Saturday, June 27, 2015

Adversity + Humility + Acceptance = Transcendence

Dear Friends, 

God willing, I plan to start posting a weekly article or a link to one, usually sent out on Sundays. It will either be an article related to that month's theme, outlined in The Chazak Plan, or the coming month's theme. 

All the best, 

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Tammuz: Removing Hatred

Dear Friends,

This post is about the Jewish month of Tammuz, as it relates to The Chazak Plan: A 12 Month Journey to Spiritual Strength.

Rosh Chodesh Tammuz begins Tuesday night, the 16th of June, and lasts for two days.

This month, the 17th of Tammuz, usually a fast day, falls out on Shabbat. The fast is postponed to Sunday, July 5th. The fast commemorates the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem before the destruction of the First Temple. This is the beginning of the period known as The Three Weeks which ends next month on Tisha B’Av, the day we mourn the destruction of the First and Second Temples. The Sages teach that a key reason the Messiah has not yet come to rebuild the Temple is because of the sin of hating one’s fellow Jew.

We are a small nation surrounded by enemies bent on our destruction. To defeat the hatred against our people, we need to defeat the hatred within our people. This month, go out of your way to be forgiving and overlook the faults of others. Pick one person, and either work on forgiving them or reducing the bitterness you feel.

Ask yourself, “What is the first step I can take to try to resolve a conflict I have with someone? How can I keep the disagreement from deteriorating into personal animosity?”

Related to the topic of forgiveness, one of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov’s most transformative teachings is his emphasis on finding the good in others and in ourselves (Likutey Moharan I, 282). A complementary practice is to realize that we all have difficulties and to feel compassion for our own challenges and for those of others. Each day, look for the good in yourself and others, and feel compassion for the struggles we all face. Then, you will be more forgiving and loving toward others and yourself.

For additional discussion on the sin of hating one’s fellow Jew, see, “How to Remove Your Number One Spiritual Stumbling Block.”

A number of misfortunes have occurred to the Jewish people during The Three Weeks. Because of this, this month and next month’s focus is also on how to overcome adversity.

Readings for the month:

Conflict Resolution: How to Win the Battle for Peace

The Freedom of Forgiveness: 3 Strategies to Letting Go

Discover Your Inner Peace

When Rabbis Behave Badly: How to respond to disturbing news

“Why?” 5 Reasons for Suffering

Take care, and may God grant us success in the coming month,


Thursday, June 11, 2015

When Rabbis Behave Badly

Please note, this article is about the issue in general and not a commentary on a particular case.

Over the years, we have heard disturbing reports of some rabbis committing unconscionable crimes against children. How do we respond?

Saturday, June 6, 2015

“Am I a Faker or a Genuine Person?”

We all know people who are genuine and sincere. They strive to do the right thing, whether in public or in private. Then there are fakers, people who appear to be upstanding and sincere, while their hidden actions tell a very different story.

At times, we may ask ourselves, “Am I a faker?”

The short answer is that if you are asking this question, probably not. Fakers are not concerned about inconsistencies in their behavior. Only those who strive to be good people may, at times, question their sincerity and are frequently overly harsh in their assessment. (At the same time, if you do not question whether you are a faker, that does not mean you are one.)

We sometimes focus only on our lapses and say, “That’s who I am. I’m the type of person who does that.” But that is not true. What defines us are not the exceptions, but rather the norms, how we usually behave. If most of the time we act appropriately, occasional mistakes do not mean we are fakers or hypocrites; they mean we are human, a work in progress like everyone else.

Focusing only on our lapses to the exclusion of how we act the majority of the time is a common mistake. There are people who observe the vast majority of the commandments but slip-up in one area. Instead of encouraging themselves to get back on track, they get stuck in black or white thinking and say, “Since I did that sin, I must no longer be observant.” That is the talk of the evil inclination, trying to get you to abandon all the good that you do. Don’t listen to him! Instead, listen to the wisest of men, King Solomon, who said (Ecclesiastes 7:20), “For there is no man so wholly righteous on earth that he [always] does good and never sins.”

Buying into this talk of the evil inclination is analogous to a man who buys a one of a kind masterpiece, a handcrafted, mahogany dresser. By accident, he scratches it. Instead of either trying to repair it or do better to avoid more damage in the future, he gets so upset, that he takes a sledgehammer and completely destroys the furniture.

Your relationship with God and your observance of His commandments is a unique, one of a kind masterpiece. We all make mistakes, we all get scratched up; that’s to be expected. The question is, do we allow our mistakes to be our undoing and destroy all the good we still can achieve, or do we repair our mistakes and learn from them how to do better in the future?

Even those who habitually act inappropriately should not label themselves as bad people. Ethics of the Fathers cautions (2:18), “Do not judge yourself to be a wicked person.” As long as people view themselves as wicked, that is how they will act. But if people view their sins as temporary lapses in how they want to live their lives, there is still hope that they will strengthen themselves in the future.

Those who think mistakes define who they are will rationalize after an error, “Why bother trying to be good, when I’m already no good.” For example, one day a person pilfers some office supplies. Later, he feels guilty and says to himself, “People think I’m an honest guy, but I’m really not. I’m a faker. How can I continue to go to the synagogue, pretending to be pious? I don’t want to be a hypocrite. And why bother trying to be honest in other areas of my life, if I’m a cheat anyway?”

Buying into this line of faulty reasoning can cause a relatively minor lapse to snowball into previously unthinkable behavior. This thinking is erroneous because each act you do stands on its own merit. Each act is an investment in your future (your eternal share in the World to Come). Just because you made some poor investments in the past, does not mean you must continue to do so. The opposite is true: Past mistakes can become catalysts for better decisions in the future.

The Talmud (Yoma 86b) teaches that when people repent out of love for God (wanting to come closer to Him and fulfill His will) versus out of fear of Divine punishment, their past sins are turned into merits. When people repent because they want to come closer to God, their sins become stepping stones to spiritual growth, i.e., the very sins are transformed into meritorious acts.

To avoid labeling yourself as a bad person, do damage control as soon as you slip-up: Minimize the lapse as much as possible, remind yourself that this isolated incident does not reflect who you really are, and then repent and begin anew with a fresh start.

If you still feel like a faker, ask yourself, “Do I strive to improve and correct my mistakes as best I can?” If yes, then you are a genuine person; not a phony at all. Look in the mirror and say out loud, “I strive to improve and correct my mistakes. I am a genuine, good person.” (Do this daily until it sinks in. In addition, see, “How to Stop Hating and Start Loving Yourself.”)

Being a faker or a genuine person is a matter of degree; some people are more real than others. That being said, there is a line of demarcation from genuine to faker. As long as people try to do their best and strengthen the areas in which they are weak, they are still in the genuine camp. Those who intentionally misrepresent themselves and do not try to do what is right have entered into the camp of the fakers.

Two major factors determine where people fall on the genuine to faker spectrum. First, is their level of humility; humble people are genuine people. Second, is their awe before God. Because God’s presence fills the world, people who have genuine awe before Him are not two-faced, acting one way in public and another way in private. Instead, cognizant of God’s constant presence, their private behavior is aligned with their public persona; one is a reflection of the other. These two factors come together when people humble themselves before God and follow His will; the more they do so, the more genuine and sincere they will become.

Many of us, although not fakers, still exhibit behaviors which are aberrations, not in keeping with the good people we are. God created us with flaws and temptations to give us the opportunity to overcome our weaknesses, thereby spiritually elevating ourselves; one way we do this is by repairing incongruent behavior through repentance.

What is your aberration, your weak link?

Is it being ethical, moral, charitable and kind, refraining from hurtful speech and actions, or some other area?

Preferably, discuss your weak link with a rabbi, rebbetzin or spiritual mentor you respect. They will advise you how to change for the better. Alternatively, devise your own action plan on how to address the issue.

Never give up. Never think you are too far gone or have already done too much damage. No matter how long you have engaged in behavior incongruent with who you want to be, remember that each day God gives you the gift of life, He says to you, “I created you with the potential for greatness. I am giving you this day because I know you can still reach that potential. Use this day to clean your slate of past mistakes, avoid sinful behavior and take advantage of opportunities to become a better person. If you put in the effort, I will help you become the person you were meant to be. Take the first step. Start now.”

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