Friday, December 27, 2013

When Is It Too Late?

The purpose of this blog is to help foster some great talk at your Shabbat table. Please print and share.

Rabbi Akiva's TombThe main question for this week is: When is it too late?

A little story to set the scene:

The year: Around 90 CE, a decade after the destruction of Jerusalem.

The location: Lod, Israel.

There is this man named Mr. Kalva-Savua. He's a wealthy businessman.

Much of his wealth is in livestock.

He has a daughter named Rachel. She comes of age and it's time to find her a husband.

But she rejects every match suggested to her (no, Judaism never allowed parents to coerce their children into a marriage).

"What's wrong with these men you keep rejecting?" we can imagine her mother saying. "They are scholars. They come from good families!"

Rachel isn't impressed by breeding. She has something entirely different in mind.

"I want to marry Akiva."

"Akiva who?"

"Akiva the shepherd."

"Akiva the shepherd? On our staff? Are you out of your mind? If you married someone with learning but no breeding, that we'd understand. If you married someone with breeding but no learning, that we'd understand. But he has neither learning nor breeding! How could you even consider an illiterate shepherd who comes from a poor, illiterate family? What are you thinking?"

"I see something in him. I see greatness in him. He just needs the right woman to help him bring it out."

"You are out of your mind. Do not think about it any more. And should you go and marry him behind our backs, you will be disinherited. Keep that in mind!"

But she does.

And so do they.

And Rachel and Akiva live in poverty.

They sleep on straw.

But they are happy.

Once, someone comes to the door asking for charity.

Akiva looks at him and thinks, "He has even less than we do," and gives the beggar their straw.

That's the kind of man he is.

After some time, Rachel says to him, "I want to remind you that I only married you on condition that you go study. Now it's time to go. By my estimate, it's going to take you twelve years, so I don't want you to return for twelve years. Got that?"

So off he kindergarten.

There he is sitting with the five-year-olds. Feeling out of place.

"What am I doing here in kindergarten? I'm a forty-year-old man! I feel like such a chump!"

He goes outside for some fresh air. "I can't take it in there! I'm a big oaf. But I can't go home, Rachel will clobber me, and besides, I promised. Oy!"

He sits down by a stream, watching the water trickle, listening to it gurgle.

At a certain spot the water has carved out a niche in a rock.

"How could that happen? Water is soft, the rock is hard...."

Suddenly inspiration hits him like a splash of water. "If soft water could make a dent in a hard rock, surely the Torah, which is like fire, could make a dent in my hard heart!"

So he gets himself up and goes back to kindergarten.

Flash forward twelve years. Akiva returns home. Before he opens the door, he overhears Rachel in the garden talking to a neighbor.

The neighbor says, "You're living like a widow! Your husband has been gone for twelve years!"

"If he'd listen to me, he'd go for another twelve years!"

"Aha!" he decides on the spot, "She's giving me permission!" He about-faces and returns to the yeshiva.

Twelve years later he returns a second time.

This time he has 24 thousand students with him. He has become the greatest sage in Israel.

When he arrives to town, everyone turns out to see the great Rebbe Akiva.

Rachel pushes her way through the crowd to find her husband.

She is in rags and his students try to shield him from her.

"Leave her be! Every one of you owes all of your Torah to her!"
Questions for your table:

When is it too late to study?
When is it too late to change careers?
When is it too late to change your life?

Shabbat Shalom

PS - Read more about Rabbi Akiva - including what his father-in-law did when he found out whom he'd become, click here or here.

PPS - If you were thinking of making a tax-deductible contribution before the end of 2013, please click here.

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PPPPS - the photo above is Rabbi Akiva's tomb in Tiberius.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Face 2 Face

The purpose of this email is to help create some great face time at your Shabbat table. Please print and share.
Face 2 Face

Jerusalem snow scene 2OK, so I'm back from Yerushalayim.

The first thing I did in the airport in New York was to get a professional New York shoe shine for my poor Oxfords, blanched by the Jerusalem blizzard.

How was your trip?

I didn't visit any "sites".

I didn't eat any falafel.

I did drink a lot of coffee.

(Peet's best flavor, that I brought with me. Guess I'm a little spoiled.)

The highlight of the trip?

Surely watching children gleefully, exuberantly reveling in the snow was, hands-down, the greatest joy.

Some kids used baking pans as sleds.

One 13-year-old, who has never left the Land of Israel, told me wide-eyed, "It's like being in Switzerland!"

What is it about connecting with people?

What is it about connecting with people face-to-face?

In eight days I connected meaningfully with eight people/families, any one of whom would have been worth the effort.

Six were old relationships, two were new.

They all have phones. Most have email.

I have asked this question before, but this trip gave me a new way of asking it.

With all this great video technology, why does a face-to-face meeting still matter so much?

You probably know that I'm a big fan of long-distance relationships:

- A live class in San Francisco every Friday morning, while sitting at my desk in Baltimore.
- Studying with individuals and couples via video and phone most days of the week
- Tweeting
- Posting
- (anything new I'm missing?)

Yet... there's something missing, right?

A Forbes survey agrees.

I was pondering this yesterday when I struck up a conversation with a United Airlines pilot. He said, "It's a great truth that is the only thing that keeps airlines in business!"

In other words, in the business world, it's no secret.

This Hilton Hotels report explores some of the psychological reasons.

But I'm not sure they get to the very heart of the question.

So I'll leave it to you and your table tonight:

Why does face-to-face matter so much? Is it merely because our technology isn't good enough to make the other person seem like they're in the room? Can you imagine a day when the video is so realistic that face-to-face won't matter anymore?

Shabbat Shalom

PS - If you want to know the real reason I went to Jerusalem, watch  this ... or this.

PPS - Want to make your Table Talk rabbi happy? Like it, tweet it, or just forward it to someone who might enjoy it.  

Even better, come visit us in Baltimore for some face-to-face time over some great coffee.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Call Me Sheleg

The goal of this email is foster a warm + cozy conversation at your Shabbat table. Please print and share...

Jerusalem snow-covered palmsGreetings from snowy Jerusalem.

After a decade of saving credit card points, I was privileged to come on a free flight.

The snowstorm on the East Coast was so fun that I decided to bring it with me to Israel.

Last year's blog about snow was so popular that in honor of the moment, I'm going to run it again today.

The question for your table is:

Why is a fresh snowfall so magical?

Think about it for a moment.

Is it because snow softens the sounds, slows the pace?

Is it because snow closes schools and is fun to play in?

The Hebrew word for snow is sheleg.

Normally, we look for significance of a word by how it's used in the Torah.

Sheleg is not used qua snow, rather to describe a perfect whiteness, as in "your sins will be made white as snow."

But the word sheleg has a peculiar quality.

Peculiar, that is, to those who study gematria (numerology). It's numerical value is 333.

Numerologists read that as: "The number three expanded to the utmost."

Or, "the ulimate in three-ness."

But what  is "three-ness"?

The number 3 in Jewish thought represents something foundational about humanity: "The world stands on 3 pillars: Torah, Avodah and Chesed" (Pirkei Avot).

(Loose translation: wisdom, spirituality, kindness)

These three qualities are exemplified by the three Patriarchs: Avraham (Abraham), Yitzchak (Isaac), Yaakov (Jacob).

Perhaps this numerology is the key to the lesson of snow.

We need those 3 pillars - Torah, Avodah and Chesed - to have a stable world. Snow shows us what the world would look like when we get the right balance of those three.

It's magical - blanketing the world with a clean whiteness, smoothing over all the bumps, hiding all the dirt.

snow-jerusalem-01-10-2012-12Yes, we know the dirt is there, and will be back soon enough.

But isn't it fun for a few minutes to pretend that it isn't?

But it's more than pretending. That magic is teaching us something.

It's reminding us what the world could look like all the time, if each of us worked on the area(s) where we are deficient in our own triangle.

Final question for your table: What's lacking most in the world - Torah, Avodah or Chesed?

Shabbat Shalom 

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Friday, December 06, 2013

How to be Miserable

The purpose of this blog is to decrease misery at your Friday night dinner table and beyond. Please print and share.

Misery badge2 questions for your table:

1. Who's responsible for your happiness?

Most people will answer, "I am, of course!"

Let's see if that's true....

Question 2: What are the secrets to being miserable?

I.e., what are the habits of miserable people?

There are so many lists of habits of successful people, of happy people, of successful investors, of successful marriages etc.

What about the opposite?

Maybe this is hard for you to answer because you don't know any miserable people?

But if you do, think about habits they have that strengthen or increase their misery.

This is what psychotherapist Cloe Madanes did. Here's her list (abridged):

1. Be afraid, be very afraid, of economic loss. In hard economic times, many people are afraid of losing their jobs or savings. The art of messing up your life consists of indulging these fears, even when there’s little risk that you’ll actually suffer such losses. Concentrate on this fear, make it a priority in your life, moan continuously that you could go broke any day now, and complain about how much everything costs, particularly if someone else is buying. Try to initiate quarrels about other people’s feckless, spendthrift ways, and suggest that the recession has resulted from irresponsible fiscal behavior like theirs.

Fearing economic loss has several advantages. First, it’ll keep you working forever at a job you hate. Second, it balances nicely with greed, an obsession with money, and a selfishness that even Ebenezer Scrooge would envy. Third, not only will you alienate your friends and family, but you’ll likely become even more anxious, depressed, and possibly even ill from your money worries. Good job!

2. Practice sustained boredom. Cultivate the feeling that everything is predictable, that life holds no excitement, no possibility for adventure, that an inherently fascinating person like yourself has been deposited into a completely tedious and pointless life through no fault of your own. Complain a lot about how bored you are. Go on repeated shopping sprees for clothes, cars, fancy appliances, sporting equipment (take several credit cards, in case one maxes out); start pointless fights with your spouse, boss, children, friends, neighbors; have another child; quit your job, clean out your savings account, and move to a state you know nothing about.
A side benefit of being bored is that you inevitably become boring. Friends and relatives will avoid you. You won’t be invited anywhere; nobody will want to call you, much less actually see you. As this happens, you’ll feel lonely and even more bored and miserable.

3. Give yourself a negative identity. Allow a perceived emotional problem to absorb all other aspects of your self-identification. If you feel depressed, become a Depressed Person; if you suffer from social anxiety or a phobia, assume the identity of a Phobic Person or a Person with Anxiety Disorder. Make your condition the focus of your life. Talk about it to everybody, and make sure to read up on the symptoms so you can speak about them knowledgeably and endlessly. Practice the behaviors most associated with that condition, particularly when it’ll interfere with regular activities and relationships. Focus on how depressed you are and become weepy, if that’s your identity of choice. Refuse to go places or try new things because they make you too anxious. Work yourself into panic attacks in places it’ll cause the most commotion. It’s important to show that you don’t enjoy these states or behaviors, but that there’s nothing you can do to prevent them.
Practice putting yourself in the physiological state that represents your negative identity. For example, if your negative identity is Depressed Person, hunch your shoulders, look at the floor, breathe shallowly. It’s important to condition your body to help you reach your negative peak as quickly as possible.

4. Pick fights. This is an excellent way of ruining a relationship with a romantic partner. Once in a while, unpredictably, pick a fight or have a crying spell over something trivial and make unwarranted accusations. The interaction should last for at least 15 minutes and ideally occur in public. During the tantrum, expect your partner to be kind and sympathetic, but should he or she mention it later, insist that you never did such a thing and that he or she must have misunderstood what you were trying to say. Act injured and hurt that your partner somehow implied you weren’t behaving well.

Another way of doing this is to say unexpectedly, “We need to talk,” and then to barrage your partner with statements about how disappointed you are with the relationship. Make sure to begin this barrage just as your partner is about to leave for some engagement or activity, and refuse to end it for at least an hour. Another variation is to text or phone your partner at work to express your issues and disappointments. Do the same if your partner is out with friends.

5. Attribute bad intentions. Whenever you can, attribute the worst possible intentions to your partner, friends, and coworkers. Take any innocent remark and turn it into an insult or attempt to humiliate you. For example, if someone asks, “How did you like such and such movie?” you should immediately think, He’s trying to humiliate me by proving that I didn’t understand the movie, or He’s preparing to tell me that I have poor taste in movies. The idea is to always expect the worst from people. If someone is late to meet you for dinner, while you wait for them, remind yourself of all the other times the person was late, and tell yourself that he or she is doing this deliberately to slight you. Make sure that by the time the person arrives, you’re either seething or so despondent that the evening is ruined. If the person asks what’s wrong, don’t say a word: let him or her suffer.

6. Whatever you do, do it only for personal gain. Sometimes you’ll be tempted to help someone, contribute to a charity, or participate in a community activity. Don’t do it, unless there’s something in it for you, like the opportunity to seem like a good person or to get to know somebody you can borrow money from some day. Never fall into the trap of doing something purely because you want to help people. Remember that your primary goal is to take care of Numero Uno, even though you hate yourself.

7. Avoid gratitude. Research shows that people who express gratitude are happier than those who don’t, so never express gratitude. Counting your blessings is for idiots. What blessings? Life is suffering, and then you die. What’s there to be thankful for?

Well-meaning friends and relatives will try to sabotage your efforts to be thankless. For example, while you’re in the middle of complaining about the project you procrastinated on at work to your spouse during an unhealthy dinner, he or she might try to remind you of how grateful you should be to have a job or food at all. Such attempts to encourage gratitude and cheerfulness are common and easily deflected. Simply point out that the things you should be grateful for aren’t perfect—which frees you to find as much fault with them as you like.

8. Always be alert and in a state of anxiety. Optimism about the future leads only to disappointment. Therefore, you have to do your best to believe that your marriage will flounder, your children won’t love you, your business will fail, and nothing good will ever work out for you.

9. Blame your parents. Blaming your parents for your defects, shortcomings, and failures is among the most important steps you can take. After all, your parents made you who you are today; you had nothing to do with it. If you happen to have any good qualities or successes, don’t give your parents credit. Those are flukes.

Extend the blame to other people from your past: the second-grade teacher who yelled at you in the cafeteria, the boy who bullied you when you were 9, the college professor who gave you a D on your paper, your first boyfriend, even the hick town you grew up in—the possibilities are limitless. Blame is essential in the art of being miserable.

10. Don’t enjoy life’s pleasures. Taking pleasure in things like food, wine, music, and beauty is for flighty, shallow people. Tell yourself that. If you inadvertently find yourself enjoying some flavor, song, or work of art, remind yourself immediately that these are transitory pleasures, which can’t compensate for the miserable state of the world. The same applies to nature. If you accidentally find yourself enjoying a beautiful view, a walk on the beach, or a stroll through a forest, stop! Remind yourself that the world is full of poverty, illness, and devastation. The beauty of nature is a deception.

11. Ruminate. Spend a great deal of time focused on yourself. Worry constantly about the causes of your behavior, analyze your defects, and chew on your problems. This will help you foster a pessimistic view of your life. Don’t allow yourself to become distracted by any positive experience or influence. The point is to ensure that even minor upsets and difficulties appear huge and portentous.

You can ruminate on the problems of others or the world, but make them about you. Your child is sick? Ruminate on what a burden it is for you to take time off from work to care for her. Your spouse is hurt by your behavior? Focus on how terrible it makes you feel when he points out how you make him feel. By ruminating not only on your own problems but also those of others, you’ll come across as a deep, sensitive thinker who holds the weight of the world on your shoulders.

12. Glorify or vilify the past. Glorifying the past is telling yourself how good, happy, fortunate, and worthwhile life was when you were a child, a young person, or a newly married person—and regretting how it’s all been downhill ever since. When you were young, for example, you were glamorous and danced the samba with handsome men on the beach at twilight; and now you’re in a so-so marriage to an insurance adjuster in Topeka. You should’ve married tall, dark Antonio. You should’ve invested in Microsoft when you had the chance. In short, focus on what you could’ve and should’ve done, instead of what you did. This will surely make you miserable.

Vilifying the past is easy, too. You were born in the wrong place at the wrong time, you never got what you needed, you felt you were discriminated against, you never got to go to summer camp. How can you possibly be happy when you had such a lousy background? It’s important to think that bad memories, serious mistakes, and traumatic events were much more influential in forming you and your future than good memories, successes, and happy events. Focus on bad times. Obsess about them. Treasure them. This will ensure that, no matter what’s happening in the present, you won’t be happy.

13. Find a romantic partner to reform. Make sure that you fall in love with someone with a major defect (cat hoarder, gambler, alcoholic, womanizer, sociopath), and set out to reform him or her, regardless of whether he or she wants to be reformed. Believe firmly that you can reform this person, and ignore all evidence to the contrary.

14. Be critical. Make sure to have an endless list of dislikes and voice them often, whether or not your opinion is solicited. For example, don’t hesitate to say, “That’s what you chose to wear this morning?” or “Why is your voice so shrill?” If someone is eating eggs, tell them you don’t like eggs. Your negativity can be applied to almost anything.

Madanes's full list includes tongue-in-cheek "exercises" to help you increase your misery.

Here's my suggested exercise: give everyone at the table a copy of this list and suggest that they use it like a mirror on the wall.

Read it carefully.

Do you habitually do any of the above?

Back to Question 1: Who's responsible for your happiness?

Your spouse? Your boss? The stock market? God?

PS - I never do any of these things, right?


Shabbat Shalom