Monday, February 28, 2011

Gainful Employment

I was living in New York, attending school and working.  Chatting with a friend, I mentioned that my uncle drove a limousine for a living.  “Oy!”  she said, clearly shocked by this information.  I was puzzled.  He and my aunt put two kids through college and graduate school, saved money in the bank every year, and vacationed together.  Why the “Oy”?  Furthermore, my uncle was smart, funny, and caring.   Was driving a limousine so bad?
In “Working,” oral historian Studs Terkel chronicled the life of people in all sorts of careers, from bookbinders to grave-diggers, telephone operators to field hands.  What shines through every account is people’s search for “daily meaning as well as daily bread.”  A bookbinder declares that she loves her job, even though she doesn’t make much money, and that she thinks of each book as “a life.”  A grave-digger shares how a visiting sewer digger was impressed by the neatness of the graves he’d dug.  “A human body is goin’ into this grave.  That’s why you need skill when you’re gonna dig a grave.” 
The Talmud is full of stories of great rabbis and scholars who earned their living through manual labor: wood-choppers, shoe-makers, farmers, grave-diggers, tanners, blacksmiths…  In fact, Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Shimon say (Nedarim 49b): "Great is labor for it honors the workman."  It was their practice to carry bundles on their shoulders, instead of putting them on beasts of burden to show their students that manual labor should be respected.
Perhaps it’s natural that we identify ourselves with our professions; but we shouldn't lose sight of the goal of our work.  G-d created us to want to be givers, not just receivers.  And that’s a good thing, because whatever we toil in, we come to treasure.  And all work, whether snipping torn ligaments or damaged vines, selling silk or tending the sick, improves the world for someone, thereby allowing us to be partners with G-d, not just beneficiaries. 

Friday, February 25, 2011

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A Model Jewish Home

There are many laws and customs pertaining to setting up a Jewish home.  Some of them are fairly well-known, such as carving up your kitchen between meat dairy and pareve, or attaching mezuzot to all the doorways that have lintels and posts.  Others must not have the same PR people working for them – like the mitzvah to build a guardrail around a flat roof (Deuteronomy 22:8).  When you build a new house, you shall make a guardrail for your roof, so that you shall not cause blood [to be spilled] in your house, for the faller will fall from it [the roof].    

On one level this seems like good, practical advice: make sure your home is a safe place to be, as the verse there continues, beware and watch yourself [lit. your soul] very well.   This obligation includes putting up sturdy kid-proof fences around swimming pools, ditches, removing or fixing rickety ladders, and not keeping vicious dogs.  But I think we can also deduce that a model Jewish home is one that is emotionally safe, as well.  The care we must take with the physical environment sets a model for the care we must take with the spiritual and emotional environment.
What does an emotionally safe home look like?  One of the most important ingredients is that home is not a place of unbridled anger. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 102b) says, he who wreaks his vengeance destroys his own nest.  Anger is a fire that obliterates everything in its path.  It does not open bridges to communication or understanding, it annihilates them.  In the same vein, intimidation of any kind – ridicule, name-calling, or threats of physical harm – are absolute poison to the foundation of the home. 

A second crucial ingredient is unconditional love.  Not unconditional like, but unconditional love.  This lets your family members know that they are inherently valued and respected simply because they exist.  No one should have to earn this.  There are many other additions which can enhance this basic recipe, such as being allowed to make mistakes, encouragement and back-up, recognition of one’s talents and skills, consistency, responsiveness to people’s preferences and needs, being fully “present” to your family members.

Did you notice the curious phrase “the faller will fall”?  The foremost Torah commentator, Rashi, explains: even if it is Divinely ordained that this person fall, you should not be the causal party.  In our righteous crusade for justice we often feel justified in punishing – “he deserves it!”  Ever notice how some kids seems to attract negative attention?  But, just because they’re a magnet for it, doesn’t mean we need to give it to them.  A person’s struggle with a weakness isn’t an excuse for us to exploit it.  Our job is to bolster them by assisting – or prompting – them to build their own personal guardrail.  (For a beautiful metaphysical explanation of the mitzvah of building a guardrail see here.) 

This partnership in building a healthy and safe home is captured in another ancient Jewish custom:  in Medieval Germany and France Jewish men would give their brides a wedding ring with a house on top, to symbolize the home they would build together.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Losing Home/ Finding Home

Given the housing climate of the past few years, I had planned to blog about losing one’s home later this the week, but yesterday’s earthquakes in New Zealand have forced the issue to the fore. 

Growing up in Northern California, along the San Andreas fault, I am familiar with the sounds of approaching quakes – as if a hundred huge trucks are rumbling toward you; the sudden still in the air as wildlife, sensing impending danger, retreats for safety; the squeaking of wooden doorways and walls shifting uneasily; the chatter of glasses and dishes as the house starts to shimmy; the swinging light-fixtures, falling books; mostly, the unreality of it all – solid earth suddenly not solid at all. 

In Christchurch, New Zealand, houses of worship old and new were severely damaged, or collapsed in rubble.  Homes were engulfed in mud or crushed under enormous boulders; sides of buildings sheared off.  New Zealand’s largest glaciers calved, sending 30 million tons of ice into Tasman Lake.  Early estimates of 65 deaths are almost certainly far below the total.*

But people lose their homes in other less dramatic ways.  In the third quarter of 2009, alone, 937,840 homes were in foreclosure.  That’s almost a million families facing homelessness in just a three month period – and that’s tacked on to the 2.2 million homes foreclosed in 2008.  The ripple effect of lost stability and income impact on mental and physical health, and can cause behavior issues for vulnerable children.  There may be feelings of shame or inadequacy. 

The loss of one’s home might be due to fire, war, or environmental disaster.   And sometimes we don’t leave the home, but the home leaves us.
What do we do?  How do we find home again?
I was a nineteen year old, away from my parental home, when I learned the answer.  I’d been struggling to adjust to life on the East Coast, sharing a dorm room, and not making a success of it.  One of my teachers, Mrs. Yehudis Groner, told me about her childhood.  Her family had fled the Soviet Union, traveling through Poland, Czechoslovakia, Germany, France, Cuba, and finally the U.S.  “Where ever we stopped, my mother unpacked a few particular items.  When we saw those things, we were home.  It didn’t matter where we were.”
The idea of home as a portmanteau has stayed with me all these years.  I set out my “few particular items” - some family photos, a childhood talisman or two, our extra large mezuzah that my husband had written for me as a proposal gift; then I look around at my family, and we are home.

* If you wish to donate to aid rebuilding efforts in New Zealand, here’s one way.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Home is the Center

Zagat’s calls it, “the best place to go for Mom’s food.”  Kitchenette is a restaurant serving up home-style food and baked goods.  Type “Mom’s Diner” into any search engine and you’ll find results pop up from all across the United States. 

What is this deep yearning for home?  The Greeks labled it “nostalgia,” an achy kind of medical condition.  In Homer’s Odyssey, following the Trojan War, Odysseus finds himself sucked into a decade-long journey home.  The sole survivor of a shipwreck, he washes up on an island full of delights, but nonetheless weeps with longing for his wife and home.  What is it about home that is so powerful?
Home is a mnemon for one’s past, the road that has led us to the present, and the springboard which flies us far into the future.  It is a place we inhabit and a place that inhabits us.  And whether our home is the “greenest”, the biggest  the “techiest,” or the most unique has nothing to do with the strength of our attachment to home.

Home is not only the personal center; it’s our national center.  The Jewish nation is only as strong as our family units.  In his 1899 essay in Harper’s Magazine, Mark Twain notes the rise and fall of the Egyptian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, and Roman empires.  Against it he contrasts the continued vigorous existence of the Jewish nation and famously asks, “What is the secret of his immortality?"  The Jewish home is a big part of that secret. 
It’s not the synagogue that’s at the core of a full Jewish life.  True, we read the Torah and pray as a minyan there, but home is where the Biblical commandments are lived.  The mezuzah on our doorways, the kosher kitchens, our annual Passover seder.  It’s home where we most meaningfully express love, caring, and compassion, learning to live beyond our own selves. 

Home provides shelter – physical and spiritual.  When our forefather Jacob descended
to Egypt, “each person came with his home.”  The only way to survive our harsh slavery
in Egypt was through the nurturing presence of our Jewish home.  One of our Shabbat
songs chimes, “In my exile to redeem me.”  How do we experience redemption in exile?
By stepping in to a Jewish home.  The harmony, peace and spiritual sustenance there is
a taste of redemption and the strength to endure the exile outside the door. 

And while home has most traditionally been identified with Mom, the number of
stay-at-home Dads is on the rise.  They must be on to something...Is it any wonder that
the landing page of a website is named "home?" 


Friday, February 18, 2011

Torah Marriage at a Glance

Shabbbat Shalom!

Matchmaker, Matchmaker, Make Me a Match

This week we're featuring a guest blog by my mother-in-law, Mrs. Sara Shollar, a professional matchmaker for more than a quarter of a century, with over 100 matches to her credit!  Who better to speak about finding one's mate?

 In a well known Midrash a Roman matron asks Rabbi Yossi ben Halafta how G-d occupies Himself since completing the creation of the world.* The Rabbi replies, "He's been matchmaking."
G-d is on record as the world’s first match-maker, bringing together Adam and Chava (Eve). Centuries later, our patriarch Abraham, charged his faithful servant, Eliezer, with finding a match for Isaac, making Eliezer the next recorded shadchan in the Torah. And while every match is preordained from before birth, throughout the millennia successive matchmakers have been G-d's helpers in arranging marriages; taking the helm of this search to locate and re-unite two separated halves of a single soul. The results have been excellent. 

I've been occupying myself with this task, more or less actively for more than twenty-five years and have lost track of the number of shidduchim (matches) that I've suggested, facilitated, encouraged and rescued. But never was my role more clearly revealed than when I found myself introducing two people, neither of whom I had met.
My consistent policy is to get together with every person seeking my help. An initial meeting of an hour or two is almost always followed up with a Shabbos invitation. This provides an opportunity, in a more relaxed setting, to get better acquainted with the single and begin to get a sense of what he or she is looking for. Not only has this resulted in many marriages, but some of my closest friendships began via this route.
Several years ago, one of our children and her husband relocated to a Chassidic community north of New York City. They had only recently arrived when our son-in-law was approached one morning by an agitated young man, urgently requesting help. His sister, an extremely tall oral surgeon, still unmarried in her late 30's, needed a shidduch. As my son-in-law practices medicine, not matchmaking, he enthusiastically offered my services and phone number. I was told to expect this man’s call. I listened as the concerned brother detailed the woman’s needs.  My initial reaction was that this was beyond my scope. I certainly empathized and wanted to help, but couldn't imagine how.
Most shadchanim concentrate their efforts on a subset of Jews: a specific community, age group, or other criteria. This case was well beyond the framework in which I normally operated.  Apologizing for what I believed was my inability to contribute to a happy ending, I recommended that his sister try some of the many online web sites dedicated to matchmaking.  Before hanging up, I took his number, saying I'd see what I could do.
The only thing I could think of was to make a few calls. Starting with a friend whose daughter was looking, seemed to make sense. I asked if she'd heard of any good candidates who were not quite right for her daughter. Sure enough, there was a young attorney in his mid-40's who’d never been married and seemed quite eligible. But she had few specifics. Heshy Z. had mentioned his name. Must check with him.
And so, call number two was directed to Heshy, who, because he doesn't get involved in these matters, set up call number three with Mrs. Z., who does. Mrs. Z. was eager to get involved, sharing enough information about the young man to make me feel that I was on the right track. These phone calls were followed by more phone calls. Calls to the potential groom were followed by calls to the potential bride. Up and back we went until it was time to step aside and let the couple continue together.
I heard nothing more from the couple (or any of the involved parties) for several weeks, until one morning, the brother called with a mazel tov. The engagement party would be that evening, and he wanted to invite us to attend.
All this from a chance mention from a brother to my son-in-law!  Every match truly has its' own story.

*Chassidut teaches that in addition to making matches, G-d is continuously maintaining creation.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

“What is this thing called love?” “What? Is this thing called love?” “ What is this thing called? Love.”

The average dictionary contains nearly thirty definitions of the word “love.”  These range from mild affinity to deep and lasting attachment.  How does one find love?  Some posit that love is an uncontrollable force, that people “fall” into love, or are shot by Cupid’s Bow.  (One can only hope that Cupid puts the arrows back in the quiver once the marriage bells have rung. )

What’s the Torah view on love?  In Vayikra 19:18 we read, “And you shall love your fellow as you love yourself.”  Maimonides elaborates: “My compassion and love for my fellow with respect to his money, his person, his possessions, and his belongings, should be as for myself.  Further, whatever boons I wish for myself, I am to wish for him…”  This attitude is reflected in the Hebrew word for love: ahavah.  In Biblical Hebrew, the name of a thing reflects its essence and definition.  אהבה - love, contains the root word הבgive.  The prefix א stands for “I will.”  So all together, Ahavah means, “I will give.”
True, humans are born ego-centric, thinking only of themselves; part of maturation is learning to think about others and their needs.  Knowing this, it’s not surprising that the divorce rate in the U.S. began to rise shortly after the appearance of the “Me” generation.  A marriage is not about “me,” it’s about “we.”  Some argue that The Happy Marriage Is the ‘Me’ Marriage.  Maybe – if the “me” focus means that your partner is helping you become a better person.  The truth is, that selflessness is the key to finding, keeping, and relating to one’s spouse.  See The Grammar of Love for more.

So how do we feel more love?  Decades of research in clinical psychology show that the fastest way to change an emotion is to change the behavior attached to it (Psychology Today, Oct. 2010).  It all goes back to ahavah – I will give.  The more I give, the more love I will feel.  Professor Arthur Aron of SUNY-Stonybrook concurs, citing his studies that show that kindness is the strongest indicator of a successful long-term relationship.   
What is this thing called love?  Bittul, or selflessness.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Two Torah Models of Love

Western art and literature are replete with famous examples of love.   Romeo and Juliet; Lancelot and Guinevere; Tristan and Iseult; Orpheus and Eurydice.  Even some actual couples are held up as paradigms of love: Napoleon and Josephine; Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.  What all of these couples have in common is frustrated love.  The couples face some obstacle – familial disapproval, prior commitments, or death.  The subconscious message is that love is only real if it’s opposed or complicated.    Love is held to be tempestuous, impetuous, nonsensical and chaotic.

The Torah model is quite different.  The normative model of love portrayed in the Torah is stable love, which grows stronger with every passing year.  The paradigm that is held up is the marriage of Yitzchak and Rivkah, the first Jewish marriage.  The Torah states that after Yitzchak brought   Rivkah into the family tent, “She became his wife, and he loved her.”  Rather than viewing the marriage day as the peak of happiness, and everything that comes after as anti-climactic, a Torah marriage begins with a basis of mutuality and compatibility, and grows from there – it is not the peak of love, but the source of love.  This ensures a stable relationship that grows ever stronger.

Does this mean that the only Torah model portrayed is one of stability?  No, the Torah also depicts “love at first sight” marriages.  But these relationships require more work to attain stability and eternity.
Let’s look at the example of our forefather Jacob and foremother Rachel.  The Torah tells us that Jacob worked for Rachel for seven years, and because of his great love for her, it was “like a few days.”  This is surprising – if he loved her so much, shouldn’t it have seemed like a long time?
To understand this, we need to think about the true meaning of love.  We use the word "love" loosely, to cover everything from deep emotions to casual likes.  The common definition of love is based on selfish considerations – what I feel when I’m with my beloved, how I imagine our relationship to be, what my partner can do for me; I, I, I.  But that’s not true love, it’s self-centeredness.  True love is selfless.  True love wonders, "How do I make my spouse feel?"  "What can I do to improve my relationship?"  True love places the other person primary. 
Jacob’s love for Rachel was not about his feelings, gratifying his desires, what he wanted from the relationship.  It was about placing the other person first and primary.  Considering how much Rachel meant to Jacob, he would have worked for fourteen years for her – she was worth much more to him than the ‘mere’ seven years.  That is other-centered love, not self-centered love.
·         What can you do, to reflect true love for your partner?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Everlasting Marriage

I was fortunate to have a model of everlasting love – the marriage of my grandparents, who spent over sixty years together.  Zaide loved Bubbie, saying “She looks just as beautiful today, as she did on our wedding day.”  How could that be?  Because, the soul is ageless and eternal; only the body ages.  When two people are connected on the soul level, their attachment is eternal; their attraction flows from the soul, which is ever youthful.  I saw their love every day, and at their 50th and 60th wedding anniversary parties. 

The last time I saw my grandfather, he and Bubbie had just boarded a city bus back to their neighborhood.  He stood, holding on to a ceiling strap, waving.  Three days later, my grandfather suffered a heart attack.  The doctors were able to revive him, but not for long.  In the years that followed, there was not a single conversation with Bubbie in which she didn’t mention Zaidie, each time expressing her shock at his loss.   I was disturbed by Bubbie’s mono-focus, sad that she wasn't moving on, and decided to help her.  I read books about death and grieving, and memorized Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’ stages of grief.  Armed with this “expertise,” I diagnosed my grandmother as being stuck, cycling in the “shock stage.”  How could I move her to “acceptance?”  I decided to confront her in our next conversation.

As I expected, she began to say, “He was so healthy.  Remember how he waved goodbye from the bus?  He was standing, so I would have a place to sit.”
I chimed in, “Bubbie, it’s been four years.  You need to accept that he’s gone…” 
She interrupted, “And if I had my arm cut off, would you say this to me?  Just accept that it’s gone?” 
I was startled into silence – and sudden understanding.  Losing her husband wasn’t just a loss she could work through and get over.  Bubbie was missing part of herself.  What did I, married for single-digit years, know of an intertwined life of over sixty years? 

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Why Do We Fall in Love?

The Mosuo people of southwestern China are unique in that they are the only known society that shuns marriage. Instead, women engage in casual relationships with whomever they wish and raise their children within their own family home, assisted by their male relatives.  But every other society around the world, from Madagascar to Macedonia enshrines the love relationship within law.  The medieval culture of courtly love elevated romance and infatuation as the ultimate expression of love, but severed courtly love from any physical means of expression.  Other times and mores obsessed over the physical but neglected the romantic or attachment components.  Why do we fall in love?  What’s happening in our heads and hearts?
Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at Rutgers University, and author of Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love, says we are “hard-wired” for love. After putting forty people who self-described as, “in-love,” into an MRI machine, she was able to trace the feelings of love back to dopamine flow in the part of the brain called the caudate nucleus.  Dr. Fisher cautions that relationships will still take ‘work.’   You can read more about her experiment here and here.
Torah does not view the companionship, romance and physical components of love as separate and distinct from each other; they are all integral to real love.  Halachah reflects this in the three Biblical obligations it places upon a man toward his wife:  to feed her, provide her with clothing, and have intimate relations with her.  Providing her with food is an act of nurturing and companionship.  Providing her with clothing is more intimate – caring not only for her basic survival needs, but for her need to feel special - romance.  The intimate connection meets her physical and emotional needs.  In a true love relationship, physical, emotional, and spiritual connections are intertwined.
Here’s more from course author, Rabbi Simon Jacobson:

Sunday, February 6, 2011

A Glimpse of True Joy

This brief video from the wedding of Rabbi and Mrs. Simon Jacobson's son, Mendel, to Miss Devorah Small, daughter of Dr. and Mrs. Menachem Small, gives a glimpse of the stages of a Jewish wedding:
  • The badeken (veiling of the bride)
  • The chuppah
  • The rejoicing following the ceremony

I.n. S.e.a.r.c.h. o.f. L.O.V.E.

Most of us would probably agree that people who don’t know anything about cars don’t become car mechanics.  But in spite of not having expertise in marriage, traditionally, most people married. But times, they are a changin’.
In “Against Love: A Polemic,” Laura Kipnis argues that marriage is a capitalist construct, intended to oppress and constrain those who enter the state.  One reviewer entertains Kipnis' thesis, then cogently points out that the institution of marriage predates the economic theory of capitalism by a few thousand years. But Kipnis’ anti-marriage stance is a reflection of popular sentiment.

A 2006 survey by the Pew Research Center reveals startling findings.  Most young singles in America are not actively looking for a romantic partner – let alone a marriage partner.  Even those who are “ISO” love don’t date very often – about half of them had been on just one date in the previous three months.  Just 16% of single Americans are actively looking for a partner.  When broken down by gender these numbers are even more stark: 65% of single women are not in a committed relationship and don’t care to be, while 42% of men feel the same.  A mere 9% of single American woman are looking for a partner; 23% of single American men feel the same.
What does Judaism have to say about this?  Is singledom by choice valued equally with the married state?

The Jewish view of marriage is distinct from extremes on the right or the left.  The Torah does not view marriage as a necessary concession to people’s physical urges; in fact, complete abstinence is seen, not as a mark of saintliness, but as a sin.  Nor does Torah subscribe to a life of hedonism.  Instead, Judaism views marriage as intrinsically good, and a mitzvah.  The traditional blessing we bestow upon new parents is that they should merit to rear their child “to Torah, to the wedding canopy, and to good deeds.” 

In Psalms 89:3 we read, “For the world is built on kindness.”  How does this kindness manifest in our lives?  In that G-d bestowed upon us the capacity to create life.  Thus, the source of love and passion stem from a pure and holy desire – to give to another.  It is only when these impulses are expressed outside of the framework G-d designed for them, that they are no longer holy.  By making marriage a mitzvah, the Torah emphasizes to the bride and groom that they have entered a new state: partners with G-d in establishing a world of kindness.  Thus, marriage is not simply a private matter between two people, but a holy state that exists by Divine command. For more, see

·         How might knowing that being married is a mitzvah, qualitatively change one’s manner of interacting with one’s spouse?
·         “For the world is built on kindness.”  The basis of the world is selfless giving – by G-d to us, by us to others.  What are some ways to implement this in our relationships?
·         The Talmud, in Shabbos 30b, teaches that doing mitzvot with joy is laudable, citing as example, the joy we bring to wedding celebrations.  How can we thread the joy of our wedding day throughout the years of our marriage?

Selfless Love

The story shared in this video is about the founder of the Sanz Chassidic dynasty, Rabbi Chaim Halberstam (1793-1876), known as the Divrei Chaim, after his work on Jewish Law.  The young girl was Rachel Feige, daughter of Rabbi Baruch Frankel-Teomim.  Rebbe Chaim and Rebbetzin Rachel Feige had eight children.  When she passed away, the Divrei Chaim married again; this marriage produced six children.  The Divrei Chaim was known for his great Torah knowledge, his humility, and his compassion.  Rabbi Baruch used to say, “My son-in-law may have a weak [body] but he has a very strong mind!''

It was the Divrei Chaim's custom not to go to sleep for the night until he had given away every last penny in his house.  Before Sukkot one year, a large donation reached the Rebbe's hands just before the holiday began.  He quickly apportioned this money to someone in town - a man to whom the Rebbe had already given a sum of money.  When the Rebbe's beadle expressed surprise at this, the Rebbe said, "The first sum of money was for the holiday itself.  But the man in heavily in debt.  How could he enjoy the holiday, knowing that after it ended his creditors would be back at the door?  This money," he said, pointing to the new sum, "is for his debts.  Now he can really celebrate."
That night, he told his sons, "Some people decorate their sukkot with pictures, wall hangings, fruit.  But our decorations are even more beautiful: we decorate with tzedakah - charity."

Today Sanz is represented by the Chassidic dynasties of Bobov and Klausenberg.   (This three minute video shows the marriage celebration of descendents of the Rebbe and Rebbetzin of Sanz.)
  • How can you apply the Divrei Chaim's philosophy to your marriage?
  • Does the Rebbe's giving attitude strengthen or weaken him? 

Friday, February 4, 2011

This Week's Wordl

What's a Wordl?  This is!
It's a visual capsule of this week's theme: to discover and implement our unique mission.
To enlarge the Wordl for easier viewing, click on it to open it in a new tab.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Thanks, Ruthie

When I was ten, I met the person who was to shape my life for much of the next decade.  Ruthie was athletic, upbeat, smart, confident – and caring and sensitive to others.  Ruthie was the rare teenager who didn't freak out if she had a pimple or a bad hair day.  It was clear she was comfortable with herself.  Who wouldn’t be?  She had the perfect life: a successful and strong father, the mom who spearheaded every community initiative, hosted all the must-attend events, and nurtured her family.  They vacationed in Hawaii, the Grand Canyon, Israel.  Ruthie had a closet full of clothes and shoes, jewelry; she was it.   More than once I envied her, imagining how happy I, too, could be, if I had the fifteen pairs of Nordstrom shoes lined up in the closet, tennis lessons and a summer house.  She was picked first for sports teams - and for boyfriends.  "No big deal to be happy when you have the perfect life.  If only I could be Ruthie."    

When she didn't have kids for a year or two after her wedding, I thought, "They're waiting to establish themselves.  First they'll buy a house, he'll make partner..."  But five years in, she confided that they were having trouble.  After years of expensive and painful fertility treatments, they were blessed with children.  Then her mother became ill and died.  When I spoke with Ruthie at shivah, she said her family was sad, but not bitter, that her mom had a great life full of many blessings, and they just wished she'd lived longer.  I grappled with her grateful response, confused.  "Where's the bottomless grief?  Is this for real?"  But the longer I listened to her, the more I had to accept that her response was genuine.

When Ruthie discovered that she carried the genetic propensity for the disease that killed her mom, she had a double mastectomy and oophorectomy.  I was shaken by the news - but not as much as I was by her attitude.  "How are you?"  I pressed Ruthie, staggered by her overwhelming losses - first her mother, and now all this.  "I'm great!"  She said.  "Great?"  I echoed.  "Yeah, really.  Now I don't have to wonder if I'll get to see my kids grow up.  I'm just so happy knowing that I'm disease free."  And she meant it. 

That's when I realized that it wasn't Ruthie's perfect life that made her happy -- it was her happiness that made her life perfect.   That it wasn't the trappings that made Ruthie attractive to be with -- it was her essence.

And all those years of comparing myself?  They didn't disappear.  Instead, now I think about how I measure up to Ruthie in attitude, in coping with what life throws my way, in understanding that everything that happens is part of my mission, and that you can no more carry out someone's mission than you can live for them.

Thanks, Ruthie.

If you don't know where you're going, how will you know when you get there?

Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment that demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is as unique as his specific opportunity to implement it.” Dr. Viktor Frankl
Two people on the same plane, traveling to the same location, most likely don't have the same plans once they touch down. One may be staying with relatives, the other at a luxury hotel. One might be there for business, another for touring or visiting family. One might take a taxi to the city center, another, the airport flyer.

Likewise, every person on earth has his own "travel package." Each of us has our own circumstances: a particular set of parents; a country, city or neighborhood; our housing situation, our economic condition. Every person finds himself with particular gifts and talents: intelligence, health, wealth, artistic ability, leadership; and we all grapple with different challenges. How does your travel package impact on your life's mission?

A mission is about more than what we do. It recognizes that our actions are part of some greater values, and that when we are engaged in our mission, we are taking part in something larger than ourselves. Every person must ask him or herself, "Where am I? What is my mission and how much have I done to fulfill it?” And the answer should be something specific and action-oriented, not nebulous and wishful. Author, Daniel Pink, provocatively asks, "What's your sentence?"

Wouldn't it be nice if along with our travel package we were given not only an itinerary, but also a checklist of "must-dos" to accomplish along the way? Why is it so hard to figure out why we're here and what we're supposed to be doing with our lives?

Why did G‑d create the universe in such a way that our lives can veil our soul’s purpose and it can be difficult to discover our mission? Because finding our mission is part of our service, which by definition is something that cannot be handed over on a silver platter but needs to come about through hard work and free-will. Thus, the child is made to forget the Torah that it learned while in its mother’s womb so that the learning should come through toil.

Lekutei Torah, Shelach 44a

In class you discussed ways to apply your personal mission statement to life. Among the suggestions were:
  • to try to find a common spiritual thread that unifies the fragments of your day and life
  • to learn to distinguish between the ends and the means; between who you are and what you do
  • to do the actions that connect us with the Divine and infuse our life with meaning
  • to use your mission statement as a guide for selecting from the manifold opportunities and experiences that life presents
Ultimately, crafting a mission statement is not a one-time activity, done and dropped for the next big thing. It's an ongoing exercise in self-evaluation, measuring where we are, with where we hope to be, of asking ourselves, "Ayeka," Where are you?"

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi taught:
“‘G‑d leads the footsteps of man’: When a Jew comes to a particular place it is for a reason—to perform a mitzvah, whether between man and G‑d or between man and his fellow man. A Jew is on a mission from on high. Wherever a messenger may be, he represents the power of the One who sent him.”
  • What's your sentence?
  • Has this lesson changed your view on Judaism and self-esteem? How so?
  • Do you have an "action item" to implement this week?

Beloved is Man

Reading the account of creation in Genesis, one is struck by the fact that, while most of the world came into being in masses -- swarms of bugs, flocks of birds, herds of cattle, swaths of grass -- the creation of man is uniquely singular. While G-d may have His own unfathomable reasons for doing this, what possible lessons could we glean from this?

"G-d originally created only one man, to teach that killing one person is like destroying an entire world, and saving one person is like saving an entire world.
Also, this promotes peace among people; one cannot say 'My progenitor was created before yours'...Also, this shows the greatness of G-d: if a person makes a stamp to mint coins, they all look the same; G-d made all people in the mold of Primordial Adam, yet no two people look alike. Therefore, everyone must say 'the world was created for me'
. "
Sanhedrin 37a

What is it about the fact that no two people look alike that is so significant that bears mention by the Talmud? There are surely deeper differences between people -- opinions, beliefs, ideals, fears, hopes. Why focus on something so superficial? The holy language of Hebrew reveals the underlying dimension to have different faces. The word for face is "panim." Vowelized slightly differently, "pnim" means inner. Why does Hebrew use the same root word for something outside - the face, and to indicate inner or inside?

"The face is called panim while the inner world of a person is called pnim. This is because the face reflects what is deeper and inside. “We can ‘read’ a person’s thoughts on his face … the very physical human face is capable of reflecting the soul to the eye that’s sensitive enough to read it."
Daat Tevunot 2:9

Far from being a superficial difference, these variations in eyes and noses from race to race, person to person, are a sign of each person's unique nature, personality, and talents. No two people look the same because no two people are the same. Unfortunately, many of us spend our lives oblivious to who we are, our particular talents and gifts. Instead of uncovering our authentic selves and setting out to fulfill our mission, we fall into self-identity traps.

We define ourselves by others:“If I am I because I am I, and you are you because you are you, then I am and you are. But if I am I because you are you, and you are you because I am I, then I am not and you are not.”Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk

We allow others to define us:

“I went into a store and the saleslady said, ‘If you need anything, I’m Jane.’ And I said, ‘Wow, I’ve never met anyone with a conditional identity before. If I don’t need anything, who are you then?’”Demetri Martin

We try to ignore our true self to focus on unrealistic aspirational selves:

Reb Zusha of Anipoli told his students: When I come to Heaven and they ask me "Why weren't you like Abraham our forefather?" I will answer: "because I wasn't Abraham." If they inquire: "Why didn't you match the greatness of Moses?" I can answer that I wasn't Moses. Even If they try to compare me to my brother Reb Elimelech, I can still say that I wasn't Elimelech. However, If they ask me why I wasn't the way Zusha needed to be... to that I have no answer.

Why do we engage in these dodges? Perhaps because admitting who we truly are and what we could accomplish is so overwhelming that we are frightened. Instead of taking on the weighty task of fulfilling our potential, we seek refuge in "I can't." Perhaps our fear of failure is so great, that we take consolation in, "If I had tried." Maybe our childhood messages drowned out our inner voice of competence and courage. Perhaps a partner or life circumstances have sapped our strength and zest, sending us down a spiral of helplessness and hopelessness.

For all these reasons, it's important to know the Torah's view of each person and his abilities:
[Rabbi Akiva] would say: Beloved is man, for he was created in the image [of G-d]; it is a sign of even greater love that it has been made known to him that he was created in the image, as it is says, "For in the image of G-d, He made man" (Genesis 9:6).
Avot 3:14

“The most important principle in one’s life is to recognize and know the value of a person as set forth in the Torah. From the awareness of one’s greatness, one can have an awareness of the spiritual goals and duties of the human being...”
Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Sher
  • Many people connect identity crises with the teenage years. Can adults also experience identity crises? How do these manifest?
  • Why does the Torah feel compelled to tell us how beloved we are?
  • What does it mean to you, to be created in G-d's image?