10b) quotes the pasuk, אין צור כאלקינו, there is no rock like our God, and tells us to creatively read it as אין צייר כאלוקינו, there is no artist like Hashem.  The Ribono Shel Olam, Master of the Universe, is the ultimate artist and the world is His canvas.  We come to know Hashem through the Torah, His word, but we also know Him through His creation, His world.

Image may contain: cloud, mountain, sky, outdoor and nature

We tend to live in a bubble, feeling that our experience is the sum total or the be-all and end-all of the world.  This trip was a stark reminder to me that Hashem’s world doesn’t end at Palmetto Park Road in Boca Raton, Cedar Lane in Teaneck, or Central Avenue in the Five Towns.  There are magnificent views, sites and places in the world filled with beauty, splendor and communicating the greatness of Hashem. We are more complete people when we add those places and experiences to our portfolio of life.

Not everyone is able to travel and explore freely, but we can all do more to break through our personal comfort zone, investigate the canvas and become closer with the Artist as a result.  Technology has become ubiquitous.  It has enriched our lives in countless ways, but it has also caused us to forget that sometimes the greatest beauty is in the natural, the simple, the unaffected by human intervention or interference.

The Mishna in Avos (3:9) says: “One who walks on the road while reviewing his learning but interrupts and says ‘How beautiful is this tree! How beautiful is this field!’ The Torah considers it as if he is worthy of death.”

The simple understanding is that Torah learning is so sacred, so central to who we are, that we must never interrupt its study, particularly for something as insignificant or fleeting as noticing a nice tree.  However, R’ Menachem Benzion Sacks (Menachem Tzion on Pirkei Avos) explains that the problem is not admiring nature, it is that the person was mafsik, interrupted their Torah learning.  Admiring the tree or field can be – and ideally should be – the continuation, a complement to Torah learning, not an interruption from it.  After all, he says, the Gemara (Berachos 55) provides specific berachos we make when admiring natural phenomena, which means that clearly there is merit in doing so.

Shutting it down, disconnecting from technology and convening with nature should be a religious experience, a rendezvous with the great Artist. Shlomo HaMelech taught (Mishlei 3:6), “B’chol derachecha da’eihu,” which is usually translated as know “Hashem through all of your ways,” but can also be understood to mean, on every derech, on each path you walk and with all you see and experience, see and know Hashem.

What is true for getting out of our geographical bubble is equally if not more true for breaking through our religious bubble.  We tend to limit our religious exposure to those who think, practice and observe just like us.  We live under artificial labels: modern, yeshivish, chassidish, right wing, left wing, etc.  When we pigeonhole ourselves we deprive ourselves from taking the best of what different Torah groups and cultures have to offer. We are smaller, less well-rounded, and more limited as a result.

The Shabbos following our Montana trip, Yocheved went back to Boca and I went to New Square, a village outside Monsey comprised exclusively of Skverer chassidim.  I had gone several times for Shabbos and simchas Torah when I was younger and craved the energy, passion and inspiration of a Shabbos there.  A Shabbos in Skver is like taking a time machine back to a shtetl in Europe.  For many born and raised there, English is the second or third language.  There is one Beis Medrash where thousands daven together and yet you can hear a pin drop and feel the walls reverberate as Amen and Kaddish are responded to in deafening unison.

The highlight of Shabbos was participating in the Rebbe’s tisch. Friday night it began at 12:30 am and concluded close to 3:00 am.  Thousands of chassidim packed bleachers while the Rebbe sat at the dais surrounded by his sons and sons-in-law.  At the table below were his grandsons and great grandsons, strategically arranged.  I was honored to be invited to sit next to them and was even more honored and caught off guard when during the tisch, the Rebbe (through his gabbai) invited me to start a niggun, a tune. The coordinated singing, and choreographed dancing in the bleachers create an electric atmosphere.

The Rebbe’s shalosh seudos tisch began at 9:15 pm, when most near New Square were already making havdallah.  The first forty-five minutes of singing took place in pitch black, an unforgettable experience.  The lights eventually came on, and the Rebbe shared the shirayim, the leftovers around the room.  Ma’ariv and Havdallah took place around 11:00 pm and around 1:00 am I had the great opportunity to spend some time with the Rebbe, who is warm, personable, wise and inquisitive.

To be clear, I don’t want to move to Montana and I am not prepared to live in New Square.  But my visit to both made me more complete; looking back I can’t imagine being deprived of the inspiration I drew from both.

It is often quoted that Elul is the gematria of chaim, life.  This is the time of year to come alive, to explore and find Hashem in His Torah and through His world.  Wake up from the momentum and monotony of the whole year.  Break through your bubble, broaden your experiences, and you will come alive by discovering so much about Hashem and about yourself.

Check it at the Door, Don’t Ever Bring it Into Your Home

on Thursday, August 2 2018. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg
Mariano Rivera and the interfaith group visiting Israel, at the Michve Alon IDF base, in front of the Fitness Center donated by the FIDF Long Island Chapter, on July 31. Credit: Nir Buxenbaum Photography.

Mariano Rivera and the interfaith group visiting Israel, at the Michve Alon IDF base, in front of the Fitness Center donated by the FIDF Long Island Chapter, on July 31. Credit: Nir Buxenbaum Photography.

In 2001, Indra Nooyi was named president of PepsiCo.  Five years later, she was promoted to CEO, and in 2007 she would become chairman of the company as well.  She recently described the day she was appointed president and put in charge of running the $166 billion company.  Her parents happened to be visiting that night, as she describes:

“I’ll never forget coming home after being named President of PepsiCo back in 2001. My mother was visiting at the time.  ‘I’ve got great news for you,’ I shouted. She replied, ‘It can wait. We need you to go out and get some milk.’  “So I go out and get milk. And when I come back, I’m hopping mad. I say, ‘I had great news for you. I’ve just been named President of PepsiCo. And all you want me to do is go out and get milk.’

“Then she says, ‘Let me explain something to you. You may be President of PepsiCo. But when you step into this house, you’re a wife and mother first. Nobody can take that place. So leave that crown in the garage.'”

This week’s Parsha finds Moshe continuing his soliloquy to the Jewish people delivered in the final days of his life. In anticipation of their entering the land of Israel, Moshe sternly reminds them of their shortcomings, deficiencies and challenges.  But first, he assures them, Hashem will be with you; you have nothing to worry about.  He will protect and guard you from your enemies; He will deliver kings into your hand. When you are victorious against your adversaries, says the Torah, psilei Eloheihem tisrefun ba’eish, burn their idols in fire.  Moreover, v’lo savi so’eivah el bei’secha, you shall not bring an abomination into your home.

The word to’eiva, abomination, is very generic and can refer to many things.  The Torah describes inappropriate illicit relations as to’eiva.  Similarly, non-Kosher food, inexact weights and measures, and dishonest business practices are each called to’eiva, abomination.  So what does it mean here?  What exactly are we warned from taking into our house and into our lives?

The Rambam and Ramban understand that idols themselves are considered to’eiva, an abomination, and the Torah is prohibiting deriving any benefit from an idol or its accessories. The Sefer HaChinuch extends this prohibition to another form of idolatry, the worship of money, and says this is a Torah prohibition from earning any profit from funds that were obtained in an unethical manner.

The gemara (Sota 4b), however, has an entirely different interpretation of this pasuk and the prohibition it contains:

Kesiv – lo savi so’eiva el beisecha, don’t bring an abomination into your home, and kesiv to’avas Hashem kol g’vah leiv, the pasuk in Mishlei says a haughty heart is an abomination to God.  From here Rav Yochanan says, anyone who displays haughtiness it is as is they have engaged in idol worship.

According the Gemara, the to’eiva, the abomination that we cannot and must not bring into our homes, is ga’ava, arrogance, hubris or conceit.  You made a great business deal, gave a great shiur, had a killer workout, made world peace, no matter what you accomplished or achieved, don’t bring a sense of pride or arrogance into you home.  As Indra Nooyi’s mother said – leave that abomination in your garage.

Also in our parsha, Moshe warns us, “V’amarta bilvavcha kochi v’otzem yadi asah li es ha’chayil ha’zeh, and you may say in your heart, ‘my strength and the might of my hand made me all this wealth.’  V’zocharta es Hashem Elokecha ki Hu ha’nosein lecha koach laasos chayil, then you shall remember Hashem, Your God, for it is He Who gave you strength to make wealth.”

When you find success, says Moshe to his people, you will be tempted by arrogance and conceit.  Your ego will entice you to feel that you and you alone are responsible for achieving and accomplishing greatness.  Moshe enjoins them strongly – remember, it is Hashem who gives ko’ach.

In numerous places, our parsha seeks to communicate a simple message.  Success is not the result of our talents, skills or wisdom.  It reflects the will of Hashem who grants us that success.

However, a few weeks from now we will read u’vacharta ba’chayim.  Clearly, we make choices in our lives and those choices matter and matter greatly.  The concept of bechira chofsis is axiomatic to our faith and indeed, gives purpose and meaning to our lives.  So which is it, are we responsible for our success?  Is it the result of our talents, skills, wisdom and judgment?  Or, did Hashem plant those ideas in our head and all of our success belongs exclusively to Him?

The Ran, Rabbeinu Nissim, is bothered by this very question in the beginning of the 10th derush of his derashos ha’Ran, and answers in a profound and deeply meaningful way:

The meaning of this is as follows: The truth is that people have different talents in different areas. For example, certain people are predisposed to receive wisdom, whereas others are predisposed to devise strategies to gather and amass wealth. On account of this, the wealthy man can truthfully say, from a certain angle, “My ability and the might of my hand made me this wealth.” Nevertheless, insofar as that ability was implanted within you, be sure to remember Who gives you the ability to make wealth.

Moshe did not say, “V’zacharta ki Hashem Elokecha nosein lecha chayil, Then remember that Hashem is the One Who gives you wealth,” for if he had said that, he would be minimizing the fact that the ability implanted within the person is an intermediate cause in the accumulation of that wealth – but this is not the case. Therefore he said: ‘Although your ability is what made you this wealth, you should remember Who gives you that ability.’

The Ran suggests a critically important principle that is fundamental to how we are to relate to our success.  In truth, it is our talents and skills that achieve the positive results.  We can be proud of our efforts, hard work, prudent judgment and wise decisions.  Parshas Eikev doesn’t demand that we deny what we are good at or that our being good matters.  The Ran explains that what our Parsha and what Moshe demand of us is to always remember who gave us those skills, talents and abilities.

There is nothing wrong with appreciating our intelligence, decision-making, or skills.  But we must recognize that those gifts are on loan from the Almighty and never owned by us.  Arrogance is thinking we control our gifts, they are part of a permanent collection.  It is thinking we are autonomous and we are the sole arbiters of our destiny. Transferring the deserved credit and recognition from God to us is essentially worshipping ourselves and denying God’s involvement in our lives.

Lo savi so’eiva el bei’secha, the Torah warns us this morning, do not bring that despicable, vile, abominable character trait into your home.  Check your ego at the door.  As you enter that door into the home you earned, with the possessions you purchased and with the family you created, you may be tempted to feel slightly arrogant, superior or proud.  Check it at the door! Do not bring it into your home.

Don’t bring your arrogance to the kitchen table and God forbid be condescending to your spouse or children.  Don’t bring your arrogance to the phone and have conversations that disregard or diminish others.  Don’t bring that arrogance to your Shabbos table and sit in judgment of your neighbors, your family members and your community leaders.  And don’t bring that arrogance to the keyboard of your computer and express definitive, authoritative opinions about issues you likely don’t know everything about. Lo savi so’eiva el bei’secha, check it at the door, don’t bring your ego, your superiority, your judgment into your house.

Never stop being mindful that whatever gift, talent or skill you enjoy, is only a gift from above and it could be withdrawn as quickly as you discovered it.

Mariano Rivera, the greatest closer of all time, said in an interview as he was retiring:

“Everything I have and everything I became is because of the strength of the Lord, and through Him I have accomplished everything…Not because of my strength. Only by his love, his mercy, and his strength.”

V’zocharta es Hashem Elokecha ki Hu ha’nosein lecha koach laasos chayil!

Two Ways to Live Life – Which Best Describes You?

on Thursday, June 28 2018. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

Is God DeadCover

In 1966 Time magazine ran a now-famous cover story asking: Is God Dead? Nearly 50 years later, a Wall Street Journal article entitled, “Science Increasingly Makes the Case for God” records:

The fine-tuning necessary for life to exist on a planet is nothing compared with the fine-tuning required for the universe to exist at all. For example, astrophysicists now know that the values of the four fundamental forces—gravity, the electromagnetic force, and the “strong” and “weak” nuclear forces—were determined less than one millionth of a second after the big bang. Alter any one value and the universe could not exist. For instance, if the ratio between the nuclear strong force and the electromagnetic force had been off by the tiniest fraction of the tiniest fraction—by even one part in 100,000,000,000,000,000—then no stars could have ever formed at all…

Fred Hoyle, the astronomer who coined the term “big bang,” said that his atheism was “greatly shaken” at these developments. He later wrote that “a common-sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a super-intellect has monkeyed with the physics, as well as with chemistry and biology . . . . The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.”

Even science now realizes that the Universe proclaims testimony to God, making the only question whether we are listening.

Our Parsha begins by describing how Balak saw all that the Jewish people had done to the Emori and his response was to become very frightened. We have another Parsha named for a non-Jew who is described as experiencing through a different one of the senses. Vayar Balak, Balak saw, and Va’yishma Yisro, Yisro heard. Not only are they described as employing different senses, but their reactions are completely opposite to one another.

Yisro saw the hand of God guiding the Jewish destiny and was moved to join them on their journey. Balak saw what Yisro had heard, but he had the opposite reaction. He didn’t see the hand of God, he saw a strong Jewish people and set out to eliminate them.

Two people looking at the same phenomenon and story. One sees Hashem and the other sees nothing. We have a choice to be like Yisro or like Balak. We can live our lives looking for the hand of the Almighty or we can peer out and see nothing.

When Bilaam is recruited by Balak to curse the Jews and he is traveling on that mission, his donkey suddenly stops when seeing an angel. Bilaam doesn’t see the angel and so he strikes the donkey. When Bilaam finally sees the angel he says, “chatasi ki lo yadati ki atah nitzav likrasi ba’derech, forgive me for my sin for I did not know you were there.” The Seforno and Shelah wonder, why does Bilaam say chatasi? What cheit, what sin did he violate, if in fact he simply didn’t see the angel? They answer that the sin was not having looked at what was right in front of him, not seeing beneath the surface.

We each are recipients of incredible blessings daily in our lives. Hashem is orchestrating things from above. Yesterday, literally and figuratively, we prayed with all of our hearts for good health or livelihood or many other things. Then, we get what we prayed for and often forget that they come from Hashem because we are distracted by praying for tomorrow’s blessings. We need to pause to recognize that today’s blessings are the result of yesterday’s prayers and we owe a huge expression of gratitude and of thanks for the hand of Hashem in our lives.

But it is not only when things are going our way and are what we prayed for that we should see the hand of Hashem. Rashi describes the angel that blocks Bilaam’s path as – Mal’ach shel rachamim haya v’haya rotzeh l’man’o mi’lachto, he was an angel of compassion and he was blocking the path to prevent Bilaam from making a mistake. When our path seems blocked or we run into an obstruction, that, too, is an angel or the hand of Hashem acting for our benefit, even when we don’t understand it.

Albert Einstein said, “There are two ways to live: you can live as if nothing is a miracle; you can live as if everything is a miracle.”

God is calling all around us. You can look like Balak or you can listen like Yisro, the choice is up to you.