May your merits be as numerous as the seeds of the pomegranate…

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pomegranateThe pomegranate, known for its health benefits, is one of my wife’s favorite fruits.  She not only enjoys eating them raw, but also has some amazing recipes for cooking with them, including pomegranate chicken, one of her signature dishes. Over the years we have amassed a collection of over 100 pomegranates and pomegranate-related objects, including framed Rosh Hashanah New Year’s cards, ceramics  and plaques, bowls of dried pomegranates,  and even U.S. stamps depicting pomegranates. My wife has pomegranate-shaped jewelry including a beautiful pomegranate necklace that I bought in Safed and a copper pomegranate bracelet from our children. Once, we came upon a pomegranate coffee table in a furniture store with unique items – but felt it might be “over the top” even for us!

One custom associated with the Jewish New Year is eating symbolic foods.  The most well-known custom is eating apples dipped in honey, demonstrating our wishes for a sweet new year.  Many practice the custom of eating foods that serve as good omens or hints of blessing as we end one year and enter into the next one. A Talmudic rabbi named Abaye suggested that serving these symbolic foods as we begin the new year will bring about a positive judgment in God’s court on high., Foods that either have a quick growth cycle or a particularly sweet taste (such as leeks, gourds, beets and dates) are particularly popular. The ancient rabbis added other symbols, including the head of an animal or a fish, implying that we should be at the head of the line for good merits, and sweet beverages. Some people eat carrots (mehren in Yiddish which is similar to the Yiddish word mehr or more) connoting that we hope to receive more blessings.

But for me, the most evocative symbol of the new year is the pomegranate, with its tough red outer skin and spongy web of inner pulp with many seeds. As a child in Religious School I was taught that each pomegranate contains 613 seeds — which just happens to be the exact number of mitzvot/commandments we count in the Torah.  [Surprisingly, there is actually scientific data supporting the finding that on average, pomegranates actually DO have 613 seeds.]

According to The Code of Jewish Law “we are accustomed to eating pomegranates on Rosh Hashanah and we recite: May our merits be as numerous as the seeds in a pomegranate.”  Further, a verse in the Song of Songs (4:43) states “your cheek is like a pomegranate.” This is a play on words. The Hebrew word for cheek, rakateich has a root similar to the Hebrew word rake which means empty. The analogy implies that even empty ones (i.e. people who might otherwise be considered to have no merits at all) are truly filled with virtues, just as a pomegranate is filled with seeds, but those virtues are merely hidden behind a tough skin.  This reminds us to give everyone the benefit of the doubt.  How often do we rush to judge others based on their outward appearance?  How often do we miss the opportunity to gain benefits from taking the time to get to know their inner nature?

As we enter the New Year of 5777, may our merits be as numerous as the seeds in a pomegranate, and may we learn to focus on the sweetness and goodness that lies beneath the surface in every living being.  Wishing you a New Year of peace, prosperity and sweetness!

Stepping Forward into the New Year

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A02JAAWhen I was young I enjoyed taking long walks. It all started in High School when I had a four mile round trip trek to my school. There was something special about walking one mile to my close friend’s home and then continuing to walk together with him to school. I also enjoyed taking walks along a trail in a forest near my home.  My journey to becoming more Jewishly observant began around the age of 13 prior to my Bar Mitzvah, when I began to walk to my synagogue rather than drive to synagogue on the Jewish Sabbath.  Over the past 12 years, after I moved into my “new” home about a mile from the synagogue, I have genuinely enjoyed walking to services with my wife. The aerobic exercise left me exhilarated and inhaling the clear air gave me added strength and vitality. I and my golden retriever enjoy our daily walks, and the opportunity to check out the neighborhood and all the new sights and smells.  I even prefer to take the steps rather than the elevator when I make my pastoral ronds at hospitals and nursing homes.

In the area where I live there are few sidewalks, and therefore few walkers. Despite this lack, I marvel at several people in my neighborhood who over the years have continued to make walking part of their daily routines.  I see them at about the same time each day whenever I drive past them on a relatively busy street on my way to meetings or errands. There is a gentleman with a cane who takes a long walk to the local library, a husband and wife who walk each day (he with a long beard and pony tail and she dressed as if she were going to the Woodstock festival) and another couple who always don safari type hats as one walks behind the other.

Every parent knows that a child’s first step is a landmark event. After quite a number of months that halting step develops into a sturdier gait. Toddlers eventually become walkers, opening the door to more independence.

Strange as it seems, modern people (especially in the suburbs) seem to walk as little as possible. Few would choose to walk even a half mile to a friend’s house. Moving walkways now whisk us through airports and elevators and escalators lure us away from stairways. Walking still doesn’t get the respect it deserves, either for its health benefits or its role in recreation and mental health. There are lots of health benefits to walking, including improvement of mood, strengthening bones, improving balance, and affording time for contemplation and seeing the sites.

The first time that walking is mentioned in the Bible is with reference to Enoch and Noah. Both Enoch (Genesis 5:24) and Noah (Genesis 6:9) “walked with God.” This phrase is often interpreted to mean that they were God’s partners and that both Noah and Enoch shared God’s values. The term is also expressive of a life that each spent in full accord with God’s will and in closest intimacy with God.

As I write my Thoughts we are less than one week away from celebrating our New Year of Rosh Hashanah. I wish you a year filled with joy, blessing, peace, fulfillment and good health. I hope that you will step forward into the New Year with hope and optimism, and that you will walk on paths that bring you exhilaration, strength and vitality.

Look what I found…

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I just got back from our annual August family vacation in Cape May – a tradition of more than two decades. One day on the beach this year I saw a distraught man who was searching in the surf.  He and a friend called out to anyone in earshot that he had just lost a $400 pair of glasses – and that he could barely see without them.  He stood knee deep with the waves crashing around him, hoping against hope for the glasses to appear.

I decided to take action, knowing how it feels to lose something valuable. My approach was to sit on the sand and wait for the waves to crash onto to the beach, and hopefully to wash his glasses to shore along with the seashells and other debris. About four minutes into my search a pair of glasses did wash ashore, but by the time I rose to retrieve them, they were sucked back into the water. I was determined to continue my search.  As I scanned the shore, the same pair of glasses washed up on the sand – but this time I was able to reach them in time to retrieve them. The gentleman could not believe his good fortune when I brought him the glasses.  He thanked me profusely, and I returned to my beach chair, smiling brightly to share the story with my family.

We learn from the book of Deuteronomy (Chapter 22: Verses 1-3) that if one comes upon another person’s animal who has gone lost you should try to find its rightful owner and return the animal. The Bible goes on to say that if you find someone’s garment or any lost article you must try to find its owner and return it to him or her.  Returning lost objects is one of the 613 mitzvot (religious obligations) in the Torah. Even if we find a bundle of money lying in the street, we are required to seek out the owner and return it. The Torah even admonishes: “You shall not hide yourself from it” – which means we do not the option of ignoring the situation and continuing on our merry way.

Jewish law even proclaims that if one finds an item and no one comes to claim the item and one cannot find the rightful owner, one must hold onto it “until Elijah the Prophet himself comes [to announce the coming of the Messiah]” and identifies the rightful owner. (i.e., you cannot give up trying to find that owner!)

There is a story in the Talmud (Taanit 25a) that tells the story of how chickens once strayed into the backyard of Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa. Rabbi Hanina thus became obligated to care for the chickens until an owner could be found. The chickens laid eggs which hatched into little baby chicks, and soon Rabbi Hanina had more chickens than he could handle. He decided to trade in the chickens for goat, and by the time a person did come to stake his claim, there was a goat herd.  Rabbi Hanina was obliged to give him the whole goat herd.

The story of the lost glasses reminds me of my days at Camp Ramah, a summer camp in the Poconos. At the end of the week the Camp Director would stand in the front of the dining room with a box all of the lost items of campers/ counselors.  She would say (in Hebrew) that she was prepared to fulfill the religious obligation of returning lost property. Then, she would hold up each lost item, piece by piece, and eventually a camper would stand and go forward to reclaim it. There would be roaring applause in the dining room for each retrieval.  This memory is forever imbued in my memory.

So the next time you find something, why not go the extra distance and try to see if you can return it to its rightful owner. Or if you come across someone who is searching, take time to join in their search.  I can assure you, it will make you feel so good.  And, it’s a mitzvah.

“You don’t have to be your circumstance…”

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olympicsEvery four years I look forward to the quadrennial summer tradition, and I have been spending evenings watching the Olympics and cheering for Team USA, and especially for my favorite athletes. Michael Phelps continues to amaze as he challenges himself to see if he still has what it takes to win gold one more time. I am particularly impressed by the extent to which he has influenced the sport of swimming, how he has overcome personal challenges and emerged with greater maturity, how he advocates passionately for “clean” sports, and how he is now mentoring younger athletes (some of whom were toddlers when he first won gold)!

There are two other athletes who have also caught my attention, not only for what they have accomplished in their sport but their life’s journey in getting to the Olympics in the first place. One is Simone Biles, considered by many to be the best female gymnast ever. Her personal story began with a drug addicted mother who was unable to raise her. She was raised and adopted by her grandparents who provided her with the love, support, confidence, education and stability that enabled her to reach the heights of excellence in gymnastics. What is equally exceptional about her is her humility, her appreciation for the opportunities and good fortune that came her way, and how she is such a team player.

Although I do not understand all of the rules and terms of rugby, I have been captivated and moved by the life story of Carlin Isles, who never could have imagined that he would be competing in the Olympics. In early childhood Carlin was bounced around from one foster home to another until he was finally adopted at age 7.   His tenacious nature can be summed up in the quote:  “I had a picture I wanted to paint for myself and my life. I wasn’t going to let nobody dab their paintbrush in my painting.”

Carlin has surely created an incredible life picture. He began his improbable journey to Rio in 2012 while training for the Olympic trials in track and field. He watched rugby online and was immediately hooked. Long runs and dashes to the end zone mesmerized the young American. He then got in touch with the chief executive of USA Rugby and asked for a chance to try out for the national team. Despite never having played the game, he impressed U.S. coaches with his break- neck speed, and today is widely regarded as one of its fastest and most exciting prospects. Isles’ speed and rare athletic talent even persuaded a gym owner in Canton, Ohio to sponsor his private training for Rio.  Emblazoned on Carlin’s chest is the word “focus” – that trait to which he attributes his rise.  Perhaps his quote that impressed me most is:  “You don’t have to be your circumstance. You can change your picture how you want to change it.”

As I begin to prepare my mind and thoughts for the Jewish High Holy Days I will adopt “focus” as my mantra as I begin to think about how I wish to change my picture in the coming year. In what do I take particular pride that I would like to nurture and expand – and where are my “growing edges”?  I want to try to spend more of my time devoting my attention to things that matter most to me. Perhaps you might also want to consider a theme or mantra for the year. The theme could filter the opportunities you seize from the ones you decline, influencing your response to the unexpected moments in life that will inevitably come your way.

I know there will be more Olympic stories in the coming days. So stay tuned and enjoy the competition. And do remember that you don’t have to be your circumstance and accept the status quo, because change is always possible once you realize what you wish to achieve.

SAGE ADVICE FROM JEWISH SAGES

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One way to discern a society’s values is to analyze its leaders. A leader who is chosen by the populace of a democratic society can be viewed as the embodiment of the values and ideals that his or her group holds dear. In a few months Americans will have our chance to speak and vote for our leaders, including the President of the United States.

As a naturalized U.S. citizen, I take voting very seriously. I am honored and privileged to assume my responsibility to have a voice in selecting the leaders of my community, state and country.  My personal decision-making leads me to reflect on the enduring texts of our Jewish tradition.  Over the course of our four-thousand year history, Jewish civilization has had an abundance of leaders and heroes. These timeless tomes continue to touch us and teach us today. This is especially true of the Bible, which is filled with stories that parallel our own lives.

There is no more important Biblical character than Moses, who helped change the course of human history. As the first leader of the Jewish people and as transmitter of the Torah, Moses exerted a unique force in shaping the Israelite nation. We learn that one of Moses’ salient characteristics is that his life is not his own, but rather is bound up with the lives of the Israelites and with the mission of the emergent nation. We read about the difficult and painful choices that he must make, and how he is always supportive of his people, even when they fail. Despite the people’s constant challenges to his leadership and the rejection of his authority, Moses never totally loses hope. In recognition of his wise leadership and personal role model, the Jewish sages titled him Moshe Rabbenu—Moses our rabbi and teacher.

Much has been written in Western civilization throughout the centuries and in the contemporary press about the mechanics of leadership.  Much less is written about the values and lifestyles that should characterize our leaders. So I turned to rabbinic sources to guide my thinking about the requisite qualities of leaders – and invite you to also consider these attributes as you determine your choice for new leadership:

Ben Zoma taught:” Who is a leader? One who conquers one’s passion and emotions, as it is written ‘One who is slow to anger is better than a leader, and one who rules over his spirit is better than one who conquers a city’ [Proverbs 16:32] (Ethics of the Fathers 4:1).

 

 The acts of the leader are the acts of the nation. If the leader is just, the nation is just; if the leader is unjust, the nation too is unjust. (Zohar ii, 47a)

Rabbi Judah Nesiah said: “According to the leader, so goes the generation.”(Talmud Arachin 17a)

There are four kinds of people whom people dislike: One is a leader who is arrogant toward his constituents for no good reason. (Talmud Pesachim 113b)

A leader who guides with humility shall lead them also in the World-to-Come. (Talmud Sanhedrin 32)

Who is the leader of all leaders? Some say one who can transform an enemy into a friend. (Avot deRabbi Natan, chapter 23)  

Pondering this ancient advice will guide my decision-making in the voting booth. I hope that it will also illuminate your choices about who will lead and represent our great nation.

Everything you need to know about business ethics…from a factory visit

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ManufacturingBasics

Recently I was invited to visit and tour the factory owned by one of my long-time friends. This was the first time I have ever visited a factory, and I was excited to learn about the manufacturing process. I spent two hours walking around the plants’ three buildings, amazed by the complex production lines and the fascinating robotic machines. The business is a huge international enterprise that dominates the field. Beyond the size, sophistication, product line diversity, commitment to quality and efficiency that I observed, what impressed me most was my friend’s management style. What I saw yesterday was natural leadership by the boss. As he introduced me to dozens of workers who operated various machines, he greeted each by name. Each employee received a smile, direct eye contact, and acknowledgment of who they are and what they do. He knew and shared with me all of the events going on in their lives, whether it was someone who had just become a grandfather, someone who recently had a child, or someone who had started at the company when the owner was a young child.  My friend explained matter-of-factly that he provides full medical benefits for his employees and the many other ways he supports his employees and their families. The employees’ positive attitudes and a caring attitude about their work was palpable.

Jewish texts and teachings about the ethics and morals of earning a living and the rights of workers abound. More than 100 of the Bible’s commandments address concerns of business and economics. Biblical law is very concerned with the worker’s welfare and dignity. Biblical prophets often preached from the marketplace, rather than from a lectern in the Jerusalem Temple. They sternly denounced employers who delayed in paying their workers – even by a single day! Rabbinic thinkers translated many of the prophetic teachings regarding justice and righteousness directly to the arena of business. How was a worker to be treated? How many hours should he work? Should a worker receive food as part of his compensation? Are there occasions when a worker could leave his work and not return to it at all? How often should a worker be paid?

Businesses which exist solely to maximize profit become disconnected from their soul—and from the spiritual interconnectedness of humanity. Imagine a world in which all people would heed the timeless wisdom of the Talmud (Baba Kama 30a) which states: “Whoever wants to be saintly should live according to the laws of the Talmud dealing with commerce and finance.”

The importance of business ethics in Judaism is emphasized by the Talmudic text which notes that when a person is brought before the heavenly court for judgment after his death, he is asked several questions. The very first question asked in heaven is “Did you conduct your business affairs honestly?” Our tradition teaches us that God’s first concern is personal decency.

In the workplace, people who feel valued and are treated with respect and dignity will tend to go the extra mile, demonstrate their loyalty, and excel in their work. I am grateful that my first ever factory visit was such an outstanding exemplar of how to do right!

Congratulations to my friend on being a great boss and manager, as well as an all-round mensch (nice guy)!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Recently I was invited to visit and tour the factory owned by one of my long-time friends. This was the first time I have ever visited a factory, and I was excited to learn about the manufacturing process. I spent two hours walking around the plants’ three buildings, amazed by the complex production lines and the fascinating robotic machines. The business is a huge international enterprise that dominates the field. Beyond the size, sophistication, product line diversity, commitment to quality and efficiency that I observed, what impressed me most was my friend’s management style. What I saw yesterday was natural leadership by the boss. As he introduced me to dozens of workers who operated various machines, he greeted each by name. Each employee received a smile, direct eye contact, and acknowledgment of who they are and what they do. He knew and shared with me all of the events going on in their lives, whether it was someone who had just become a grandfather, someone who recently had a child, or someone who had started at the company when the owner was a young child.  My friend explained matter-of-factly that he provides full medical benefits for his employees and the many other ways he supports his employees and their families. The employees’ positive attitudes and a caring attitude about their work was palpable.

Jewish texts and teachings about the ethics and morals of earning a living and the rights of workers abound. More than 100 of the Bible’s commandments address concerns of business and economics. Biblical law is very concerned with the worker’s welfare and dignity. Biblical prophets often preached from the marketplace, rather than from a lectern in the Jerusalem Temple. They sternly denounced employers who delayed in paying their workers – even by a single day! Rabbinic thinkers translated many of the prophetic teachings regarding justice and righteousness directly to the arena of business. How was a worker to be treated? How many hours should he work? Should a worker receive food as part of his compensation? Are there occasions when a worker could leave his work and not return to it at all? How often should a worker be paid?

Businesses which exist solely to maximize profit become disconnected from their soul—and from the spiritual interconnectedness of humanity. Imagine a world in which all people would heed the timeless wisdom of the Talmud (Baba Kama 30a) which states: “Whoever wants to be saintly should live according to the laws of the Talmud dealing with commerce and finance.”

The importance of business ethics in Judaism is emphasized by the Talmudic text which notes that when a person is brought before the heavenly court for judgment after his death, he is asked several questions. The very first question asked in heaven is “Did you conduct your business affairs honestly?” Our tradition teaches us that God’s first concern is personal decency.

In the workplace, people who feel valued and are treated with respect and dignity will tend to go the extra mile, demonstrate their loyalty, and excel in their work. I am grateful that my first ever factory visit was such an outstanding exemplar of how to do right!

Congratulations to my friend on being a great boss and manager, as well as an all-round mensch (nice guy)!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Importance of Little Things

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“For want of a nail the shoe was lost,

For the want of a shoe the horse was lost,

For the want of a horse the rider was lost,

For the want of a rider the battle was lost,

For the want of a battle the kingdom was lost

And all for the want of a horseshoe-nail.”

 

This quote, from Benjamin Franklin’s poem has a message meant for people of all ages. Pay large attention to the little things. Years ago, all people on a jet were killed because the rudder system in the aircraft lost a little bolt less than one inch long. A dot or a single hyphen  left out of an e mail address will prevent a message from being sent.

Little things have not only been responsible for huge losses, but also have triggered great discoveries. A spider web over a garden path led to the suspension bridge. A tea kettle singing on the stove was the inspiration for the steam engine. A falling apple suggested the law of gravity. A lantern swinging in a tower was responsible for the pendulum. On both sides of the ledger, great consequences have come from little things.

In our personal lives too, little things play a far greater role than we usually realize. Little things give us pain, and little things give us pleasure. A cruel word can cast a dreary cloud over the brightest of days. A word of appreciation can send our spirits soaring. A small act of kindness can often make a big difference in the delicate machinery of the human spirit.

Few of us are ever asked to do great things, but we are always given the opportunity to do little things in a great way. Some of the most heroic people I have known have been anonymous little people who inspired me by the spectacular way they performed ordinary, unspectacular deeds.

Recently I learned about a Texas-based non-profit whose very name intrigued me: The Importance of the Little Things, Inc. This organization provides grants of up to $100 to professional caregivers to purchase NON-MEDICAL GIFTS for financially-strapped patients who are battling a life-threatening condition or are under hospice care. As someone who works with hospice patients, I know firsthand that the simplest of gifts can dramatically improve a patient’s care, mood and outlook on life. A gift could be a bus ticket, a baby monitor, a simple hearing device, a therapeutic massage, or ever a window fan.

I invite you to take a look at this amazing organization, whose founder Steven H. Frantz joined me at my Passover Seder this year. He is a man with a caring heart who knows the importance of the little things.  According to Jewish practice, this Passover season is the time for opening our doors to the hungry and opening our hearts to those who are enslaved.  I invite you to contribute to an organization that will help professional caregivers improve the lives of those battling a life-threatening condition by clicking on www.theimportanceoflittlethings.org

In an age addicted of bigness it is important to pay large attention to the little things. They so often contain the seeds of greatness and have the power of transforming lives. No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted. (Aesop)