“Walk humbly with your God…”

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Humiility 2There is no comprehensive concept in the Jewish Bible that parallels the modern notion of ethics. The first listing of Jewish virtues by the ancient rabbis is found in Ethics of the Fathers 6:6. In it we are taught that the Torah (wisdom) is acquired through forty eight virtues. Among the most notable of them is the virtue of humility.  Moses, Judaism’s greatest prophet, is described as being the humblest of men. “Moses was a very humble man, more than all the people that were upon the face of the earth” (Numbers 12:3). Others in the Bible also valued humility.   For example, when preparing to plead for Sodom and Gomorrah Abraham, considered the father of the Jewish people says, “I have taken upon myself to speak to God, I who am but dust and ashes?” (Genesis 18:27).

Comparing the Torah (Five Books of Moses) to water, the ancient rabbis wrote “Just as water flows downward, so the Torah that comes from on high flows only into the minds and hearts of the humble.” Rabbinic thinkers often warn people not to indulge in pride and arrogance.  They assert that it is not enough to walk the moderate path of humility. Rather, they advise people to tend toward extreme modesty, and even meekness in order to avoid being arrogant.

A recent article in The New York Times by Benedict Carey (“Humility is Something to Boast About”) notes that research on humility has been growing very quickly. Some studies have found that people who score high for humility are less aggressive and less judgmental toward members of other religious groups than are less humble people, even and especially after being challenged about their own views.

Dr. Van Tongeren, a psychologist at Hope College in Michigan and his colleagues proposed several explanations for why humility, intellectual and otherwise, is such a valuable facet of personality. A humble disposition can be critical to sustaining a committed relationship. It may also nourish mental health more broadly, providing a psychological resource to shake off grudges, suffer fools patiently and forgive oneself. Dr. Van Tongeren wondered whether humility could somehow be taught, or perhaps integrated into psychotherapy. He hypothesized that “one of the thorny issues is that people who are the most open and willing cultivate humility might be the ones who need it the least, and vice versa, those most in need could be the most resistant.”

According to Carey’s New York Times article, between 10 and 15 percent of adults score high on measures of humility, depending on the rating scale used. That’s at least 25 million humble people in this country alone. Who knew?  Sustaining humility is a lifelong process, No person can truly master humility. We have to work on this trait continually. Admitting that we have areas in which to improve depends on humility.

There is no question in my mind that ethics is at Judaism’s core. God’s first concern is with a person’s decency. Both the Bible’s prophets and the greatest rabbis of bygone years expressed the view that ethical behavior is God’s central demand of human beings.

Many years ago when I hosted The Jewish American Hour, a weekly radio program I signed off each show with these words:

“He has told you, O man, what is good, and what God requires of you:

Only to do justice, to love goodness and to walk humbly with your God.”

Micah 6:8  (8th century B.C.E,.)

 

 

Nature Prescription—Just what the Doctor Ordered

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nature-rx-canoe_hThe Kotzker Rebbe, a great Hassidic master, once asked someone “Where is God?” The person responded, “Everywhere!” “No,” said the Kotzker Rebbe. “God is where He is let in.”

Obviously, one of the difficulties with finding God is that God is invisible. It is quite difficult to try to find something you cannot see. Of course, there are many things that we cannot see but can find or feel.  For example, if we are outside on a windy day, we can easily feel the wind on our face and hair.

For me, the best place to feel God’s presence is out of doors. I have always had an appreciation for things in nature. As a child I enjoyed taking a walk through the forest near my childhood home, especially in the fall when the colorful leaves dropped to the ground. I would often collect the leaves, admire their many colors, press them, and put in a book, trying to label them as I went along. It was in the forest where I felt close to God. I think it was a combination of the trees and the tranquility of the place.

One of my first memorable spiritual experiences was at a summer cup in northern Ontario, Canada. Sabbath services were held outside on the shore of a lake. All of the campers and staff were required to wear white clothing, and there were white birch trees all around. As we all rose to recite one of the final prayers on the Sabbath eve, the sun shone through the treetops and made our white clothing glisten. The birch trees sparkled too.  I felt my body tremble as I looked up at the magnificent sky, and I knew that what I was feeling was mysterious and unlike any other experience. It was exhilarating!

Just last week I led a Friday evening prayer service in Wildwood, New Jersey. Services were outside in an amphitheater on the Atlantic Ocean shore. It was a beautiful sunny day with perfect temperature, and the enthusiastic participation of the congregants in the singing and musical instrumentation was filled with energy. Once again I felt that special connection to the One on High.

I recently read an article in The New York Times entitled “Enjoy 2 Hours a Week in Nature, Doctors Say.”  The article by Knvul Sheikh presented medical data that spending time outdoors, especially in green spaces, is good for you. The writer detailed a wealth of  current research which shows that escaping to a neighborhood park, hiking in the woods or spending a weekend by the lake can lower a person’s stress levels, decrease blood pressure and reduce the risk of allergies and cardiovascular disease while improving mental health and increasing life expectancy. Doctors around the world have begun prescribing time in nature as a way of improving their patients’ health. A study in The Journal of Scientific Reports recommends that 120 minutes a week is required to yield full benefits. The study examined 20,000 people in Britain who took part in the Natural Environment Survey. It reported that people who spent two hours a week or more outdoors reported being in better health and had a greater sense of well-being than people who didn’t get out at all.

Maybe that is why I look forward to my upcoming vacation in in the Poconos so much, as I anticipate the leisurely walks in the forest, relaxing on my float at the lake, and gazing at the clear night sky with its glowing stars (and shooting stars).  It increases my health and well-being, and my connection with my Maker.  I wish you peace, tranquility, and time to enjoy and be rejuvenated by the beauty of nature.

FACE-TO-FACE

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Newsletter-face-to-face-300x300In the Book of Deuteronomy Moses is described as the only prophet to ever see God “face to face.” Biblical commentators have often understood this metaphor to mean that Moses had an intimacy with God unlike any other prophet, and that he was able to command God’s attention whenever he needed to do so.

One of the benefits of face to face communication is the live feedback transmitted through body language and facial expressions. Now that we have technology that allows us to see and speak with people virtually, we are able to engage in intimate relationships and conversations with distant friends and family through Facetime, ZOOM, GoogleChats and the like.

I remember that when I was a youngster that we would wait for my father to come home from work and we would all sit down for dinner.  Dinner time was an opportunity to reconnect with my brother and parents and review the day’s accomplishments. Times have changed and with busier lives families are together less frequently for personal face time.  And with the internet, cell phones, and social media, how often do our mechanical devices distract us and prevent us from being truly present?

A recent article in the New York Times by Elizabeth Grace Saunders about reconnecting in a world that fights for your attention affirms that the most meaningful relationships tend to thrive when they are face to face. Saunders offers a number of suggestions for integrating face-to-face interaction:

  • EAT TOGETHER. Eating together as a family requires intentional effort. You may want to reassess the timing of your extracurricular activities to see if you can align your schedules to allow everyone to have a seat at the table. You may also want to see if you can adjust your work schedule so you can make it home to eat with your spouse or children. And to get the full benefit of those meals, keep away the phones and turn off the television. The goal is not just to eat but to get a sense of what’s going on in everyone’s lives.
  • WIND DOWN TOGETHER.  Winding down together before going to bed is another important opportunity for reconnection. Some people form a pact with their significant other to be off technology by a certain time of night and to use the time to check in with each other. Being tech-free before bedtime may help you rest more peacefully.
  • LIVE LIFE TOGETHER.  The best opportunity for face-to-face, meaningful connection is to invite family members into whatever you are already doing. Ask your kids to help you cook. Invite your spouse to walk the dog with you. Connection develops and strengthens in the little day-to-day moments. In her book Daring Greatly Brene Brown says, “We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness and affection. Love is not something we give or get; it is something we nurture and grow.”

Making those deeply personal, face-to-face connections a priority in your family will help build meaningful bonds. The best relationships are built face to face. Face to face meetings have the power to change people.

Rabbi  Stephanie Kolin finds a hint about the importance of doing things face to face in the construction of the biblical tabernacle, the portable sanctuary that the Israelites carried with them in their wanderings.  Moses is instructed to build the lid of the Ark of the Covenant with two angels on top, “and their faces will be as a man facing his brother.” (Exodus 5:20) God then says: “That is where I will meet with you.” In other words, in the space between two faces, we find God, and God finds us!

May we all create meaningful relationships that will last forever.  Chances are, if they are face to face, we will be more likely to succeed.

Accompaniment

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accompaniment croppedI was really touched by the very powerful piece I just read in today’s New York Times that detailed the last day in the life of President George Walker Bush.  It described how in the last week of the President’s life he had stopped eating and was mostly sleeping.  His longtime friend and colleague, James Baker visited him frequently in his last days, and was there when he passed away.  Baker described how, at the end, he held Mr. Bush’s hand and rubbed his feet.  The former President died in his home, surrounded by several friends, members of his family, doctors and a minister.  As the end neared on Friday, his son George W. Bush, the former President, who was at his own home in Dallas, was put on speaker phone to say his goodbye. He told his father that he had been a “wonderful dad” and that he loved him. “I love you too” Mr. Bush told his son. And those were his final words.   Bush’s doctor described how everyone present knelt around the President and placed their hands on him and prayed for him. It was a very graceful, gentle death, accompanied by loved ones who gathered in the intimacy of his home in Houston.

For more than three years I have been privileged to visit nursing homes, assisted living facilities and private homes to sing and play music for people in hospice under the title “Chords of Comfort.”  I also make visitations as a hospice chaplain.  On some days my patients are alert and able to converse with me. On others, they lie in bed unable to communicate and sometimes sleep. On those occasions I sit by their bedside and just keep them company. Sometimes a family member or two is present when I visit.

Several years ago when I  arrived to visit a certain patient I was surprised to  find members of her family singing and playing guitar while the patient, who could not speak, moved her head rhythmically back and forth. One of her youngest grandchildren had flown all the way from San Francisco to New Jersey just to be with her great grandmother. It was obvious that the singing and playing brought great comfort and pleasure to the patient. When the family asked me to join in with my guitar it became clear to me that we all were all feeling spiritually uplifted by the beautiful music we created together.

There is a rabbi who directs a Jewish-End-of-Life Care/Hospice Volunteer program.  As part of his training program, the rabbi asks the volunteers to reflect on a moment when they were in need of someone to be present for them.  One man related the story of his bicycle accident when a stranger sat silently with him on the curb until the ambulance arrived. Another volunteer described how her grandmother sat knitting in the corner of the hospital’s delivery room throughout her three-day-long labor.  What both these stories have in common is the power of someone simply being present for another person.

The word “companion” is derived from the Latin “com” (“with”) and “panis” (bread).  It literally means someone with whom you share bread. The Hebrew word for this concept is “levaya” (accompaniment). This concept is so central to how we think about death and dying in Judaism that we use the same Hebrew word (levaya) for “funeral.” In Jewish tradition, we don’t bury our dead. We accompany them. And before burial the custom is that once members of the Holy Burial Society (Chevra Kaddisha) have prepared the deceased for burial they then remain present and then “accompany” the deceased through the night by sitting with the body and reading from the Book of Psalms.

Chaplaincy—spiritual care — is all about accompanying another person while being fully present. It is all about trying to ensure that there will be times during the day when a patient is not left alone and has someone by their side. Even when someone’s life is waning, healing of spirit is possible until their very last breath. It is especially at these times when our very presence can raise their spirits, which not only benefits them, but also us.

Being present and ensuring that no one is left alone is an incredible act of kindness and a supreme act of holiness. It’s considered a mitzvah, a religious obligation.  Judaism imbues the act of “accompaniment” with such importance that the rabbis elevated it among those very few mitzvot for which a person not only enjoys benefits in this world, but also receives their principal reward in the world-to-come.

At this time when the days are growing shorter and darker let us all commit ourselves to reducing isolation and providing others with “accompaniment.”  Let us find ways to be fully present for members of our family and for those in the wider community who will benefit from our companionship and just “being there for them.”

During this holiday season and moving into the secular new year, let us each commit to ONE specific act of accompaniment that will lift the heart and brighten the spirit of someone else – and probably do the same for us!

I wish you a bright and light festive holiday season with less isolation and more “accompaniment”.

Aging Wisely

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Aging wiselyLike many Boomers, the Beatles provided the soundtrack to my teen and adult years. Paul McCartney wrote a song in late 1966 (my first year of college) when his father Jim turned 64, one-year short of the mandatory retirement age in the U.K. Here is the memorable stanza:

When I get older, losing my hair, many years from now

Will you still be sending me a valentine, birthday greetings, bottle of wine?

If I’d been out to quarter to three, would you lock the door?

Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m sixty-four?

 Like illness, aging is an inevitable part of life. However, unlike illness, aging in Jewish thought is not seen as a burden. In fact, the Bible considers longevity to be a great blessing—old age is a reward for honoring one’s parents.

Several years ago I read a wonderful book called Wise Aging. The book has helped countless readers find new meaning and happiness in life. It tackles an array of issues such as romance, relationships, living with loss, cultivating well-being and more.  The book has spawned Aging Wisely workshops nationwide.

From its very beginnings, the Jewish people has paid particular attention to the welfare of the elderly. In many passages in the Bible the “elders” are the wise people, the judges of the people. This status was earned by dint of their wisdom and experience. The biblical book of Leviticus says: You shall rise up before the hoary head, and honor the face of the old [one], and you shall fear God.  The rabbinic writers understood this literally, that whenever an old person passes by, one should rise to one’s feet as a token of respect.  On public buses in Israel the signage in Hebrew quotes this verse, reminding people to give up their seat to an elder. The whole philosophy of care of the elderly is expressed in the book of Psalms: “Cast me not off in the time of old age. When my strength fails, do not forsake me.”

The Code of Jewish Law contains all sorts of rules about how to enact the commandment of “rising before the aged” and defines old age as 70 years.  It is interesting that while the Levites serving in the Jerusalem Temple were retired at age 50 because the work was demanding, it was not customary for rabbis to retire if they could still carry out their tasks adequately. There are a number of instances in Jewish history of Rabbis serving until their death at very advanced ages. Rav Hai Gaon, head of the great Babylonian academy, was 99 years of age when he died in the year 1038. He was active in his office to the very end. Last year I attended a wedding of one of my students. The senior rabbi who was vibrant and active was in his early 90’s.

For the past 4 years I have been a part time chaplain and music therapist for a local hospice. One of my most interesting visits is with a man who is 107. I enjoy my time with him because of his amazingly positive attitude toward life. In his life this man witnessed the construction of the Empire State building and went to its top in the year it opened. He lived in homes with and without electricity, experienced financial depressions, and two World Wars. His family knew both Winston Churchill (“not so nice”) and Mahatma Gandhi (“very nice”).  I contend that it is his innate curiosity and eagerness to witness all that life has to offer that has kept him going. And he always has a smile on his face and thanks me for visiting him.

Recently the New York Times featured an article about a 107 year-old barber (recognized by the Guinness Book of World records as the oldest working barber) who has been “trimming a bit off the sides” for 96 years. He started cutting hair when he was 11 when Warren Harding was the U.S. President and still works full time, cutting hair five times a week from noon to 8pm, and. According to the article, he spends much of his time on his feet in a pair of worn, cracked leather black shoes and rarely has called in sick. When asked to what he attributes his longevity, he offered only that he has always put in a satisfying day’s work and he never smoked or drank heavily. (Incidentally, when I asked my patient about his longevity, he said that he always ends every lunch and dinner with a cup of ice cream!)

As the population of the US continues to age, more and more facilities are being built to care for the elderly. Care for the aged has always been a hallmark of Jewish communal life. Long before the establishment of old-age homes, older Jews who had no surviving family could look forward to being cared for by the larger community.  In many ways, the question in the McCartney lyric, “will you still need me” is asked by all of us, at every age. Is there any stage of life when we are not concerned about really being seen?  About not being heard? About not being needed? As people age, what many most fear is not being needed.

Ageism, discrimination based on a person’s age, happens all the time in business and industry. Prejudice toward the elderly still abounds. All too often, older people who are willing and able to work find it difficult to find jobs unless they are self-employed.  In contrast, Judaism has always asserted that a person be judged on his or her merits.

We owe our elders reverence. According to my teacher the late A.J. Heschel (in The Insecurities of Freedom) all that our elders ask for is “consideration, attention, not to be discarded.”  It is undoubtedly true that care of aged parents can be challenging, but God promises longevity to those who treat their elders with respect, love, dignity and caring: “Honor your father and mother, that you days may be long upon the land which God gives you.” (Deuteronomy 5:16)

My wife Leora wrote her doctoral dissertation on The Development of Children’s Attitudes Toward the Aged. Her research found that by ages 6-8 years, children began to demonstrate negative beliefs and feelings about the aged and their capabilities. The introduction to her dissertation included a beautiful opening quote from Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav: “The prosperity of a country is in accordance with the treatment of its aged. “

May we all be blessed with healthy, productive and wise aging – and the care, love and respect of our family and community as we grow old. May we have the privilege of enjoying the gifts of time and wisdom with the elders in our communities and families.  May we find blessings in each day, and “ May we use all our days so we may attain a heart of wisdom.” (Psalms 90:12)

FRIENDSHIP:THE GIFT OF LIFE

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If you are lucky enough to have good friends you know how fortunate you are. Growing up in Toronto, I had a one very close childhood friend. Over the years (beginning in kindergarten) Harvey and I had lots of sleep overs, went to the movies together and of course, watched Yankee games together on TV.  Even when my family moved to the suburbs and my friend stayed in the city, we continued to see each other on weekends. As a teenager I developed a friendship with my friend Marv who went to summer camp with me.  We ended up attending the same college where we developed a routine of ordering milkshakes and toast every night at  Tom’s Restaurant (later made famous by Seinfeld) on New York’s Upper West Side, singing together on weekends in a folk rock group, and sharing each other’s family life cycle events as adults with our own families. We still stay in touch, even though he has lived in Florida for decades.

These days we are witnessing increased individualism on the one hand and more talk about social relationships on the other. Some assert that true friendship may be on the decline. A recent article in New York’s Jewish Week cites the findings of Cornell University sociologists that adults now have only two friends with whom they can discuss important matters, down from three in 1985. Half of those surveyed said they had only one, while four percent had none.

The Bible recognizes the benefits of a good friendship. Ecclesiastes wrote: “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their labor.  For if they fall, the one will lift up the other. But woe to the one who is alone when he falls, for he has no other to help him. (4:9-10)

Back in Talmudic times life without companionship was considered unthinkable. In one rabbinic tale (Talmud, Taanit) when Honi the miracle worker awakened after a sleep of seventy years, he despaired because he felt shunned by a new generation of people who did not recognize him. In his immense suffering, Honi prayed to be released from his loneliness, prompting a sage to say: “Either friendship or death.”

Jewish tradition especially values finding friendship with a special partner through study. This partnership, known in Aramaic by the term hevruta, literally meaning a friendship group, is fueled by passionate energy and concern for each other’s spiritual welfare. Friendship is the primary model in Jewish learning. The Talmud (Taanit 7a) teaches that in religious learning and growth, a friend is even more important than a teacher: “I have learned much from my teachers, but from my friends more than my teachers.” A friend, on the highest level, is primarily a learning partner, a partner in life.

A recent New York Times article by Tara Parker-Pope describes the benefits to health and happiness of spending time with the right people as friends. She quotes a study by author Dan Buettner who studied the health habits of people who live in so-called “blue zones”—regions of the world where people live longer than average. Blue zones include the Italian island of Sardinia, Okinawa, Japan, Loma Linda CA, Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula and the Greek island of Ikaria. Buettner notes that positive friendships are a common theme in the blue zones, writing that “friends can exert a meaningful and ongoing influence on your health behaviors in a way that diet never can.”

The ancient rabbis understood that one’s peers create an environment in which the self develops. And so we find in the Talmud advice on the importance of selecting one’s friends: “Come and learn which is the right path to which a person should adhere? A good friend.” (Ethics of the Fathers, 2:3)

No doubt many of you have scores of Facebook friends. Some of these friendship relationships are likely transactional. One can “friend” or “defriend” someone with the simple click of a finger. Web-based relationships may be interesting or entertaining, but not necessarily long lasting. Buettner argues that one ought to focus on only 3-5 real-world friends rather than one’s more distant Facebook ones. He writes: “In general, you want friends with whom you can have a meaningful conversation. You can call them on a bad day and they will care. Your group of friends are better than any drug or anti-aging supplement, and will do more for you than just about anything.”  As Hubert H. Humphrey once said: “The greatest gift of life is friendship. “

Wishing you a tranquil summer that includes many meaningful opportunities time to get together with good friends!

What’s Your Name?

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Hello my name isI have always been intrigued with how people get their first names, which names are currently most popular, and how people get nicknames that stay with them throughout their lives. My nickname is “Reeve” given to me by my grandmother, who with her Eastern European accent turned my Hebrew name Reuven into Reeven, which was then shortened to Reeve.

I am also interested in people’s last names. At the beginning of the biblical period the Israelites, like all members of ancient societies, had no surnames. Men were known simply as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. As the patriarchal families swelled into tribes, more definite identification was deemed necessary, and so patronymics (surnames) came into use. Thus, we find Joshua, the son of Nun, and Caleb the son of Yefuneh identified in the Hebrew Bible. Places of origin began to be used in Talmudic times for peoples’ names such as Nachum the  Mede  and Hillel the Babylonian. In the 10th and 11th centuries, family names became common. With the rise of cities, it became impossible for individuals to know one another as they did in villages, and a personal first name no longer sufficed. The increase in commerce too, necessitated a more exact system of naming.

In a number of countries, family names were often derived from Yiddish words, and thus was born the “Jewish-sounding last name. Occupations often served as a source of a family name. The common Jewish family name Metzger means “butcher,” and the last name Schneider means “tailor.” Other last names related to the lineage of a Jewish family. For example, the last name Cohen or Kahn is a usual indication of priestly lineage, while Levine or Levy is an indication of Levitical lineage.

I was always intrigued by the fact that in the Bible God asks Adam to give the animals names .  Naming becomes the first human independent act in recorded history. One rabbinic interpretation posits that God had to prove to the angels that humans were superior to them. To do so, God asked the angels to name the animals, but they were unable to do so. God then sent the animals to Adam to see what he would call them. Adam succeeded in naming each and every animal, thus demonstrating his superior intelligence, or at least advanced knowledge of zoology, at that point a very young science.

There is a deeper interpretation to Adam’s naming of the animals. In the ancient world, to know something’s inner name was to know its very nature—have power over it. By having Adam give names to the animals, God is again showing us that human beings are more than an animals. Unlike animals, humans have the power of speech and the ability to make moral decisions.

In his recent article in The New York Times, Arthur Brooks cites a quotation from Dale Carnegie’s book How to Win Friends and Influence People : “Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”  Brooks then goes on to say that according to a 2013 survey, 79% of the population like their names, while 21% do not.  Brooks writes that he is in the 21%, feeling that Arthur is a name that makes him sound old. Currently, the name Arthur doesn’t even crack the top 200 boys’ names.

Some researchers have even tried to show correlations between people’s names and their appearance. In a recent study in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers showed participants images of unfamiliar faces and asked them to guess the person’s name from a list of four plausible-seeming names. Odds are that the participants should have guessed correctly 25% of the time, but instead got it right 38% of the time! There is actually a field of study called “onomastics” in which researchers study proper names.  Studies in this field have shown that boys with more feminine-sounding names tend to misbehave disproportionately upon entry to middle school compared with boys with more traditionally masculine names.  Another study has noted that people often gravitate toward places of residence and occupations that resemble their own names. So, the researchers assert, a higher proportion of men named Louis live in St. Louis then would occur at random, and a lot of people named Dennis or Denise become dentists.  I know clergy by the name of Raab and Kanter.  And who can forget the New York dermatologist who long advertised in the subways by the name of Dr. Zizmore.

The Jewish sages have taught that there are three crowns: the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of royalty. But the crown of a good name excels them all. A good name is to be treasured above precious oil. Wealth, like health, my pass away, but a good name is to be treasured above precious oil. It can adorn a person throughout life, and it can be bequeathed as a precious inheritance.  Wishing you the crown of a good name, and use it in good health.