Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
I subscribe to a worthwhile list-serve organized by Dr. Mehmet Oz, a cardiothoracic surgeon and professor at Columbia University, called “Real Age” (email@example.com) that regularly sends out health tips. This past week I received a piece called “8 Ways Happy People Start Their Mornings” that began with this statement:
“The morning is extremely important. It is the foundation from which the rest of the day is built. How you choose to spend your morning can often be used to accurately predict what kind of day you are going to have.”
I got to thinking. How do I, myself, enter each day, and why do I do what I do?
Based on the inspiration of Dr. Oz’s list, I offer my own, with a disclaimer that I do not do all 10 every day, though I try and am certain that if I fulfilled them all I would be better for it.
1. Calm beginnings – I need calm and quiet beginnings; no conversation (I’m usually the first one up, so no problem there), no music, no television or radio news; just the sound of the birds outside.
2. Gratitude – Ever since my cancer diagnosis, surgery, and radiation four years ago, every morning I awake and am consciously grateful to be alive. Most mornings I say the Hebrew blessing “Modeh ani l’fanecha Melech hai v’kayam she-he-che-zarta bi nish'mati b’chem'la rabba emunatecha” – “I thank You Sovereign Source of life and existence, that You have returned to me my Godly soul with compassion and faith.”
3. A little bit of resurrection – For me, a very strong cup of French roast coffee brings me a little bit of resurrection each morning. That stimulation helps me feel alive physically and mentally and brings me quickly a sense of well-being.
4. Sweetness – When my children were young, seeing them in the morning filled me with sweet tenderness. They no longer live at home, and so now the first living creature I see is my little dog Sasha whose sweetness is the purest and most unconditional I have ever known.
5. Awareness of being “here” – that is, in the quiet and process of waking up I consciously think of the interaction of four levels of my being – body, mind, heart, and soul, and that being here right now is the most true and natural state.
6. Exercise early – This is the toughest on my list because of the working nature of my life. I find that exercise (for me, brisk walking for an hour in my neighborhood) releases the toxins of yesterday’s concerns so I can begin anew with less burden weighing me down. I try and exercise in the morning (usually 3 or 4 days a week) not only because I feel better for it, but also because research has shown (reported by Dr. Oz some time ago) that morning exercise results in continuing to burn calories throughout the day long after the exercise has ended.
7. The quiet needs of others – I require quiet and calm first thing, and in my family, everyone has the same need. By the time they wake up I am already operating on all cylinders, so respectfully, I stay clear of them until they are ready to engage with me. It’s only fair!
8. Joy – I have learned that I experience the fullest joy when I am consciously appreciative of the blessings in my life; good health, loving family, loyal friends, meaningful work, creative and productive endeavors, open-hearted doing for others, and willful association with just and compassionate causes. Joy and happiness have nothing to do with material wealth, though, as Seinfeld once said, “Not that there is anything wrong with it!”
9. Morning routine – Routine relieves me of heavy decision-making first thing in the day. I have pasted above my desk at home several quotes that I strive to live by (for a future blog). One is Thoreau’s prescription for an unburdened life: “Simplify, simplify, simplify.” Or put another way, some things are just not worth the bother because they really are not important.
10. Expressing love and gratitude to others and doing what I love to do – When I express love and gratitude to those I love and then go about doing the things I love to do early in the day, I find that I am more relaxed, freer of tension and stress, and happier.
I suggest making up your own list and then working to do as much of it as regularly as you can. If I could only do the above 10 every day, I am certain I would be a happier camper!
Happy Mother's Day!!!
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May 9, 2013 | 7:42 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
This week’s portion B’midbar (lit. “In the desert”) always precedes the festival of Shavuot that begins on Tuesday evening. Parashat B’midbar is not just a marker that reminds us when Shavuot occurs each year, its juxtaposition joins the season’s themes of wandering, covenant, transcendence, and love.
These themes are amplified in the Haftarah portion from the prophet Hosea. Betrayed by his wife’s promiscuity as another man’s concubine, the prophet perceives in his own tragic personal biography a parallel to the Israelite’s betrayal of God during the period of wandering.
Hosea was a star-filled romantic. He so wanted to forgive his wife her infidelities and welcome her back into his bosom. He prayed not only for personal reconciliation with her but also that God would forgive His own wayward lover, the people of Israel, and reaffirm with them the Covenant they once forged together at Sinai.
The prophet proclaims: V’e-ras-tich li l’o-lam b’tze-dek, u-v’mish’pat, u-v’che-sed, u-v’ra-cha-mim (Hosea 2:21-22) – “I betroth you to me forever; I betroth you to me with steadfast love and compassion; I betroth you to me in faithfulness...”
Love for God, one man’s yearning for his bride, one woman’s passion for her lover, the longing of the soul for the Ein Sof (God), all are joined in B’midbar, Hosea, and Shavuot.
In a wonderful volume called “We – Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love,” the Jungian analyst Dr. Robert A. Johnson explores these themes as they played themselves out in the medieval myth of the hero Tristan and his beloved Iseult the Fair. This is a complicated, moving, beautiful, and tragic tale from 12th century Europe from which “Romeo and Juliet” and other great romantic love tales have sprung.
The story focuses upon the emotional and spiritual journeys of two protagonist lovers, and Dr. Johnson explores what came to be called “Courtly Love:”
“The model of courtly love is the brave knight who worshiped a fair lady as his inspiration, the symbol of all beauty and perfection, the ideal that moved him to be noble, spiritual, refined, and high-minded. In our time we have mixed courtly love into our sexual relationships and marriages, but we still hold the medieval belief that true love has to be the ecstatic adoration of a man or woman who carries, for us, the image of perfection.“
Dr. Johnson explains that when lovers fall “in love” they feel a sense of completion as though a missing part of themselves had been returned to them. They are uplifted as though suddenly raised above the ordinary. They feel spiritualized and transformed into new, better and whole human beings.
The connection of theme in the mythic romantic love tale “Tristan and Isault” and the Revelation at Sinai should now be clear. Dr. Johnson writes:
“Here we are confronted with a paradox that baffles us, yet we should not be surprised to discover that romantic love is connected with spiritual aspiration – even with our religious instinct – for we already know that courtly love, at its very beginning so many centuries ago, was conceived of as a spiritual love, a way of loving that spiritualized the knight and his lady, and raised them above the ordinary and the gross to an experience of another world, an experience of soul and spirit.”
“Tristan and Iseult” is a story describing the yearning of the soul. So too is that great and singular event that Shavuot commemorates. Indeed, the wilderness of Sinai stripped the people of pretense. They were more vulnerable than they had ever known, and in that the expansive uninhabited landscape of quietude they opened their hearts and souls in awe and wonder to God.
It was there that Torah was given and received. It was there that God and the people of Israel, even if but for a moment, were One.
Shabbat shalom and Hag sameach!
May 5, 2013 | 8:00 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
It should be clear that the last thing the Obama Administration wants is to get caught in another Middle Eastern war, with no “good guys” and no viable exit strategy. What else can explain American passivity in the face of 70,000 Syrian dead and 1 million refugees in two years? What else can explain the President’s hedging on his pledge to act if Syria crossed the “red line” of introducing chemical weapons, now that indeed Syria has crossed that “red line?”
So much for the Biblical command, “Thou shalt not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds.” (Leviticus 19:16)
Bill Clinton confessed that his greatest regret was not acting to stop the genocide in Rwanda. Will Barack Obama make the same confession about Syria one day?
Yes, Syria is embroiled in a nasty civil war. Yes, the Syrian rebels, increasingly radicalized Islamists, are a mixed bag. Yes, Al Qaida is involved. Who should the US support?
In an interview with Terry Gross on “Fresh Air” (April 30, 2014 – “On the Ground in Syria”) the New York Times correspondent C.J. Chivers, who has covered the wars in Libya and Afghanistan and spent time on the ground with Syrian rebels, understands Obama’s resistance to get involved in Syria.
Chivers says that though the rebels distrust and hate the west, they want the west to get involved because they cannot match the Syrian government’s superior fire power. The west, ironically, is their only hope. They do not want American troops in Syria, but they do want weapons, and, a no-fly zone to protect the people from the air.
“Put yourselves in the shoes of the Syrian people,” Chivers said. Your village has been occupied by the Syrian army and then shelled. Everyone has lost someone. Obama says that the “red line” that will provoke American action against the Syrian government is its introduction of chemical weapons, and the Syrian people think:
“My life isn’t what you care about. It’s the nature of my death. So if I die by high explosives, if I die by a bullet, if I die by disappearance because I’m rolled up at the checkpoint, never seen again, that’s OK. That’s a green line? And a SCUD missile’s OK? An airstrike’s OK? But chemical weapons, that’s not OK. I mean there are more than 70,000 killed in this conflict. And to the Syrians, they say those don’t count? But if someone takes the cork off chemical weapons, that’s different. They feel they’ve been abandoned by the world. “
Chivers is a distinguished journalist and observer of this kind of warfare. He is also a former marine who has seen his share of death. He confesses that he has no good recommendation to offer the President were he asked.
Despite American claims to the contrary, there has been a covert airlift of weapons to the rebel forces, probably orchestrated by the CIA, which creates a long-term problem. These weapons have a long life, and one can never know into whose hands they will end up. Maybe they will be used against the US and Israel.
An American response to chemical weapons is meant to deter other countries in the future from using them, but again, to the Syrian people that “red line” was set pretty far out to the right. The chemical weapons have come so late that the west has already tolerated great cost in human life.
The quandary of the Obama Administration is that people are suffering and there are reasons to arm them and reasons not to arm them.
Chivers notes that the Syrian leaders have played perfectly and with cunning calibration (as opposed to Qaddafi in Libya) the tactics of the war to what they thought the West could tolerate. The Syrian government began the battle with arrests, and with each step of the way introduced more violent actions; first came batons and then bullets; then came the army, mortars, and 107 millimeter rockets; then the artillery and air force, helicopters followed later by jets, and then ballistic missiles and chemical weapons.
It’s been like dropping a frog in water and bringing the water to a boil slowly, pushing the “red” line step-by-step forward until so many people have become desensitized by the violence.
“Thou shalt not stand idly by!”
But, what to do? A no-fly zone? Bomb Syrian government positions? Give more weapons to the rebels?
And then what?
May 2, 2013 | 2:46 pm
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
“Any life, no matter how long and complex it may be, is made up of a single moment – the moment in which a person finds out once and for all who s/he is.” (Jorge Luis Borges)
So often it is the inner voices (from tradition, society, family, friends, and mentors) and not our own that influence how we think, feel and behave in the world. These voices either lead us to or take us away from realizing our best selves. When the voices do indeed lead us astray, we need to be able to release them, a thought that came to mind as I read a verse in this week’s parashah describing the institutions of the Shmitta (Sabbatical) and Yovel (Jubilee) years: “You shall proclaim a dror (“freedom” or “release”) throughout the land for all its inhabitants…” (Leviticus 25:10)
This dror specifically refers to land, people and debts in the seventh year. The Shmitta year requires that land lie fallow (i.e. no planting, pruning or harvesting) and that slaves, employees and animals are free to eat what is left in the fields. Deuteronomy 15:1-6 adds that creditors must remit debts owed to them by their neighbors and kinsmen.
The deeper purpose of the Shmitta year is to enable the land to rest, to wipe our slates clean from debt and to return the world to its original pristine order.
The rabbis, however, raised two serious questions about the Shmitta year:  What happens to the livelihood of the community during Shmitta? and  What happens to our willingness to make loans to the needy according to the spirit of a mitzvah in Deuteronomy 15:9: “Beware that there be not a base thought in your heart.”
Noticing that the people were not loaning money to the poor because of the Shmitta’s remission of debt, Hillel the Elder (1st century BCE) instituted a legal formula called the Prozbul, whereby a creditor could still claim his debts after the Shmitta year despite the biblical injunction against doing so. The Prozbul was a document that turned over supervision of the loan to the beit din (Jewish court) which would collect and repay the debt thus encouraging generosity, enabling the poor to borrow and the rich to secure their loans (Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 37a).
Since the laws of both Shmitta and Yovel only apply in the land of Israel, and Yovel applies only when all the Jewish people are living in Israel, until the Zionist movement Shmitta and Yovel mattered little to Diaspora Jewish communities.
However, Zionists complained that if farmers did not work the land the nascent settlement movement's existence would be threatened. In response, lenient rabbinic authorities justified setting the laws of the Shmitta year aside based on the principle of sha’at hadechak (“undue hardship”).
In 1888-89, a Hetter Mechira (“A Bill of Sale”) was developed to permit Jewish farmers to sell their land to non-Jews (i.e. Arabs), similar to the selling of hametz (leven) to non-Jews during Passover, so that the Jews could continue to work the land and survive even during the Shmitta. After the Shmitta, the land would revert back to the former Jewish owners.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Palestine, wrote of another problem in not showing leniency towards the Biblical law:
“Even worse is the potential condemnation of Judaism and widespread rejection of Torah observance that could result from a strict ruling…”
Rav Kook reasoned that a strict ruling would demonstrate that Judaism is incompatible with the modern world and the building of a Jewish state.
The principle of taking into account the impact of Biblical law on individuals and community and the necessity of reinterpreting tradition in the modern era is a core reason that Judaism and the Jewish people have survived 3500 years, longer than any other people anywhere in the world.
On a personal level too, this portion challenges us about the importance of becoming who we really are. In this spirit, I suggest that we consider this question: From what and how will I release myself (dror) this year and thereby find out who I really am?
May this year become a dror (release) for each of us.
The next Shmitta year is 2014-2015 (5775)
April 30, 2013 | 7:39 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
Senator Barbara Boxer has introduced a bill co-sponsored by 18 Democrats and Republicans that would enable Israel to join a group 37 other favored nations whose citizens need not carry visas to enter the United States.
Now, any Israeli who wants to travel to the US needs to purchase round-trip plane tickets before being issued a travel visa.
What is the problem? Why do Israelis not have this right already? After all, they are among America’s closest allies in the world?
The answer is – Israelis should, except for one problem. Israel does not grant the same courtesy to all American citizens who enter Israel. Israel, in fact, restricts the travel of Palestinian-American citizens.
The article below explains more fully the presumed rationale for this restriction as well as the human consequences of Israel’s policy. Though security is always an uppermost Israeli concern, should not all American citizens be treated equally by Israel?
I agree with the view that the United States should not be able to grant Israeli citizens visa-free travel to the US yet exempt Israel from extending that same courtesy to all US citizens. If an individual of any nation seeks entry to Israel and is a specific security risk, Israel (as any other country) should have the right to refuse him/her on concrete security grounds. But to target any individual because he or she is part of an ethnic, racial, religious, or national group is contrary both to American principles and Israeli principles as spelled out in the American Constitution and Israel’s Declaration of Independence.
Senator Boxer’s bill should require equivalent rights to American citizens traveling in Israel, regardless of their ethnic, racial, religious, or national ancestry.
April 29, 2013 | 7:26 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
When I was 9 years old my father died, and my world suddenly changed. Overwhelmed by loss and grief, only the support of family and friends helped me move through that dark period.
What was clear was that I had no control over the ultimate questions of life and death. In the years that followed I compensated by studying and working hard. I thought about God, studied Jewish history, theology, and tradition, became a progressive Zionist, and learned to speak Hebrew, all in the interests of finding safety in something greater than myself.
Indeed, the fear of death and the loss of control are powerful human motivators for both good and bad. Many of us, from fear, turn inward in self-protection against the “other.” We narrow our vision, constrict our hearts, minds and politics, and we focus on our self-interests assuming we have no choice because the “other” guy is a threat.
However, building our lives on fear has consequences. Yoda famously said, “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, [and] hate leads to suffering.” (Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace)
John Steinbeck opined along the same lines saying, “Power does not corrupt. Fear corrupts…perhaps the fear of a loss of power.”
Both are right. Though fear is a natural response alerting us to imminent danger, many of us are so plagued by historically embedded fears that we imagine hostile phantoms when none exist.
The challenge is for us to be able to distinguish real and present danger from phantoms, and then be able to evaluate the true measure of the threat and respond appropriately.
Two emails came to me this past week that have drawn me to this consideration of fear. The first was a report circulating on the Internet that all the Jews of Norway had decided en masse (some 1300 souls, according to 2012 population surveys) to leave that country, saying:
"It seems what Hitler failed to achieve the Muslims have accomplished. In a few weeks Norway will be 'Judenfrei.' The last 819 Jews are leaving the country due to its rise in anti-Semitism..."
The implication, of course, is that the world wants the Jews dead, or to vanish. The problem with this Internet "report" is that it is a complete fabrication, according to the Norwegian Jewish Community and the ADL.
The second email came from a Israel advocacy organization that began:
“In a hostile and uncertain world, it is reassuring to know that two great democracies—the United States and Israel—continue to find security in their support of one another.”
Yes, of course, the United States and Israel are great democratic societies and strategic partners, but why is it necessary to start from a place of fear to motivate Jews to support Israel financially and otherwise in its legitimate needs?
For years many Jewish organizations have fed on Jewish fear, the Holocaust, Israel’s wars and defense against terrorism, to appeal for money rather than on the blessings of Zionism, our people’s historic and successful building of a modern state based on the prophetic principles of justice and peace as written in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.
It is not surprising, of course, how successful these organizations are because there is in the Jewish heart a deep reservoir of fear. Our history is long and hard, even as it is remarkable and enriched. I believe it is time to stop the fear-mongering. (See my blog from April 15, 2013 - "Israel on Her 65th Birthday - Taking Pride in Her Accomplishments")
Fear-mongering is not only unnecessary, it is counter-productive because it blinds our people’s vision, focuses us on the short-term tactics rather than long-term strategy, divides Jewish community, alienates many of us and our young people, separates us from our allies and true friends, provokes inappropriate speech and action, and satisfies only the most extreme self-fulfilling prophecies of doom.
I take seriously the teaching of Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav: “The whole world is a very narrow bridge; the important thing is not to be afraid.”
In the coming weeks and months due to the important efforts of the Obama Administration to bring Israelis and Palestinians back into negotiations to settle their conflict once and for all, Israelis, the Jewish people and the Palestinians, along with moderate Arab states, will be tested perhaps as never before. Will we continue to build fortresses against each other, or will we build palaces of peace side by side?
I know that either choice carries risk. The greater risk, however, is to do nothing because the status quo is unsustainable, and the longer it continues Israel's democracy and Jewish character will be compromised. As long as both Israel’s and Palestine’s security needs are assured, the risks of making peace, I believe, will be worth it.
April 25, 2013 | 11:57 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
There is a story told in the Rabbinic literature that “Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach one day commissioned his disciples to buy him a camel from an Arab. When they brought him the animal, they gleefully announced that they had found a precious stone in its collar, expecting their master to share in their joy.
“Did the seller know of this gem?” asked Rabbi Shimon. On being answered in the negative, he called out angrily, “Do you think me a barbarian that I should take advantage of the letter of the law by which the gem is mine together with the camel? Return the gem to the Arab immediately.”
When the Arab received it back, he exclaimed: “Blessed be the God of Shimon ben Shetach! Blessed be the God of Israel!” (Deuteronomy Rabba 3:3)
When my sons were young, their mother and I told them more than once that what they did, how they behaved, and the way they spoke to and treated others outside the home would reflect not only on them, but on us, their parents and on our family name. We reminded them to be honest, kind, modest, and to reflect those values always.
I often tell the story of Rabbi Shimon to students in my synagogue and remind them that what we do not only says much about who we are, but about our families and the Jewish people.
Until the modern period when communal values began to change broadly, the most respected Jew in the community was not necessarily the wealthiest and most politically influential, nor the celebrity, business maven, professional, or even the largest financial benefactor to community causes, as important as these people have been historically in Jewish communal life. Rather, the highest moral, ethical and religious virtues were expected to be emulated first and foremost by the Torah scholar. However, our sages understood that even the Torah scholar struggled mightily against the dominance of his yetzer hara (“the evil inclination”). [Note that almost all scholars before the modern period were men].
Here is Maimonides’ classic description of what is expected of the great Torah scholar:
“…When a person …is a great scholar, noted for his piety, people will talk about him, even if the deeds that he has committed are not offenses in the strict sense. Such a person is guilty of profaning the divine name (hillul ha-Shem), if he, for instance, makes a purchase and does not immediately pay for it, in the case where he has the money and the sellers demand it, but he stalls them; or if he indulges in riotous behavior and in keeping undesirable company; or if he speaks roughly to his fellows and does not receive them courteously but shows his temper and the like. All is in accordance with his status as a scholar. He must endeavor to be scrupulously strict in his behavior and go beyond the letter of the law. If he does this, speaking kindly to his fellows, showing himself sociable and amiable with the welcome for everyone, taking insult but not giving it; respect them, even those who make light of him; in all his actions until all praise and love him, enraptured by his deed – such a man has sanctified the name of God (Kiddush Ha-Shem). Regarding such a person scripture states: ‘You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be gloried.’” (Moses ben Maimon, Yesodei Ha-Torah 5:11)
“Sanctifying God’s Name” (Kiddush Ha-Shem), as RAMBAM teaches, concerns the entirety of life including business ethics, one’s conduct in mundane affairs, one’s refinement of behavior and public demeanor, one’s kindness and humility before one’s fellows and God.
Except for the very rare individual, each of us is a continuing battleground between our two yetzers (i.e. good and evil inclinations) and we must choose between them. For so many of us, base instinct rules. We are driven by need, desire, greed, jealousy, envy, lust, anger, impatience, fear, and hate. Others have an easier time being kind and generous, and struggle less. But we all struggle.
The reason Torah study is determinative for the scholar and is so important for all of us is because we can find ourselves everywhere in the sacred text. Every instinct and virtue is addressed.
My friend, Rabbi Mark Borowitz of Beit T’shuvah in Los Angeles, rightly teaches that anyone who says that the Torah is irrelevant to his/her life is hiding something. To the contrary, it is there that we can discover our deepest selves, a sense of meaning and purpose that will sustain and strengthen us for noble ends.
April 18, 2013 | 8:23 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
Exalted One –
You call us to holiness,
To climb the ladder,
Higher and higher,
To reach as far as we might,
But never to rise above the angels.
You call us to purity,
To be as priests,
In this world,
Separate and apart,
Between our flawed humanness
And Your Transcendent Oneness.
How do we come near
To You Who dwells on High?
How do we discover
You, enthroned beyond stars?
How can we reach
You, larger than thought?
How can we know
You, Ineffable Truth?
What is the way to holiness
If we be so bound to earth,
And driven by need,
And broken by grief?
You call us to rise up
and bow low to You,
At Your holy footstool ,
To be enveloped in Your Glory,
To transcend our senses
Where sapphires glisten,
And angels praise,
And Torah letters shimmer,
And souls sing.
You say that Your teaching is not so distant,
Not across the seas beyond our reach,
Nor in the heavens above
Making it unattainable.
It is rather, close,
So very close,
In our hearts,
In our breath,
And upon our lips.
Almighty One –
You brought us out from Egypt
To renew us,
Redeem, free, heal, and restore us,
To ready us
As Your treasured people.
You led us into the wilderness,
Into silence and nothingness,
Into a blank slate,
And you painted a picture of our lives
And commanded us to be
Like paint upon a landscape,
And stranger loving.
If this is what You intend for us
And if this is the way to be holy,
It is so very hard!
But those who seek You
Will continuously strive,
And we will teach this to our children.