Tag Archives: Behar-Behukotai

Look for the helpers

15 May
Amtrak derailment, 5/12/15 (Photo from NY Daily News).

Amtrak derailment, 5/12/15 (Photo from NY Daily News).

The Amtrak train derailment in Philadelphia was a terrible shock. My thoughts and prayers are with the families of all the victims, including at least eight victims confirmed dead and dozens more who were injured. Among the dead, at least two were Jewish. Rachel Jacobs, a 39-year-old wife and mother was CEO of an education startup organization and an active member of the Jewish community. Justin Zemser was a 20-year-old midshipman at the US Naval Academy. I grieve their loss and that of the six other victims. I’m sure many in my circle are within two to three degrees of separation of passengers on that train. Two former USY counselors of mine reported on Facebook that their son was on the train and was bruised, but not seriously hurt.

The derailment and the destruction it caused underscore the randomness of life events. We go about the routines of our daily lives doing things that we often don’t think twice about, and yet we are vulnerable at any time. The tragedy also underscores the human capacity for error and the dire consequences that can result. Hopefully, the investigation will reveal why the train was speeding at over 100 miles per hour in a 50-mph zone.

As authorities conduct their investigation, I’m reminded of a bit of wisdom from Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. “When I was a boy,” he said, “and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers—so many caring people in this world.”

As we observe the unfolding of this senseless tragedy, it’s important that we focus not only on the loss and destruction, but also those who burst into action to help those in danger. This sensibility is rooted in this week’s Torah reading as we close out the book of Leviticus in Behar-Behukotai.

At the heart of Parashat Behar is the notion that everything in the world belongs to God—ki li haaretz, ki gerim v’toshavim atem imadi—for the Land in Mine, for you are but strangers and sojourners with me. The upshot of this is that all of God’s creation, all matter living and not living, belongs to God not us. We therefore must in the words of the prophet Micah, walk humbly before God.

The second half of today’s reading, Behukotai, closes the book of Vayikra with a series of blessings and curses; blessings for being true to God’s laws, and curses for straying from them. I’m not going to address the challenge of reward and punishment theology that this parasha raises. Taking a bird’s eye view of this parasha, it’s not about the particulars of our lives—it’s about life in general. It’s about the good things in life- the joy, the pleasures, the blessings—such as the joy when we celebrate a wedding or the birth of a child. But the parasha also describes the hardship, the suffering and the pain. The Torah is saying welcome to the real world. Life is often good. Yet, life is often filled with great difficulty. The Torah’s mission is to teach us that we are tenants of God’s world and at the same time, we are very much of the world. We are stakeholders in the world, and it’s in our own self-interest to live a just and righteous life.

In the blessings portion, we read: vishavtem lavetach b’artz’chem…v’natati shalom baAretz—You will dwell in your Land safely, and I will give peace in the Land. According to Hasidic teachings, a question is asked: after the Torah has stipulated that “you will dwell in your land safely,” why does it have to state, “I will give peace in the land”? The reference here, then, is to internal peace, within yourselves, between one another, between one party and another, between one faction and another. I don’t interpret this teaching that bad stuff in the world will never happen. I read it to say that human beings will help one another achieve inner peace amidst great challenges.

As the world’s attention is focused on the Philadelphia train derailment, I believe this Hasidic teaching and the wisdom of Fred Rogers call on us to remember the helpers. The Philadelphia Inquirer and other news outlets reported numerous examples of heroism by first responders, passengers and bystanders.

There were the firefighters who arrived on the scene to pull trapped passengers from mangled cars; police officers who rushed into the train or drove patients to hospitals by the dozens in wagons; passengers who, as their rescuers broke into the cars, asked them to first help the more injured around them. Imagine the presence of mind of these passengers. They’re banged up, they’re bloodied, they may have broken bones. On top of all that, they’re sitting in a train car turned upside down. They are probably frightened beyond belief and want nothing more than to get out. Rescue workers arrive on the scene and, in the midst of this chaos, they directed the first responders towards passengers who needed even more help.

In the midst of human tragedy, it is awe-inspiring the extent to which people can open their hearts to help others in need, even in the midst of one’s own suffering. If human beings have the capacity for such compassion when under such pressure, then all the more so in our day-to-day lives—when we don’t feel immediate danger–we have the capacity for compassion and loving kindness. Today, as we close the Book of Leviticus, let us take to heart its great wisdom for life. As we see today, two of the messages with which the book closes are that we must be humble before God and that we must pursue peace. May God grant us the strength to continue this noble mission.

The Torah’s call to create a culture of giving

3 May

imageThere’s a story about a child who asks his father a question. “Can you explain to me what a conscience problem is?” he asks. The father replies: “I’ll give you an example. If a customer comes into my store and buys something for one dollar, and by mistake gives me three dollars, I suddenly have a conscience problem–do I tell my partner or not?”

Let’s unpack this story. The humorous force of the story is tension of the pause in the father’s response. We expect him to struggle whether to keep the extra two dollars or return the money, as he should, to the customer. Instead, his extreme greed is exposed, and his struggle is over keeping all of his ill-gotten profit or sharing it with his business partner.

We all know that adherence to Jewish—and broader societal–ethics would demand us to return the money. Yet, many of us can sympathize with the temptation to keep money that lands in our lap. In fact, some people might say that we live in a dog-eat-dog world. You take what you can get, and if you let others take it from you, then you are a sucker and a loser. Leo Durocher’s saying, “Nice guys finish last,” resonates widely in our society.

It turns out, though, that Leo Durocher was wrong. An important new book explores the inner dynamics of giving and taking and upends conventional wisdom. The book is Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success. The author is Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist and management expert. At the age of just 31, he is the youngest tenured professor ever at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, where he teaches. Grant notes that people in society fall into three categories: givers, takers and matchers. Whereas takers strive to get as much as possible from others and matchers aim to trade evenly, givers are the rare breed of people who contribute to others without expecting anything in return. Through exhaustive research, coupled with an engaging narrative, Grant argues that giving is an under-recognized key to success.

The timing of this book is important. Grant writes that in earlier parts of American history people worked in independent jobs producing goods. They did not always need to collaborate with other people, so it was fairly inefficient to be a giver. But now, a high percentage of people work in inter-connected jobs providing services to others.

He notes that most people act like givers in close relationships. In marriages and friendships, we contribute whenever we can without keeping score. However, outside of our innermost circles, people are more likely to be takers and matchers. He argues that incorporating more giving tendencies in all aspects of our lives actually yields more happiness and success.

“When givers succeed, their success spreads and cascades,” he writes. “Givers succeed in a way that creates a ripple effect, enhancing the success of people around them.”  He quotes a venture capitalist who says, “‘It’s easier to win if everybody out there wants you to win. If you don’t make enemies out there it’s easier to succeed.'”

Last month, the New York Times Magazine published a cover story about Grant titled, “Is Giving the Secret to Getting Ahead?” The article not only discusses the book, it also profiles Grant himself and how he is highly regarded as a teacher. He both talks the talk and walks the walk. He is generous of his time with his students in providing extensive office hours, introducing them to connections in his network and answering every email in a thorough, thoughtful way. I must say that having read his book and learning more about Grant through interviews, I was inspired to write to him. I asked him some technical questions and also observed that his thesis that giving is the key to success is relevant to synagogue life (more about that shortly). Less than two days later I received an extensive personal response in which he answered every question. The email bore a time signature of 1:33 AM. I was blown away. Moreover, he identified himself as “a fellow lighter of the menorah,” and I was touched by this additional sense of personal connection.

I believe the Jewish connection to the book Give and Take goes far deeper than the author’s personal background. We close the Book of Leviticus with the double Torah portion BeharBehukotai that bursts forth with ideal of a society rooted in the culture of giving. Even one’s own land must be given a Shabbat every seventh year and not be tilled. The people must subsist solely on the land’s naturally yielded fruit. After seven cycles of Sabbatical years, the 50th year is a Jubilee year in which all slaves go free and all land returned to its original owner. Through these practices, the Israelites are to cultivate a culture of giving that connects God, the people and the Land in a covenantal symbiosis.

It’s to be expected that this ideal picture is not an easy sell. According to the text, God Himself anticipates the anxiety of the people in the Sabbatical year. They might say, mah nochal bashanah ha-sheviit, “How are we supposed to eat in the seventh year?” (25:20). Put differently, “I understand the ideal of all this giving stuff, but can’t I take something for myself?” God reassures them that they need not worry. They will be blessed with abundance. God then reminds the people what’s really at stake in this whole discussion:

Ki li Haaretz, ki gerim v’toshavim atem imadi, “For the Land is Mine; you are but strangers and sojourners with me” (25:23). Rabbi Harold Kushner notes that the Israelites, like all people, are but God’s tenants. They are resident aliens in the Land. Only if they live up to the terms of the Covenant will they endure there.

The Torah reminds us that while we might think we acquire property, such as Land, let’s not kid ourselves. Ultimately, it belongs to God. During our lifetimes, we are given a sacred trust to safeguard the Land so that future generations may enjoy it as well. The Torah reminds us to take on the mindset of givers, not takers. Rather than tolerating people going through life as takers, concerned only with advancing our own personal interests, the Torah calls on us to think outside of ourselves. Doing so has the effect of benefitting everybody, including ourselves.

I am very taken by Adam Grant’s call to cultivate a mentality of giving. As the rabbi of a synagogue, I believe the congregation is an ideal laboratory for creating a culture of giving.  The book Sacred Strategies: Transforming Synagogues from Functional to Visionary, an important study of contemporary synagogue culture, notes that many congregations are “functional,” that is they are rooted in a consumerist transactional culture. The thinking in such synagogues is something like, “I pay dues, now what can you do for me?” Applying Adam Grant’s thesis, I now understand this as a “taker” or “matcher” culture. In contrast, synagogues that are rooted in a culture of relationship building are termed “visionary” congregations, and these are the congregations that will be most successful in this era.  Having read Adam Grant, I now understand a visionary congregation as embodying much more of a “giver” culture. In such a synagogue, there is a pervasive sense that we are part of something larger than ourselves. As we close the book of Leviticus this Shabbat, let’s take with us God’s reminder that we are merely tenants on this earth and that our lives will be most fulfilled when we cultivate humility, generosity and gratitude. In so doing, we will create wholeness in our community and in all of our relationships. May we be so blessed.