All posts by rabbiedw

Following The Call

I speak of two fine men and martyrs. And I speak of us.
U.S. citizen James Foley was doing his job as a journalist and photographer, documenting in words and pictures the suffering of people in the Syrian Civil War, when he was abducted by a Syrian militia group November 22, 2012. Eventually, he was put into the hands of the self-proclaimed jihadist group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), who slew him on August 19, saying his slaying was in retaliation for U.S. air strikes against ISIS forces in Iraq.
Foley was a Roman Catholic Christian, and at a mass for him following his slaying, Bishop Peter Libasci made it clear that Foley’s job was not merely an income-producing activity, but was also his vocation, his calling from God. The bishop said that Foley was living his faith by filing images and reports of people suffering from war and oppressive regimes.
Foley’s kidnapping in Syria was not his first detention for pursuing his work; he’d been captured in Libya in 2011 and held for 44 days. But, said the bishop, Foley “went back again that we might open our eyes.”
The slain journalist’s parents, John and Diane Foley, explained on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that their son’s experience while an undergrad at Marquette University, a Catholic and Jesuit school, helped him choose his life’s course.
“Jimmy was challenged when he first met poverty and disadvantage at Marquette University,” John Foley said. “Since that moment his soul and heart grew and grew and grew to encompass all those people who needed help, needed their stories told. He began to love all and that was his biggest gift to the people he met. His love and his help.”
When one of the “Morning Joe” hosts suggested that the younger Foley grew to feel a responsibility to help others, John Foley responded, “He ran with it. He grew stronger and more committed.”
“He was home in October 2012 for his birthday,” Diane Foley said. “He looked so good. I said, ‘Jim, can’t you stay home through Christmas?’ He said, ‘Oh, Ma, I have to go back, but I will be home for Christmas.’ He had made promises. He was so committed to the people whose suffering he was trying to humanize. He wanted the world to know, to know how people were suffering, particularly the children.”

U. S. and Israeli Citizen Steven Joel Sotloff was the son of Arthur and Shirley Sotloff of Pinecrest, Florida. He was a grandson of Holocaust survivors. He grew up in Pinecrest, Florida, graduated from Kimball Union Academy, a private boarding school in Meriden, New Hampshire, and later attended the University of Central Florida from 2002 to 2004, where he majored in journalism but didn’t graduate. He studied at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel. Sotloff was Jewish and previously worked for Temple Beth Am Day School in Florida.
Sotloff, became a freelance journalist, and was kidnapped in Syria in August 2013. Sotloff’s mother Shirley appealed on Aug. 27 in a videotaped message to Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, for her son’s release. Addressing the leader of the Islamic State group by name, Shirley Sotloff said in a video her son was “an innocent journalist” who shouldn’t pay for U.S. government actions in the Middle East over which he has no control.
After his abduction in Syria about a year ago, his family had sought a news blackout, as has been done in the case of many other abducted journalists. The theory is that by putting the journalist in the international spotlight, the kidnappers will assume they’ve netted someone high-profile and can extort ever-higher sums for their captive’s release.
Before his capture, Sotloff at some point based himself in Yemen, having learned Arabic there, and traveled around the region with a Yemeni mobile number. His career took off during the Arab Spring, during which he published work in TIME, National Interest, Foreign Policy, The Christian Science Monitor, and the Long War Journal, to name a partial list from his Twitter account. He also freelanced for the Jerusalem Report and the Jerusalem Post.
“We refused to acknowledge any relationship with him in case it was dangerous for him,” said Avi Hoffman, editor of the Jerusalem Report magazine, which had published Sotloff’s pieces.
The 31-year-old had been drawn to reporting from the world’s conflict zones because he was unable to “turn his back on the suffering pervading the world,” a family spokesman said, after Sotloff’s father briefly appeared holding a photo of his son, declining to speak to media.

This is tough stuff but we cannot afford to ignore it. Tonight, however, I don’t want to speak about the American response. I want to speak about Jim and Steve. I want to ponder with you how two men – not soldiers – would put themselves in harms way. What were they thinking?

I believe they were doing their jobs in order for the world to open their eyes. I believe they were soldiers, sans uniforms. I believe they were heroes.
A question:
When has a news report or photos of some situation far from where you live “opened your eyes”? Did you hear any kind of calling in that? Once your eyes were “opened,” what form did your response take?
In other words, have we felt called, compelled to do our job, despite the risks? And like Jim and Steve, did we comply? Did we accept the burden?
I think of the prophet Amos (7:14-15) who said, I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the LORD took me from following the flock, and the LORD said to me, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.”
Amos lived in the eighth century B.C., when the Hebrew people were divided into two kingdoms. The southern kingdom, Judah, had its capital at Jerusalem. The northern kingdom, Israel, had its capital at Bethel. Unfortunately, some unholy things were going on in Israel, and God needed someone to point out the people’s sins and call them to repentance.
Thus God called Amos, who lived in the southern kingdom. While devout, Amos was not a religious professional. He was a herdsman and farmer. But when God called him, Amos traveled to Bethel and delivered God’s message. There, Amaziah, the chief priest of Bethel, confronted Amos, pointing out that he was a foreigner and telling him to go home and prophesy there.
Amos responded with the words quoted above. To put it in a contemporary setting, Amos was saying, “Look, I’m not preaching here because I’ve got a yen to be a minister. I’m a layperson, a farmer, but God has called me to speak to this situation, and I have to obey him.”
To what degree does a sense of compulsion help us identify a call as being from God? In what way or ways might Jim’s and Steve’s compulsion be said to have been driven? In what ways might we discern that it was from God?
Did the fact that Amos considered his true vocation to be agricultural take away from or give more authenticity to his prophetic ministry? Amos seemed to be saying, “I’ve got a real life.”
How are spiritual gifts related to one’s vocation and calling?
From my favorite author, Scott Peck: “… vocation implies a relationship. For if someone is called, something must be doing the calling. I believe this something is God. God calls us human beings — whether skeptics or believers, whether…[religious] or not — to certain, often very specific activities. Furthermore, since God relates with us as individuals, this matter of calling is utterly individualized. What God calls me to do is not at all necessarily what God is calling you to do.” (From The Road Less Traveled and Beyond, p. 152.)
And this, from the diary of Dag Hammarskjold, a former secretary-general of the United Nations, who found his work for peace in troubled places often exhausting:
On the path of others
Are resting places,
Places in the sun
Where they can meet.
But this
Is your path
And it is now,
Now that you must not fail.
If you can,
But do not complain.
The way chose you —
And you must be thankful.
          (from Markings, July 6, 1961)
Final question: what is our sacred calling and are we prepare to respond?
Jim and Steve died, doing their jobs.
What are our jobs? What is our calling?
And are we prepared to follow this work as far as we can?

So Many Ways to Give

Facebook has become saturated with videos of people dumping buckets of ice on their heads.

They’re taking the #icebucketchallenge, a viral phenomenon whose ostensible purpose is to raise money for charity. The challenge is simple: Either donate $100 to a given cause, or douse yourself with ice, film it, and pass the challenge on to others via social media.

The long list of participants so far includes Matt Lauer, Martha Stewart, numerous politicians, pro athletes, and several members of the Kennedy clan. President Obama could be next.

As the trend has caught on, it has become linked with efforts to raise money for research on the neurodegenerative disorder ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

This all came from a dare that was circulating among a group of pro athletes, including golfer Greg Norman and motorcycle racer Jeremy McGrath. Those who declined the ice bath were compelled to give $100 to charity of the challenger’s choice.
Anything that safely raises awareness is a good thing, of course.
And there is nothing wrong with such works bringing us joy.

One of the surprising things we learn when we study Torah is the central focus our religion puts on happiness. As Rebbe Nachman once put it, people are sad because nothing is going right for them — but what they don’t realize is that nothing is going right for them because they’re sad! For you shall go out in joy (Isaiah 55:12), the Kotzker Rebbe explains. The beauty of joy is that it has the power to extricate folks from all troubles.

– David Sacks, executive producer and writer of the TV show Third Rock from the Sun, The Holiness of Humor, Farbrengen.

This week’s Torah portion speaks with great joy of the three Pilgrimage Festivals of the Jewish calendar:
Three times a year – on the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Pesah), on the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot), and on the Feast of Booths (Sukkot) – all your males shall appear before the Holy One your God in the place that God will choose. They shall not appear before the Holy One empty-handed, but each according to their own gift, according to the blessing that the Holy One your God has bestowed upon you.
The Torah presents a fascinating three-fold series of descriptions of our offerings: 1) we are to appear not empty handed; 2) we are to give according to one’s own gift; 3) our gift is to be according to God’s blessing.

What do these three qualifications tell us about our place in society, the place for our personality and distinctiveness in God’s world?
On the surface, these three statements are parallel, reiterating that we are to give in joy, and to give within our means. As the medieval sage, Sa’adia Gaon reminds us, they teach a person to offer, “what his hand can afford, according to that which God has bestowed upon you.”
Similarly, the Talmud insists on limiting our charitable contributions: “If one wishes to spend generously, one should not spend more than one-fifth of one’s income.” The p’shat of the Torah, most traditional sources agree, intends to regulate our voluntary religious gifts, so that they are joyously given, and given within our financial capacities. Rabbi Brad Artson puts it well:  This insight is no small advance. Imagine how differently we might celebrate b’nai mitzvah, wedding parties, and Jewish communal celebrations with these stipulations in mind!

And yet, perhaps these three guidelines are meant not only as synonymous phrases, but as three plateaus, each adding a layer of meaning to extend and complement its partners.

During our joyous celebrations, we must not come empty handed. To celebrate in God’s presence one must not focus only on taking, not only on our own personal joy. To celebrate in the fullest sense is to harness our private triumphs to contribute to the repair of God’s world. Whether that means using a party to feed the hungry, or to link a personal milestone to some communal cause, we transform moments of self-congratulations into occasions to heal wounds and to right wrongs (and to show true gratitude) when we connect our simchas to tzedakah, our parties to justice.

As Moses Maimonides taught:
When a person eats and drinks [as part of celebrating a holiday], they are obligated to feed “the stranger, the orphan, and the widow” (Deuteronomy 16:11).
But someone who locks the doors of their house, eating and drinking with their children and spouse [alone], and doesn’t provide food or drink to the poor and depressed, is not participating in the joy of [God’s] commandments but rather the joy of the gut, and about them it says, “their sacrifices are like bread for the dead; all who eat of them will become impure, for their bread is for themselves” (Hosea 9:4) Joy like this is disgrace for them, as it says, “I will strew dung upon your faces, the dung of your festal sacrifices”(Malachi 2:3).
The second biblical qualification is that the offering we bring must be “according to one’s own gift.” That is to say that no two people may bring precisely the same thing. Each must bring an offering reflective of one’s own special talents and passions, something that illumines our own uniqueness. That gift should be, in the words of the Talmud (Gittin 59a), “in accordance with one’s own acumen.”


In the corporate world these days we they speak of “strength based management.” In other words, people are not hired so they can strengthen their weaknesses but rather so they can play their strengths. Our task is to discover our gifts and then share them with the world. This is quite different than expecting the same from everyone.
Some will put ice on their heads. Others will give money. Both are acceptable. Although the ALS research probably could use more cash and less ice.
The third qualification is that the offering be “according to God’s blessing.” Here one can see the Torah as recognizing that human individuality is a reflection of divine love and bounty.

God’s greatness is reflected not in some numbing conformity, but precisely in the stunning diversity of human character, interest, and talent. As the Mishnah affirms, a single person [Adam] was created to proclaim the greatness of the Holy Blessing One for when people stamp many coins from the same seal, the coins are all alike. But the Holy Blessed One has stamped every human with the seal of the first person, but no two descendants are alike. Therefore everyone is required to say, ‘the world was created for my sake.’
Christina Hoff Sommers of Clark University tells of an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education written by a creative writing professor at Pasadena City College. One of the professor’s favorite techniques in teaching is to use Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery with college students. 

It is a tale of a small farming community that seems normal in every way; its people are hard-working and friendly. As the plot progresses, however, the reader learns this village carries out an annual lottery in which the loser is stoned to death.

It is a shocking lesson about primitive rituals in a modern American setting. In the past, students had always understood The Lottery as a warning about the dangers of mindless conformity, but now they merely think that it is Neat! or Cool! Today, not one of the teacher’s current students will go out on a limb and take a stand against human sacrifice. 
-Are We Living in a Moral Stone Age? Vital Speeches, LXIV, May 15, 1998, 475-478.

Knowing that God wants us to be who we are – unique, special, and distinctive – can provide a desperately needed tool for fighting social conformity and thoughtless habit. We dare not appear before God empty handed, but what we bring must reflect our unique gifts and personalities if it is to reflect God’s blessings, and to bless, in turn, the lives of others.

Is It Ever Okay to Lie?


According to a recent survey, we bend the truth an average of 1.65 times a day.

Another report states that those of us who are morning people lie more than night people. My wife really ribbed me for that one. Maybe you saw the GEICO commercial in which the honesty of Abraham Lincoln was sorely tested. Mary Todd Lincoln stands in front of him and asks, “Does this dress make my backside look big?”

After an awkward pause, Honest Abe answers truthfully. His wife walks off in a huff. 

Of course, most day-to-day lies do not rise to the level of the whopper told by a postal carrier named Cathy Wrench Cashwell. According to The Atlantic magazine (September 2013), she appeared on the show The Price Is Right, raised her arms, grabbed the wheel and gave it a spin.

So what was the problem with that? Five years earlier, she had filed for workers’ compensation, claiming that she had been injured on the job. She said that her injury left her unable to stand, reach and grasp as part of her job — skills which she demonstrated quite well on The Price Is Right.

The tape of the game show caught her in her lie, as did the pictures she posted on Facebook showing her riding a zip line on a Carnival cruise. Indicted in federal court for worker’s-compensation fraud, she pleaded guilty. 

Clearly, people lie. We may not tell big lies that land us in federal court. But we’re not as truthful as Honest Abe in the Geico commercial either.   The ancient rabbis understood that sometimes lying is okay, if it is done for the right reason. According to the House of Hillel, the dancers should chant the same words in front of all brides: “What a beautiful and graceful bride!” Their opponents, the House of Shammai, disagree. “If she is lame or blind, are you going to say of her, ‘What a beautiful and graceful bride?’ Does not the Torah command, ‘Stay far away from falsehood’ (Exodus 23:7)?” They thus oppose reciting a standard formula; rather, each bride should be described “as she is” (see Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 17a). Hillel’s position is accepted as Jewish law. One praises the beauty of all brides and, in any case, the bride is likely to appear beautiful in the eyes of her groom.

 So, too, the rabbis accept the fact that Joseph’s brothers lied to him to maintain family harmony, after their father died.   Lying itself is not the issue. Whether we do so to help ourselves or help others is the deciding factor. And, of course, whether or not we are objective enough to know the difference.   So the next time (sometime today) you are tempted to lie, ask yourself why and see if this lie reflects your values or your weaknesses. Then you will know, most likely, what you should do.

Can We Be Mindful?


Getting there used to be part of the fun. Then interstates replaced byways, turning our roads into an endless pastiche of billboards and strip-mall truck stops. Then air travel became affordable, replacing long family drives. Today, finally, the car itself has turned into a mini electronic cocoon sheltering passengers from not just rain, snow, noise and bumps but from the real world, too. Like dental work, getting there is simply something to be endured, not experienced and enjoyed.

–Jim Louderback, Buckle up and tune out, USA Weekend, March 22-24, 2002, 6.


A just-released study shows that most people find spending time alone with their thoughts and no other activities — even if only for a few minutes — difficult to do and not much fun. Some dislike it so much that they’d rather distract themselves even with something painful.

Most people find being alone even briefly with their thoughts and with no distractions — no smartphones, no music, no reading material or anything else — unpleasant. And some would even rather give themselves electric shocks than sit alone thinking for even six minutes.

Those are the findings of a series of 11 studies conducted by psychologist Timothy Wilson and some colleagues at the University of Virginia (UVA) and Harvard University. The abstract for the report, published in the July 4 issue of Science magazine, summarized the results as follows: “In 11 studies, we found that participants typically did not enjoy spending 6 to 15 minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think, that they enjoyed doing mundane external activities much more, and that many preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves instead of being left alone with their thoughts. Most people seem to prefer to be doing something rather than nothing, even if that something is negative.”

Participants in the study ranged in age from 18 to 77. They were told to entertain themselves alone in a room just with their thoughts, or to imagine doing one of three pleasant activities like hiking. Regardless of age, most showed no fondness for being alone and thinking. On a 9-point scale of enjoyment, their average rating was about in the middle. They “consistently demonstrated that they would rather have something to do than to have nothing other than their thoughts for even a fairly brief period of time,” Wilson said.

In one phase of the study, 61 participants were allowed to spend their alone time (six to 15 minutes) with their thoughts at home, and about a third of those people admitted that they “‘cheated’ … by engaging in some activity, such as listening to music or using a cell phone, or leaving their chair,” Wilson said. “And they didn’t enjoy this experience any more at home than at the lab.”

In another phase of the testing, participants were given the option of administering a mild shock to themselves by pressing a button. Before embarking on their time alone, they all received a sample of the shock, and most said they would pay to avoid being shocked again. Nonetheless, when placed in a room alone with their thoughts and no other distractions, 12 of the 18 males (67 percent) and six of the 24 females (25 percent) gave themselves at least one electric shock during the 15-minute period.

“What is striking,” the investigators write, “is that simply being alone with their own thoughts for 15 minutes was apparently so aversive that it drove many participants to self-administer an electric shock that they had earlier said they would pay to avoid.”

Wilson does not attribute the findings to the pace of modern society or to the ready availability of electronic devices. Rather, he posits that the devices may be a response to the common wish to always have something to do.

“The mind is designed to engage with the world,” Wilson said. “Even when we are by ourselves, our focus usually is on the outside world. And without training in meditation or thought-control techniques, which still are difficult, most people would prefer to engage in external activities.”