Follow by Email

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Secret to Successful Aging

Embedded in the teachings of our Sages is the perspective that there is no room for retirement in this world. Taking it easy and being disengaged from the world is an unhealthy mode of being.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s negative attitude on retirement is well known as illustrated by this story. A major hit movie starring Michel Douglas about two decades ago called Black Rain was written by a man named Warren Lewis.  At some point my father (Schwartzie) took him to the Rebbe for dollars and to receive his blessing. While in New York he decided to bring his father with him to the Rebbe. His father was a practicing physician in his late eighties! As he passed by the Rebbe he said " I'm a doctor and I’m in my 80's so all my patients have either died or moved to Florida and my wife wants me to retire. What should I do?” The Rebbe turned to him and said loudly "Retiring isn't good for your physical or mental health!"

Why is this though? Why is retiring looked at so negatively? After a long and fruitful life, doesn't one deserve a little peace and quiet?
To gain some perspective on this let us look at some facts about old age. According to the most recent research, our genes are only about 10 percent of the equation in determining how long and in what health. How we live and our manner of lifestyle accounts for 90 percent of the equation.

By lifestyle, however, I don’t mean dieting and exercise. Though these are important factors, they are not ultimately the critical ingredient for an active and engaged long life. Dan Buettner is one of the scientists researching the crucial ingredient in long-lived people. You’ll be shocked at what he found. 

He conducted a study in which they isolated three communities of people who all lived long and active lives far beyond the average life expectancy, one in Italy, one in Japan and one in America.
His editor at Geographic wanted him to find America's Blue Zone (what he calls these communities of long-lived active people).  He found America's longest-lived population among the Seventh-Day Adventists concentrated in and around Loma Linda, California. Adventists are conservative Methodists. They celebrate their day of focus and rest from sunset on Friday till sunset on Saturday. Sound familiar? 

A "24-hour sanctuary in time," they call it. In America, life expectancy for the average woman is 80. But for an Adventist woman, their life expectancy is 89. And the difference is even more pronounced among men, who are expected to live about 11 years longer than their American counterparts. Now, this is a study that followed about 70,000 people for 30 years. A thorough sterling study.

For 24 hours every week, no matter how busy they are, how stressed out they are at work, where the kids need to be driven, they stop everything and they focus on their God, their social network, and then, hardwired right in the religion, are nature walks -walking to Shul anyone?-. 

And the power of this is not that it's done occasionally, the power is it's done every week for a lifetime. They also tend to hang out with each other thus reinforcing these good habits. And then the foundation of all this is how they connect. They put their families first; take care of their children and their aging parents. They all tend to belong to a faith-based community, which research shows is worth between four and 14 extra years of life expectancy if you go to services four times a month. I mean, you can't make this stuff up.

The common denominator of each of these three cultures is that they take time to downshift and focus on what’s really important, their purpose and sense of mission. The Sardinians (the community in Italy) pray. The Seventh-Day Adventists pray. The Okinawans have this system of ikigai which means "purpose in life". They rise every day and the first thought they think of is their ikigai which can be roughly translated as “why am I here”. 

It’s incredible. The most cutting edge science on aging recommends the very things that are built into the system of Judaism.

When you're in a hurry or stressed out, that triggers something called the inflammatory response, which is associated with everything from Alzheimer's disease to cardiovascular disease. When you slow down for 15 minutes a day you turn that inflammatory state into a more anti-inflammatory state. When this happens at least once a week, the results are staggering in terms of life expectancy and vibrancy.

Another interesting element Buettner brings is that the way they treat their elders tangibly affects how long old people live in these societies. One of the most important elements of these societies is how they treat older people. You ever notice here in America, social prestige seems to peak at about age 25? Just look at the advertisements. However in these societies, the older you get the more prestige you have, the more wisdom you're celebrated for.  

This is a central concern in Judaism. The Bible itself states:
In the presence of the elderly you shall rise and you shall respect an elder; you shall fear your G-d, I am Hashem. (Vayikra 19:32)

The Torah uses an unusual verb in the commandment to respect the elderly. The Hebrew words are "vehadarta pnei zaken". "Vehadarta" does not really mean respect. In fact, the word is a verb form of the word "hadar" meaning "beauty". The exact translation of the commandment is probably closer to "you shall find beauty in the face of an elder". How fitting[1]. It’s incredible how many components parallel precisely the values in Judaism.

This is a culture that has yielded Ellsworth Wareham. Ellsworth Wareham is 97 years old. He's a multimillionaire, yet when a contractor wanted 6,000 dollars to build a privacy fence, he said, "For that kind of money I'll do it myself." So for the next three days he was out shoveling cement, and hauling poles around. And predictably, perhaps, on the fourth day he ended up in the operating room. But not as the guy on the table; the guy doing open-heart surgery. At 97 he still does 20 open-heart surgeries every month.
Consider Marge Denton. Marge is 104. Her grandson lives in the Twin Cities. She starts her day with lifting weights. She rides her bicycle. And then she gets in her beer colored 1994 Cadillac Seville, and tears down the San Bernardino freeway, where she still volunteers for seven different organizations. Her sense of wonder and passion for life is undiminished. "A stranger is a friend I haven't met yet!" is a favorite quote of hers.

These sorts of people are exceptional to be sure, but their vibrancy is attainable to all. They do all these life promoting habits and practices but what about who they are as a person, what drives them? What is so special about their internal character that gives them such vibrancy?

The commonality to be found in them all is the fact that they have embraced struggle. They haven’t reached a certain age and said “Ok enough already. I just want to relax  and not have to fight anymore.”

They all understand that not just is struggle necessary for life it’s actually a generator of life and energy. We don’t usually think this way . We generally tend to think that struggle saps our energy and willpower. It’s an unfortunate and uncomfortable part of life. But all too often we fail to realize the depth and beauty hidden in our struggles. Without minimizing the pain that we all go through in life, it is important to understand the impact our struggles and battles have on us. They are part of us; they make us who we are.  Judaism in fact says, that the struggle to overcome and give it our best shot is in fact, what makes us free people.

There is a famous teaching of our Sages:
“The only free person is the one who toils in Torah and Mitzvoth”

Everyone asks- how could it be? Seemingly Judaism is full of do’s and dont's, it is a religion that imposes all sorts of restriction and then we say that in truth it gives us freedom?

The answer is that we have to re-align our understanding of freedom, liberty, struggle, adversity and happiness. The message our society sends is that the less restriction the more freedom. The less self-work and struggle we need to engage in with ourselves, the freer we are and the happier we are. 

Judaism asserts the exact opposite. The more we work with ourselves to improve and the more we strive in our internal battles the more successful and happier we are. What’s so interesting is that all the most recent innovations in psychology and sociology don’t even dispute Judaism’s perspective anymore. From people like Martin Seligman (president of the American Psychological Association) to Dan Gilbert (Professor of psychology at Harvard) all the research is showing that the more people have an overall theme and sense of purpose in life, and the more they are willing to fight for that mission, the happier and the freer they feel.

This might very well be the reason that so many of our famous leaders and heroes lived to well over 90 years old, and in a time of history where the average life expectancy was 40 years old. Such titanic figures as Rabbi Akiva, Reb Yochanan ben Zakkai (over 100) , Hillel (over 100) , Shammai, Ben Azai as well as more recent leaders. The Chofetz Chaim (95), the Vilna Gaon (77), the Alter Rebbe (68), the Shaagas Aryeh (90) and on and on. This is incredibly anomalous given the time period and conditions they lived in. But these people were giants of struggle and thus possessed immense vibrancy in life. Perhaps this is why they maintained robust energetic lives until their 80’s 90’s and beyond.

OK so struggle is good but how can we embrace struggle or even as some would say, to dance with it, to look forward to it?

Consider this:

Aimee Mullins was born was born with fibular hemimelia (missing fibula bones) and, as a result, had both of her legs amputated below the knee when she was one year old.  That’s it for her athletic career. I mean, she can pursue other interests but you’d think there’s no way she'll even be able to walk normally. In fact, not just did she walk, she sprints for a living. In high school, she held the school's record for stolen bases in softball. While attending Georgetown University, she competed against able-bodied athletes in NCAA Division I track and field events, and is the first double-amputee sprinter to compete in NCAA track and field for Georgetown University.

When asked how she overcame such titanic adversity in her life she responded with an interesting thought. She said that people always ask her that and she doesn’t exactly understand the question. Implicit in this phrase of "overcoming adversity" is the idea that success, or happiness, is about emerging on the other side of a challenging experience unscathed or unmarked by the experience, as if successes in life have to come about from an ability to sidestep or circumnavigate the presumed pitfalls of a life with prosthetic's or what other people perceive as a disability. But, in fact, we are changed by our obstacles. We are marked by a challenge, whether physically, emotionally or spiritually.

Perhaps this is a good thing. Adversity isn't an obstacle that we need to get around in order to resume living our life. It's part of our life. And, certainly, this is not trying to diminish the impact, the weight, of a person's struggle. But we have to place it into perspective.

There is adversity and challenge in life, and it's all very real and relative to every single person, but the question isn't whether or not you're going to meet adversity, but how you're going to meet it. So, our responsibility is not simply shielding those we care for from adversity, but preparing them to meet it well.

It’s not about devaluing, or negating, these more trying times as something we want to avoid or sweep under the rug, but instead to find the opportunities that come wrapped in the adversity and the struggle.

So maybe the viewpoint we should have is not to be fixated on overcoming adversity. Instead we should be opening ourselves up to it, embracing it, grappling with it, maybe even dancing with it. And, perhaps, if we see adversity as natural, consistent and useful, we're less burdened by the presence of it.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Halakhic Artist

Due to life, some exciting new projects and the launching of my company this past week "UNZera Consulting", I did not have time to write a blog post. Instead I am posting a short excerpt from a chapter in my book. The chapter is an analysis of the Rogatchover Gaon's theory on color. Enjoy.

What is color? Does the appearance and color of an item have anything to do with its internal identity? Or is it of an external nature, merely a layer of appearance that interacts with the viewer, and not a statement of its intrinsic character?

The Rogatchover developed an intriguing and engaging theory for understanding how halakha views the nature of color.
The Talmud (Chullin 136b[1]) records a dispute between Shammai and Hillel regarding different colored figs. The law is that one cannot take trumah (one of five different types of tithes a Jew had to take from his produce in order to de-sanctify it and permit it for consumption) from one species of produce for another type of produce. For example, one could not tithe oranges for apples etc. Each plant, vegetable or fruit had to have the tithe separated from its own species in order to make the rest of that species of produce permitted for consumption.

The Talmud asks whether one can take trumah from black figs in order to de-sanctify white figs? Is that permissible? Beit Shammai says no and Beit Hillel says yes.

In the world of the Rogatchover this debate revolves around defining what the nature of color is. Is it merely an incidental part of an item, or is it integral to its existence[2]. Is it intrinsic or extrinsic?

The Rogatchover[3] [4] [5] explains as follows:
If color is integral to an entity’s existence then the white and black colored figs would be considered separate species and one would not be able to tithe from one to the other. If however, color and appearance are merely incidental extrinsic elements, then the hue of the fig would not be a determinant factor and one would be able to tithe from one to the other.

To justify this broad statement let us look at several building blocks of the Rogatchover’s theory.
According to Jewish law[6] a thief

can acquire the stolen item if he has affected a permanent change in the item. For example, if a thief stole raw wool and smoothed it and dyed it, then that wool becomes his property. This is because in essence the original item is no longer existent, since it is impossible to give back the original item.[7]

If however, the change initiated by the thief can be undone then he has not acquired the item and must return it since it is able to revert to its original form and thus is still extant. This in turn necessitates the obligation of returning the stolen object.

The Talmud (Baba Kama 101a) asks[8] an intriguing question. When one steals dye and uses it to color a piece of wool, what is the thief’s obligation regarding returning the stolen dye. The Talmud says that it depends on how we understand the idea of color. As Rashi explains[9], ‘is appearance an existence or not’.

If color is a substantive existence then halakhically the dye is considered to be extant and on the surface of the wool. If color is not accorded a category and substantive existence then we view the dye as having been absorbed into the wool and no longer in existence as an independent entity.

The question then becomes[10], is the dye not on the wool, i.e. it is gone by means of absorption, and hence the thief must pay the owner or is the dye on the wool still seen as independently existing on the surface of the wool and therefore the thief need not pay since he can tell the owner ‘here is the dye before you’?
This Gemara is a core building block of the Rogatchover’s theory of color. We have here a practical halakhic query based on the philosophical question of the nature of color.

The Rogatchover contends[11] that in our case the color permeates the very essence of the wool and irrevocably alters its identity. This would mean that the thief need not make restitution to the owner since the dye is indeed existent and he can say ‘here is the dye before you’.
This is true even if one bleaches the wool and removes the dye. Since the color has permeated its core, it has changed it forever, even if the new color departs from it[12]

Thus we see that to paint is to fundamentally create a new entity. Once that new entity is formed it makes no difference if it sheds its outer layer of appearance that was introduced to it since the new appearance has drilled into its meta-physical core.

This explains the Talmud’s ruling that if one dyed wool with a liquid that is absolutely prohibited (i.e. it is forbidden to have any sort of pleasure from at all), we must burn the wool. The question is, why can’t we bleach the wool and extract all the color and dye that was inserted into it?

According to our analysis it is crystal clear. Because even once we extract all the dye, this wool remains something that has as part of its identity, the forbidden liquid. Hence, it is prohibited entirely forever since the dye has irrevocably altered its core identity.

Since forming color and appearance is seen as an irrevocable creative act as we saw by the thief and the wool, it is no surprise that we find the Talmud employ this imagery for God’s act of creation.

The Talmud in Niddah 31[13] compares the forming of man to one who paints with different colors. Indeed the Talmud in Brachot (10a) using a clever etymological twist interprets the verse “there is no rock like God” as saying ‘there is no artist like God’.
This fascination and fixation with portraying God as an artist is because the act of forming color and appearance is seen halakhically as an existential and fundamentally creative act.
The Talmud in Brachot (10a)[14] as well indulges in this portrayal with God as an artist.

[1] דתניא היו לו שני מיני תאנים שחורות ולבנות וכן שני מיני חטין אין תורמים ומעשרים מזה על זה ר' יצחק אומר משום ר' אלעאי ב"ש אומרים אין תורמין וב"ה אומרים תורמין
“If one had two different colored figs, one black and one white, Beit Shammai says we cannot tithe from one to the other and Beit Hillel says we can.”
[2] The Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim (part 1, chapter 73) discusses the nature of color. He brings the opinions of the Mutakallemim that color is intrinsic to physical matter. They say that if one takes snow, for example, the white color is there in every piece of snow and is part of its very existence. The Rambam however rejects their opinion and says that one sees that when things are ground down into tiny flecks and turn into powder the color is gone. Therefore color is only part of the whole and not existent in the individual parts.

[3] See Michtevei Torah#283:
צורח בלא חומר מחלוקת בית שמאי ובית הלל חולין דף
קלו ע״ב אם מראה הוה מציאות אף דזה גדר צורר בלא
חומר, דאם יטחן החומר לדק נתבטל המראה כמ״ש בספר
המורה בהקדמות של המדברים

[4] See also Shut Varsha Siman 50:
ועיין בחולין דף קלו
ע״ב דב״ש וב״ה פליגי אם שינוי מראת הוי מין אחד
או ב׳ מינים

[5] Michtevei Torah #55:
ותליא אם מראה הוה עצם איכות, או רק
In other words, this question can be formulated in a way that lends itself to a discussion of quality versus quantity. See Chapter ? for more on this.

[6] Baba Kama 79a

[7] According to rabbinic law, even a change that can be reversed transfers ownership to the thief in order to encourage robbers to repent. See Baba Kama 95a

[8] איבעיא להו
יש שבח סמנין על הצמר או אין שבח
סמנין על הצמר
“They asked- is there substance to the color on the wool or is there no substance to the color on the wool”.

[9] כלומר חזומא מילחא היא או לאו

[10]אין שבח סמנין
על גבי הצמר ובעי שלומי ליה או דלמא
יש שבח סמנין על גבי צמר וא״ל הא מנחי
קמך שקלינהו שקלינהו
“Is the dye not on the wool [i.e. it is gone by means of absorption], and hence the thief must pay or is the dye on the wool and therefore the thief need not pay since he can tell the owner ‘here is the dye before you’.”

[11] In Michtevei Torah #37:
ורק גבי צמר אמרינן יש
שבח סמנים ע״ג. ר״ל דגוף הצמר נעשה כמו עיקר
האיסור, ולא מהני אם העבירו ע״י צפון, זח דיוק הגמ׳
ב״ק דף קא, דאל׳׳כ למה לן להדליק, יעבור עליו צפון,
וע״כ דנעשה עצם, וכמו חתיכה נעשית נבלה גבי בשר

[12] In this respect, color can be linked to the halakhic concept of chatikha nasa neveila or ‘a piece that becomes a carcass’. This is the halakha that a piece of meat that absorbs some milk is fundamentally changed into a new entity.
“Rav said (Chullin 108a), once the milk has imparted taste to the piece of meat, the meat itself becomes neveila (meat which was not properly slaughtered), and causes all of the other pieces of meat to be prohibited.”
The Rishonim explain that Rav does not relate to the piece of meat as a mixture of meat and milk, but rather views the meat as if it were inherently prohibited.  Therefore, when this meat is mixed with other pieces of meat, we do not attempt to contrast the drop of milk with the rest of the mixture, but we must rather neutralize the impact of the entire piece of meat on the mixture.  The Talmud describes this phenomenon as "Chaticha Na'aseit Neveila,". How can we understand this phenomenon?
 The permitted meat is transformed into a prohibited substance and is viewed as the prohibition itself instead of just something that was impacted by the forbidden item. In our case, the piece of meat itself is viewed as a prohibited substance and we no longer focus on the milk that prohibited the meat in the first place. 
This is true even if one squeezes all the milk out of the piece of meat. It is of no consequence since the meat underwent a metamorphosis and its identity transformed into a prohibited item and is not anymore contingent on the original forbidden agent, the milk.

[13] על כי נוראות נפליתי נפלאים מעשיך ונפשי יודעת מאד בא וראה שלא כמדת הקב"ה מדת בשר ודם מדת בשר ודם אדם נותן זרעונים בערוגה כל אחת ואחת עולה במינו ואילו הקב"ה צר העובר במעי אשה וכולם עולין למין אחד דבר אחר צבע נותן סמנין ליורה כולן עולין לצבע אחד ואילו הקב"ה צר העובר במעי אשה כל אחת ואחת עולה למינו

“R. Yose the Galilean gave the following exposition: What is the meaning of the Scriptural text, ‘I will give thanks unto Thee, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; wonderful are Thy works; and that my soul knows well’?  Come and see the contrast between the potency of the Holy One, blessed be He, and that of mortal man.
If a dyer puts different ingredients into a boiler they all unite into one color, whereas the Holy One, blessed be He, fashions the embryo in a woman's stomach in a manner that each element develops in its own natural way.”

[14] מאי דכתיב (תהילים קג) ברכי נפשי את ה' וכל קרבי את שם קדשו אמר ליה בא וראה שלא כמדת הקדוש ברוך הוא מדת בשר ודם מדת בשר ודם צר צורה על גבי הכותל ואינו יכול להטיל בה רוח ונשמה קרבים ובני מעים והקב"ה אינו כן צר צורה בתוך צורה ומטיל בה רוח ונשמה קרבים ובני מעים והיינו דאמרה חנה (שמואל א ב) אין קדוש כה' כי אין בלתך ואין צור כאלהינומאי אין צור כאלהינו אין צייר כאלהינו

“What does it mean “ Let my soul bless the Lord and all my innards his holy name”? He replied, come see how the ways of the Lord are entirely different then the ways of flesh and blood [i.e. man]. Flesh and blood paints a picture on the wall and is not able to insert into it life or a soul, stomach and intestines. Whereas God is not so. He can paint a picture within a picture and inserts into it life and a soul, stomach and intestines. This is what Hannah said “there is none as holy as the Lord for there is nothing besides you and there is no rock as our God”. What does it mean no rock? It means there is no artist like our God.”

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Crisis of Honesty

There is a fascinating principle in Judaism called achrei hamaasim nimshachim ha’levavot, the assertion that our actions eventually influence our hearts and emotions. The other formulation of this is the principle of mitoch she’lo lishmah ba’ah lish’ma’ah, from disingenuous action one will come to genuine sincerity.

So for example, the Talmud says to learn Torah and do mitzvot even though one has ulterior motives, since one will eventually gravitate towards sincerity. This in turn is because our actions are not just recipients of our thought and emotions, but in fact our hearts and minds can be recipients of our actions. There is a power and depth to, even superficial, action that eludes us. We instinctively feel that “faking it till you make it” is, at the end of the day, just that; Faking it. You’ve made it but you’ve also faked it. You don’t really own your success. Yet Judaism combats this perception, assuring us that, even if we have less than honorable intentions in our actions, they are of secondary importance to the supreme value, which is the action itself.

What’s increasingly astonishing is the underlying conception of religion embedded in this principle. Can you imagine a religion that says belief in the salvation of the Lord is everything (Christianity), saying concurrently that actions trump beliefs and emotions? Or a religion that stresses out of body experience and the spiritual supremacy of meditation (Buddhism and Hinduism), asserting that actions are of greater value? Even a religion that is more grounded in physicality, such as Islam, which does place emphasis on action, doesn’t commit to saying that an insincere action is far better than a sincere emotion.

To be sure, there is nuance here that complicates the issue. Judaism also says rachmana  liba bai, “God desires the heart”, and Buddhism and Hinduism also have a large element of engagement with the body, namely yoga. Christianity as well has some color on the issue and it is not all black and white.Yet the nuance merely tells us that we must be careful about placing these ideas in their proper context. The essential attitude however, is the same.

Recently, there has been much research in this field as psychologists and sociologists have become increasingly interested in how human behavior influences people. In a recent TED talk, Amy Cuddy 

gave a great brief synopsis of the research done in this field. She brought several examples of this astonishing phenomenon. For example, people who hold a pen in their mouth, thus forcing a smile to appear, actually become happier just from the superficial action.  Also, people who are forced to adopt leadership roles become influenced on the molecular level to change their behavior. As she says:

“So we know that in primate hierarchies, if an alpha needs to take over, if an individual needs to take over an alpha role sort of suddenly, within a few days, that individual's testosterone has gone up significantly and his cortisol (hormone that deals with stress response) has dropped significantly. So we have this evidence, both that the body can shape the mind, at least at the facial level, and also that role changes can shape the mind.”

Amazing. The two thousand year old Jewish concept of “actions influence the mind and heart”, getting a shout-out at a TED conference. Another great example she brings is that just assuming a certain pose can actually tangibly boost your confidence and performance. As she says:

“So we bring people into a lab, and they do either high-power poses (arms folded confidently in front of you, or wide stance with hands out to the sky) or low-power poses (hunched up, arms hugging the chest, touching your neck or face) they go through a very stressful job interview. It's five minutes long. They are being recorded. They're being judged also, and the judges are trained to give no nonverbal feedback, so they look like this.

Like, imagine this is the person interviewing you. So for five minutes, nothing, you get no cue what they're thinking and this is worse than being heckled. People hate this. It's what Marianne LaFrance calls "standing in social quicksand." So this really spikes your cortisol. So this is the job interview we put them through, because we really wanted to see what happened. We then have these coders look at these tapes, four of them. They're blind to the hypothesis. They're blind to the conditions. They have no idea who's been posing in what pose, and they end up looking at these sets of tapes, and they say, "Oh, we want to hire these people," -- all the high-power posers -- "we don't want to hire these people. We also evaluate these people much more positively overall." But what's driving it? It's not about the content of the speech. It's about the presence that they're bringing to the speech.
I tell people about this, that our bodies change our minds and our minds can change our behavior, and our behavior can change our outcomes.”

Cuddy then goes on to say that she always felt like this was cheating, its just faking it but not really owning the success. until one day she realized that she had faked it ‘till she became it. She had integrated internally her success and it wasn't just some gimmick that helped her reach a place she wouldn't have reached without it. It was part of her now.

This is our challenge, our struggle. All too often in a world that says ‘if it feels good, do it!’, we tend to think that if we go through the motions and perform a good deed without real enthusiasm, its second class Judaism. Its not real, its not genuine. When instead we should be thinking, this is right, this is real, this has the power to become my passion.

This is all just from our perspective. From God’s perspective, something we struggle with and lack enthusiasm in, and that we nonetheless stay true to and do, is incredibly more precious then what we naturally enjoy. There is a famous story of a man who came to the Tzemach Tzedek, the third Lubavitcher Rebbe and complained that he has no interest and passion in learning Torah. The Tzemach Tzedek famously replied “And what should I do. I always feel passion in learning!”. In other words if he always had a desire to learn, then he was never afforded the oppurtunity to  do something for God that he struggled with, that he lacked enthusiasm for, and that he had to really push himself to overcome. Chassidic thought asserts that, the act we struggle to do for God, is so much more precious to the Allmighty then the act we naturally run to do and enjoy. 

Friday, November 9, 2012

Divine Karma - Part Two

Last week we touched upon the idea of reciprocal reality or what the Talmud calls middah knegged middah, “measure for measure”. In contemporary terms this is the idea that there is a karmic balance in the universe, “what goes around comes around”. The question we asked is whether this is a natural law built in to the fabric of the universe or if it is a divinely imposed system.

In Pirkei Avot chapter 2 Mishnah 7 we find the following intriguing comment by the famous Hillel:
“He [Hillel] further saw a skull floating on the water. He said to it: 'Because you drowned you were drowned, and in the end those who drowned you will be drowned in turn.'"

From Hillel’s perspective punishment is not simply some Divine decree -- some magical promise of retribution for your sins. It is the very literal result of the evil you have perpetrated. There are spiritual laws of nature in this world every bit as much as there are physical. And this is what Hillel truly comes to teach us. He saw in this chance encounter the spiritual forces beyond which both initiated and were perpetuating this vicious cycle of violence.

Additionally the Mishnah states, "With the measuring stick that a person measures others he is measured himself" (Sotah 1:7). This is echoing the idea that the actions and energy we project unto the world and other people will bounce back to us at some point in time.
It is important to note that according to the Talmud we are commanded to imitate certain characteristics of the Divine.  The Gemara takes the verse in Deuteronomy which commands us to “walk in God’s ways,” as a commandment to imitate God’s characteristics of mercy and graciousness, “mah hu rachum, af ata rachum.”  This is done, the Talmud says in another place, by imitating four things that God does in the Torah: clothing the naked (Adam and Eve), visiting the sick (Abraham), comforting the mourner (Isaac) and burying the dead (Moses).

Chassidic thought takes this a step further. Not just are we commanded to emulate God, but in fact, the way we act towards others is the way God will act to us. If we are patient with others, then God will be patient with us. If we are forgiven of others, God will be forgiven of us etc…

We also find support for this in the famous statement of ben Azzai (Pirkei Avot 4:2):
“One mitzvah leads to another mitzvah, and one sin leads to another sin; for the reward of a mitzvah is a mitzvah and the 'reward' of a sin is a sin."

The simple way of understanding this is that part of the reward of doing mitzvot is that God will put us into situations where we are afforded more opportunities to do good. To some extent, this principle is simply a gift from heaven. G-d rewards us for performing the first mitzvah by putting us in the right place at the right time, affording us opportunities to do yet more mitzvot.

[The same unfortunately holds true regarding evil: one sin leads to another. If a person commits a certain type of sin one time -- say one he has never done before -- he will feel guilty. The next time, however, he will not feel that same twinge of regret. He may then slip down another rung and sin in a slightly bigger way -- partly because he's developed an appetite for that type of behavior and partly because it's only one more small step from where he now is. The Talmud teaches that if one sins and repeats it, the sin becomes "permissible" to him (Sotah 22a). It has just lost its severity. He wasn't struck by lightning. Nothing seems to have changed; the world goes on as usual.]

But how can this statement be true if we know that, “There is no reward in this world" (Talmud Kiddushin 39b). "Today is to perform; tomorrow is for reward" (Talmud Eruvin 22a). Doesn’t this imply that essentially there is no reward for mitzvoth in this world?

Perhaps our perspective should be that the reward of a mitzvah is the mitzvah itself. The word mitzvah etymologically is a close cousin of the word tzavta, which means connection. So the Mishnah is saying that the result of the mitzvah is the connection to God itself that we experience as a result of doing His will.
The karmic balance of the mitzvah can be understood in two ways. On a humanistic level and a spiritual level. The humanistic one is that the actions we do, start to become second nature and actually tangibly impact our emotions and psyche. This is the fascinating assertion that achre hamasim nimcshachim ha’levavot “our hearts are drawn to our actions”. (An idea that psychology has become very interested in and the subject of the next post.)

Giving a nickel or dime at the cash register to cure heart disease may make very little difference to the recipient organization (although, of course, every nickel adds up), but it makes a difference to us. It will transform us into more charitable individuals, and the next time it will be that much easier. We will have then readied ourselves for bigger and greater challenges. We will start to naturally gravitate towards good deeds and develop an appetite and appreciation for being kind and generous people. Thus we will have received reward for our good deeds in the sense that we are now that much closer to God and a spiritually enlightened life.

The spiritual metaphysical level is just the macro-cosmic layer of the humanistic one. Instead of just focusing on the good changes that will be nurtured within our psyches’, we can focus on the bigger picture. One mitzvah can produce a shift in the balance of good and evil in the world and one action can literally change the world. If you feel like that is ludicrous, just consider this story.

“His name was Fleming, and he was a poor Scottish farmer. One day, while trying to eke out a living for his family, he heard a cry for help coming from a nearby bog. He dropped his tools and ran to the bog. There, mired to his waist in black mulch, was a terrified boy, screaming and struggling to free himself. Farmer Fleming saved the lad from what could have been a slow and terrifying death.

The next day, a fancy carriage pulled up to the Scotsman's sparse surroundings. An elegantly dressed nobleman stepped out and introduced himself as the father of the boy Farmer Fleming had saved. "I want to repay you," said the nobleman. "You saved my son's life."

"No, I can't accept payment for what I did," the Scottish farmer replied, waving off the offer. At that moment, the farmer's own son came to the door of the family hovel. "Is that your son?" the nobleman asked. "Yes," the farmer replied proudly.

"I'll make you a deal. Let me take him and give him a good education. If the lad is anything like his father, he'll grow to a man you can be proud of."

And that he did. In time, Farmer Fleming's son graduated from St. Mary's Hospital Medical School in London, and went on to become known throughout the world as the noted Sir Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of penicillin.

Years afterward, the nobleman's son was stricken with pneumonia. What saved him? Penicillin.

The name of the nobleman? Lord Randolph Churchill.

His son's name? Sir Winston Churchill. The man who held the Nazis at bay.

Someone once said, "What goes around, comes around

In conclusion it seems to be there is strong indication that the 'measure for measure' principle can be understood as a natural law of the universe, as well as a sort of “magical” and divinely imposed system of reality.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Is God playing Parent with us? Reciprocal Reality or Parental Punishment

The concept of middah knegged middah is an intriguing one. Middah knegged middah means measure for measure. In other words “as you have done to to others so shall be done unto you”, or in conventional terms, “what comes around goes around”. For every action you take there is an equal and/or opposite result. This is the spiritual parallel to Isaac Newton’s third law “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”. Judaism definitely agrees with the first part of Newton’s law “equal reaction”, and sometimes agrees with the second part, “opposite reaction”.

The first area of reality that this applies to, is our interpersonal interactions. Any actions, indeed any emotions, we project to others will rebound and come right back at us. Judaism asserts that we can affect reality and people around us in powerful ways. When we feel positively toward another they will reciprocate. When we feel impatient with them, they will reciprocate in turn, and so on. In fact, so strong is the impact of our attitude towards others, that we can make enemies into friends simply by treating them and acting towards them with joy and warmth. Gradually this will affect their heart and transform their negative feelings into positive ones.

This is reflected in the verse "Kamayim hapanim l'panim, ken lev ha'adam l'adam:" "As water reflects a face back to a face, so too, one's heart is reflected back to him by another." A recent TED talk

has shown that this principle holds good even in the animal kingdom! In his talk “Frans de Waal: Moral behavior in animals” shows multiple examples of animals after a fight reconciling due to the winner reaching out to comfort the loser. In fact, chimpanzees will hug and kiss after a serious tussle. But the core idea here is that one animal went out on a limb to reach out to the other. And just that one simple overture affects the other, erasing the hostility that was dominant just moments before.

Not just is this true on a micro-cosmic personal level, it is also true on the grander stage of human history, what we call “poetic justice”. Actors and agents in history set in motion events that sometimes only culminate eons later. But the key concept here is that the actions they took, resulted in similar and identical events generations later. The doctrine of reward and punishment, for example, is given an almost mathematical exactitude with the often reiterated belief in measure for measure. The Talmud states (Sanhedrin 90a): “all the measures [of punishment and reward] taken by the Holy One, blessed be He, are in accordance with the principle of measure for measure”.  The scriptural proof text for this is from Ovadiah 1:15- “as thou hast done, it shall be done unto thee: thy reward shall return upon thine own head.”

For example, Pharaoh commanded his people to drown the Israelite boys in the waters of the Nile. Later, his own army perished by drowning in the Red Sea in pursuit of the Israelites. Another example is when Haman was angry with Mordechai for not bowing down to him and he built a gallows to have him hanged. He ended up being forced to lead Mordechai on a horse to honor him, and being hanged on his own gallows.

Poetic justice is brought to a climax in the case of false witnesses – eidim zomemim. The Torah requires the court to "do to him as he had conspired to do to his brother" (Deuteronomy 19:19). We punish the conspirators with exactly the same punishment through which they had planned to harm their fellow.

“And in the end, the love you take
Is equal to the love that you make.”

Paul McCartney and the Beatles ended their iconic White Album with this couplet of poetry that was part of a song called, appropriately, The End. Think about it. In sixteen words, we are taught that in the final analysis, the wisdom to end all wisdom is this: the quantity of love you, or I, or the world receives is directly related to the quantity that we give. Underlying such a grand idea is the even grander idea that all love and hate, peace and war exist in an almost karmic balance of cause and effect that is the result of free human initiative. You and I are at liberty to put out however much love we choose, and it is a firm universal law that we will get back what we gave in equal measure. The Beatles are perhaps unconsciously echoing here the classic Talmudic concept of middah k’neged middah, measure for measure.

What we need to look at more closely, however, is how exactly this works. Does measure for measure mean that reality is reciprocal, that actions we take reverberate in certain ways automatically? Or is it that God arranged a system of justice and order in this world that things we do will ultimately come back to us, not because they must, but because God wants such a system of rebounding reaction? In other words is it built into the very system of nature or is it a divinely mandated and enforced principle?

For example, a child who eats too much chocolate will get sick. This is a reciprocal reaction to his action. But it is a natural and automatic one. A parent punishing their child for eating too much chocolate is also a reciprocal reaction to their action, but it is not an automatic and natural one.

Which is it? Is “what comes around goes around” an automatic reality, or is God playing parent with us?
Stay tuned.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Biblical Inconsistency and Rabbinical Readings

I am presenting this week a sample from my upcoming Chumash with the Rogatchover Gaon's commentary translated and annotated. Enjoy.

Bereishit 1:20

Overview – The Rogatchover raises an inconsistency that the Talmud asks, about whether birds were created from water or from land. He then proposes a novel answer, based on the Rambam’s assertion that there are creatures that are both water and air based animals.

 וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים--יִשְׁרְצוּ הַמַּיִם, שֶׁרֶץ נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה; וְעוֹף יְעוֹפֵף עַל-הָאָרֶץ, עַל-פְּנֵי רְקִיעַ הַשָּׁמָיִם
“Let the waters produce swarms of living creatures and birds that fly. And let fowl fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven.”

The Rogatchover:
 דעוף יעופף. עיין חולין דןן כ״ז, ע״ב א, ולשיטת הרמב״ם ז״ל דיש מין 
שהוא דג וגם עון 6, כמבואר בםה״מב ובהל׳ מא״ם פ״ב ג, י״ל ת ה ר״?
כאן ד. ואכמ״ד.
 Look in Chullin page 27b. And according to the Rambam’s opinion that there is a species that is a fish as well as a bird, as is explained in Sefer Hamitzvot and Hilkhot Maachalot Issurim chapter two, we can say that that is the intent here. And this is not the place to elaborate.”

The Background:
In verse 20 it says “Let the waters produce swarms of living creatures and birds that fly.”
The Talmud in Chullin 27b asks, in verse 20 it states that birds were created from water, yet in chapter 2 verse 19 the Torah says:
וַיִּצֶר יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים מִן-הָאֲדָמָה, כָּל-חַיַּת הַשָּׂדֶה ואֵת כָּל-עוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם, וַיָּבֵא אֶל-הָאָדָם, לִרְאוֹת מַה-יִּקְרָא-לוֹ; וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר יִקְרָא-לוֹ הָאָדָם נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה, הוּא שְׁמוֹ
“God had formed out of the ground every beast of the field and every bird of the sky

The implication here is that birds were formed from the earth. Which was it, were birds formed from the waters or from the earth? The Talmud answers that in fact birds were created from mud which is a mixture of earth and water. Thus, the Torah attributes birds as being land-formed creatures as well as being sea-formed creatures.

Chullin 27b:
ועוד שאלו כתוב אחד אומר ויאמר אלהים ישרצו המים שרץ נפש חיה ועוף יעופף אלמא ממיא איברו וכתיב (בראשית ב) ויצר ה' אלהים מן האדמה כל חית השדה ואת כל עוף השמים אלמא מארעא איברו אמר לו מן הרקק
“He put to him further this question: One verse says. And God said: Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and let birds fly above the earth, from which it would appear that birds were created out of the water; but another verse says. And the Lord God formed out of the ground every beast of the field and every bird of the air, from which it would appear that they were created out of the earth? He replied: They were created out of the mud.”

The Innovation:
There is a dispute amongst the Rishonim whether one can receive numerous sets of lashes (malkot) for the same act. For example, the prohibition of wearing wool and linen together (shaatnez) is stated twice. If one transgresses this injunction do they receive two sets of lashes or only one set for the one act?

The Rambam holds that one can never receive numerous sets of lashes for a doubled prohibitory clause. He states this with some force in Sefer Hamitzvot- mitzvah lo saaseh (negative prohibition) #179:
וכבר נתבאר ביטול דבר זה, ושאין לוקין שתי מלקיות על לאו אחד בשום פנים, כמו שביארו בגמרא חולין.
“This idea has no merit, as our Sages have explained in tractate Chullin that one can never receive two sets of lashes for a single prohibition.”

Several other Rishonim argue with the Rambam, most vocal among them the Ramban (in Sefer Hamitzvot loc. cit.). They argue that one can receive numerous sets of lashes for the same act.
This argument is brought to fore in the Talmud. In Makkot 16b the Talmud discusses one who eats a creature called the putisa. The putisa is a sheretz. A sheretz is a type of creature that we would conventionally term an insect. The sheretz has special laws concerning one who touches it and the resultant ritual impurity (tumah) that they receive. As well the Torah forbids eating any sheretz. The Torah first states the prohibition generally (twice in fact), and then enumerates a specific injunction against eating a land, sea, and air sheretz.

The law as stated in Makkot is that this person receives four sets of lashes for eating this crawling creature. Rashi and most other Rishonim learn that the reason one receives four sets of lashes is because the Torah says twice a general prohibition regarding eating a creature, and twice states a prohibition to eat a land based creature (which according to them is what the putisa is classified as). Thus for each clause one receives lashes ending in four measures of punishment for the four infractions.

The Rambam however is forced to learn this law in a very different style since he holds that one does not receive multiple sets of lashes for a doubled prohibitory injunction.
Instead, he holds that the reason one receives four measures is because this creature called the putisa is a land, sea and air creature all at once since it lives in all three environments. Therefore one receives three sets of lashes for the three different prohibitions of eating a land, sea and air creature. (The fourth set is for the infraction of eating a non-kosher fish.)

The first source of the Rambam’s position on the putisa is in Sefer Hamitzvot- mitzvah lo saaseh (negative prohibition) #179:
מצות ל׳׳ת קעט
״כי הנה יתכן שיהיה דג ושיהיה שרץ המים, וכמו כן יהיה עוף
ויהיה שרץ המיס, וכמו כן יהיה עוף ושרץ העוף. מהו פוטיתא, שהוא עוף שרץ
העוף ושרץ הארץ ושרץ המים, ולפיכך׳ חייבין עליה ארבע מלקיות״.
“This is the putisa, which is a bird, a sheretz ha'of (an air creature), a sheretz ha'aretz (an earthbound creature), and a sheretz hamayim (a water creature), and one therefore receives four sets of lashes for eating one.”

The second source is in Hilkhot Maachalot Assurot Chapter 2 Halakha 23:
הרי שהיתה הבריה משרץ העוף ומשרץ המים ומשרץ הארץ כגון שהיו לה כנפים והיא מהלכת על הארץ כשאר שרצים והיתה רבה במים ואכלה לוקה שלש מלקיות
“The following laws apply if a particular creature is [included in the categories of] a flying crawling animal, an aquatic crawling animal, and a crawling animal of the earth, e.g., it has wings, it walks on the earth like other earthbound crawling animals, and it reproduces in the water. If one eats it, he is liable for three sets of lashes.”
[It should be noted that the Raaved argues with this most emphatically loc. cit.:
כתב הראב"ד ז"ל המאסף הזה אסף דברים שאינם בעולם שלא שמענו מימינו נמלה גדלה במים ולא שרץ העוף גדל במים
“The compiler gathered ideas here that simply don’t exist in this world and that we have never heard of- that there should be a land creature living in the sea or an air creature living in the sea!?”]

Enter the Rogatchover who threads all this together and resolves the apparent biblical contradiction with ease as follows:
According to the Rambam there is a creature that is a sea and air animal we can say that our verse (1:20) is only talking about air creatures that are also sea creatures. Therefore the verse states:
 וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים--יִשְׁרְצוּ הַמַּיִם, שֶׁרֶץ נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה; וְעוֹף יְעוֹפֵף עַל-הָאָרֶץ, עַל-פְּנֵי רְקִיעַ הַשָּׁמָיִם
“Let the waters produce swarms of living creatures and birds that fly. And let fowl fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven.”

The waters are producing the birds here because the verse is speaking about the amphibious birds that also dwell in the water. Interestingly this would explain the anomalous terminology used in this verse for life, namely,  שֶׁרֶץ נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה. The term sheretz is employed here, a strange choice of words and not one used elsewhere for describing life. According to the Rogatchover it is in fact, a most precise choice of linguistic style. This is because the verse is speaking about a sheretz that lives in the water as well as the air.
Whereas the verse in 2:19,
וַיִּצֶר יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים מִן-הָאֲדָמָה, כָּל-חַיַּת הַשָּׂדֶה ואֵת כָּל-עוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם, וַיָּבֵא אֶל-הָאָדָם, לִרְאוֹת מַה-יִּקְרָא-לוֹ; וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר יִקְרָא-לוֹ הָאָדָם נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה, הוּא שְׁמוֹ
“God had formed out of the ground every beast of the field and every bird of the sky
which attributes birds as being formed from the earth and having nothing to do with water is referring to all regular birds.