Thursday, October 27, 2011

What Are You Babbling About?

Parashat Noah

1 Cheshvan 5772

October 28-29, 2011

“If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach.” – Genesis 11:6

In addition to the story of the flood, the portion of Noah also shares the story of the Tower of Babel. The story goes something like this:

After the flood and a number of generations, everyone on Earth spoke the same language. Together they decided to build a city with a tower so tall that it would reach the heavens. God was not comfortable with this, so with assistance from angels, God made it so that the people spoke different languages, and God then scattered them around the world. By virtue of no longer being able to communicate with one another and being so spread out, the people stopped building the city.

It’s pretty obvious that the question this narrative is attempting to address is: how do we account for the fact that human beings live all around the world and speak different languages, if God saved Noah’s family from the flood alone? Wouldn’t they (and their descendants) have all spoken the same language and lived in the same part of the world?

The wisdom of this story is immediately applicable in today’s world. Think about how much of our strife and struggle is due to an inability to effectively communicate with one another and work together to solve common problems!

The verse quoted above really resonates with me, as I do believe that if all the citizens of the world were to come together as one people with one language, then the sky would be nowhere near the limit of our accomplishments. Maybe due to our existing reality, the “sky is the limit,” but the verse suggests that we have the potential to reach much higher...

How do we make sense of the concept of coming together “as one people”? Our history as Jews has shown that we are often not welcomed into non-Jewish society, and that even when we have had autonomy and freedom, we have chosen to live separately in our own communities. Not only this, but we as Jews have become so intent on drawing lines of exclusivity – for example, a primary one being who is a Jew and who is not (with different interpretations from different people/movements) – that we can’t even combine as Jews alone to be “one people” – let alone with non-Jews. Can we break down coming together as “one people” into the simple concept of “love your neighbor as yourself,” which Rabbi Akiva felt was the most important principle in the entire Torah?

How do we deal with the concept of having “one language?” Must we understand it as being literal? Is there no room for English, Hebrew, Spanish, Italian and others? I would argue that having the ability to communicate clearly and effectively is the major issue. And yet, I think you could make a strong argument that differences in language and how it is used often result in unintentional conflict, and if everyone in the world spoke the same language, that our ability to communicate with one another might be enhanced. How would we choose which language would be the common language? Mandarin Chinese is the language spoken by the largest number of people in the world currently. Are you ready/willing to learn a language that is not your native tongue for the betterment of the world? What if it were as part of a mass movement?

The Torah makes it clear that we as humankind have the ability to make this world whatever we wish of it, if only we would join together and effectively communicate with one another. Let’s start with baby steps: in the week ahead, befriend someone you normally wouldn’t. Consider registering in a course to study a new language. Pride yourself on being a citizen of the world, and let’s work together, as humankind, to make this world heaven on earth for us all.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Breakfast clubs are great – book clubs are better!

Simchat Torah / Shabbat Bereshit 5772

October 20-22, 2011

Every year around this time I start to reflect on what it’s like being part of the best book club in the history of the world. Not only has the club been in existence for almost 6,000 years, but wherever my travels take me, I know there is someone else who has read the same book I have, and is interested in discussing it.

The book, of course, is the Torah (which is actually made up of 5 books).

We read a designated portion of the Torah every week throughout the year. This week, we reach the end, and upon doing so, start back at the beginning (literally, as the first portion of the Torah is called “Bereshit” – commonly translated as “In the beginning”).

What are we to make of the fact that every year we read through the entire Torah, only to start over again once we’ve reached the end?

It’s pretty challenging mentally to experience something’s conclusion and not have any time to let it sink in and reflect on it before starting over from scratch. And yet, in this never-ending cycle, there is beauty.

Every year, I always find new things that interest me:

Did you know, for example, that “Moopim” and “Choopim” are Jewish names? (Benjamin’s sons)(Genesis 46:21). Let’s just say that I now have a couple more names to add to the arsenal when it comes time to name my next puppy.

How about the fact that when the prophetess Miriam (Moses’s sister) dies, the Israelites do not mourn her loss (Numbers 20:1), but when the High Priest Aaron (Moses’s brother) dies, the Israelites mourn for 30 days (Numbers 20:29). What gives?

Not only are there new things to learn, but often, where we are in our lives as we approach a book has an impact on how it touches us. I am certain that the Torah will speak to me in different ways in the coming year given the professional and personal transitions I have made recently, allowing much of the old to become new again.

This coming Shabbat, in the portion of Bereshit, we read the traditional Jewish account of the world’s creation. Rather than focusing on what was created on each individual day and in what order the events might have taken place, I encourage you to take a broader look at the creation story, and in particular, the comment attributed to God at the end of creation: “v’hineh tov me’od” – “and it was very good.” The world around us is flawed, but beautiful, and I would argue that it remains “very good.” The important question though is: what can we do as humankind to take a world that is “very good” and make it great?

I hope that in our next cycle through the Torah in the year ahead we will all commit to set aside regular time to read our book for book club, so that we’ll have the opportunity to learn new things, to have the old transformed into new again, and to approach our lives with the mission of making all that is very good, great.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Live in my house - I'll be your shelter

Sukkot 5772

October 12-19, 2011

“Every resident among the Israelites shall live in booths, in order that your [ensuing] generations should know that I had the children of Israel live in booths when I took them out of the land of Egypt."

-Leviticus 23:42-43

The Torah tells us that after leaving Egypt, the Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years before finally being granted access to the Promised Land. Aside from Moses likely not asking for directions due to being a man, we’re taught that God wanted the generation of slaves to pass away, and to have their children, who had been born free, be the ones to conquer and possess the land. During their years of wandering, the Israelites constructed temporary dwelling booths, known as “sukkot” (“sukkah” in the singular). Food and drink were provided in the form of manna (and eventually quail), and streams of water. Thus, despite living in temporary structures, the Israelites were well taken care of during their time in the desert, with their basic food, clothing and shelter needs met.

There are many Americans who do not have the ability to sleep under the same roof each night, and many who do not know where their shelter will come from on any given night. There are many more at risk: according to a recent article, in addition to those already making up the homeless population in this country, one in three Americans would be unable to make their rent or mortgage payment for more than one month if they lost their jobs. ( While there is no question that a number of those who are homeless suffer from mental illness, resulting in more complicated situations, many of those who are homeless have been knocked down, and are fighting to get back up.

These struggles are not limited to Americans. Over 250,000 Israelis marched in Tel Aviv in August to protest the lack of affordable housing options in the country – a precursor to homelessness.

Are we grateful enough for the shelter we’re blessed to have?

Are there ways we can work towards helping others who are shelter-insecure?

There are organizations out there working with faith-based groups to help shelter the homeless, as well as provide career training and self-care resources, that crave volunteers and community organizers. For example, check out

One of the greatest challenges facing those who happen to be homeless is securing gainful employment. One reason for the challenge is the lack of appropriate wardrobe. Check out the National Suit Drive put on by Men’s Warehouse as a way to help those who don’t have interview-appropriate clothing:

The homeless are also more likely to be malnourished than the general population. Ensuring that no one goes hungry is our obligation as Jews, and as human beings. Consider initiating a canned food drive, and donate the items received to your local kosher food bank. For a large-scale endeavor, consider getting involved with MAZON --

As we enter the Sukkot holiday, the Festival of Booths, let us remember that while we are asked to dwell in these temporary structures for only one week, there are many people out there who have no permanent home to speak of, much like our ancestors wandering in the desert. Make it a priority to play a part in helping those who happen to be homeless: volunteer your time, donate clothing, allow none to go hungry, and do whatever you can to ensure that those in our community will always have a place to safely rest their heads.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

You Talkin' To Me?

Shabbat Yom Kippur
10 Tishrei 5772 / October 7 - 8, 2011

“Al chet shechatanu lefanecha b’dibbur peh” – “For the sin we have committed before you in speech”

-Yom Kippur liturgy

“Don’t talk of stars, burning above, if you’re in love, show me.”

-My Fair Lady

We’ve all heard of someone having their significant other break up with them by changing their Facebook status from “in a relationship” to “single.” And we find something wrong with that – as we should. But why does that strike us as wrong? The answer is simple -- the mechanisms we use to communicate matter.

Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, text messages, emails, phone calls, handwritten letters.

How do we communicate with one another? How do we determine which mechanism is the best suited for a particular communiqué from the many choices we have?

Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” which has been published for over 75 years and has sold over 30 million copies, recently received an update – as reported Wednesday morning in the Book Review section of the New York Times, it’s now titled “How to Win Friends and Influence People in the Digital Age.” The world has changed, and so too, must our communication methods.

What we say, how we say it, and in which medium we communicate all make a difference. For example, we’ve all had moments where we take offense to an email we’re reading because the author’s intended sarcasm does not shine through the text. We have all said or written something and immediately wished we could take it back (it happened to me as recently as 2 days ago!). We have all been hurt by the words of others, and thus it is fair to assume that our words have caused pain as well.

A particularly difficult type of communication is criticism. The ancient rabbis make it clear that there are certain instances where we’re required to criticize one another – when we’ve stepped too far over the line. But how are we communicating such criticism? Do we sandwich the critique between compliments? Do we try to empathize with the person we’re communicating with? Is the criticism coming from a place of love rather than hate? Are we ourselves open to having others critique us?

Despite humanity having more communication mechanisms than ever before, studies have shown that as Americans, we on average are lonelier than those who came before us. What gives?

“I love you.” Arguably the most powerful words we possess. How you say it, when you say it, and to whom you say it all matter. To say “I love you” on a first date makes you crazy and un-dateable. To say it to everyone you know may cheapen the meaning we ascribe to it. To say it never may cause pain to those who would typically fall into the category of “loved ones.” Take a moment and think about the phrase. Do we say it often enough? Who do we say it to? Do we mean it? Do we recognize the positive power of the phrase? Most importantly, do we show it?

How do we communicate our values as a people? Rabbi Akiva said that the greatest single principle in the entire Torah is to love your neighbor as yourself. We’ve all heard the adage “actions speak louder than words.” Will you commit, with me, to finding a way in the year to come to do community service on at least a monthly basis? To setting aside a regular time for Torah study? To showing the love you’ve verbally expressed to others?

As we enter Yom Kippur, our Day of Atonement, let us reflect on how we can better communicate with others and be more conscious of the mediums we use to do so, how we share our love with others, and how in the year to come we can meaningfully put our words into action.