Ethical will: Truth

Following my previous ‘ethical will’ entry on ‘listening’ and the profoundly divisive aftermath of the 2020 U.S. Presidential elections, which once again reveals a country broken jaggedly in half, I’ve been thinking a lot about the pervasive lack of trust that has come to typify today’s global politics.

Yes, we must listen to one another earnestly, but why don’t we?

Fundamentally, it comes down to a lack of trust. Americans don’t trust one another to have their best interests at heart, nor do they trust their public institutions, nor the fourth estate. Why were the pre-election polls so drastically wrong this year, particularly following the pollsters’ epic embarrassment of 2016? Whence the preposterous, gaping chasm between Americans, policymakers, and opinion-molders?

We don’t trust others to tell us the truth; or perhaps we no longer trust in those truths, which are most available. Access to information used to be conveniently provided to the people by big money interests and power brokers, which used to work for them beautifully, but the modern information age has left them nary a shadow to hide in.

Personally, I find myself increasingly turning to independent and conflicting news sources across the political spectrum to calibrate my impression of reality. More often than not, I remain unconvinced by them all.


Truth is a challenging subject for me because I am the sort who has to push through cowardice to speak it. Still, truthfulness is something that I admired in my father, continue to admire in my mother, and admire in all of my role models. Truth impresses, challenges, and scares me.

The first entry in my ‘ethical will’ focused on being true to one’s self… but what about being honest with others? While I am hardly the most qualified to expound upon this particular ideal, it would be negligent of me to omit it from my will.

What priority should we place on honesty, and what limits might we consider?


According to the Torah we are to distance ourselves from matters/words of falsehood, the only sin from which the Torah warns us to “distance” ourselves (Exodus 23:7):

מִדְּבַר-שֶׁקֶר, תִּרְחָק; וְנָקִי וְצַדִּיק אַל-תַּהֲרֹג, כִּי לֹא-אַצְדִּיק רָשָׁע. Keep thee far from a false matter; and the innocent and righteous slay thou not; for I will not justify the wicked.

Taking a different tack, the Book of Proverbs (a later book of the Hebrew Bible) provides practical counsel on the matter, rather than commanding us (12:19):

שְׂפַת-אֱמֶת, תִּכּוֹן לָעַד; וְעַד-אַרְגִּיעָה, לְשׁוֹן שָׁקֶר. The lip of truth shall be established for ever; a lying tongue is for a moment.

As expected, truth is a popular theme in Jewish tradition, as I imagine it would be in all faith traditions that lay claim to its mantle, which is to say: all of them. Another popular, oft-cited Jewish text on truth can be found in the Talmud (Tractate Shabbat, 55a):

… ור”ל אמר תיו סוף חותמו של הקב”ה דאמר רבי חנינא חותמו של הקב”ה אמת אמר ר’ שמואל בר נחמני אלו בני אדם שקיימו את התור’ כולה מאלף ועד תיו… … and [Rabbi] Resh Lakish said: [The letter] ‘tav’ [which is the final letter of the alphabet] is the end of the seal of the Holy One, blessed be He, for R. Hanina said: The seal of the Holy One, blessed be He, is emeth [truth] [which ends with a ‘tav’]. R. Samuel b. Nahmani said: It denotes the people who fulfilled the Torah from ‘alef’ [the first letter of the alphabet] to ‘tav’…

I won’t belabor the point further, for it’s the simplest of truths:

People of decency
ought to strive for truth.


But – are there limits? There must be some, right?

The Jewish textual tradition often impresses me with its good sense, which is one of the reasons that I remain drawn to it. One of the most famous examples of a lie, which is not only permitted but actually encouraged, arose from a dispute between the renowned ancient Houses of the Rabbis Hillel and Shammai, which the House of Hillel won (Talmud, Tractate Ketubot 16b-17a):

תנו רבנן כיצד מרקדין לפני הכלה בית שמאי אומרים כלה כמות שהיא ובית הלל אומרים כלה נאה וחסודה אמרו להן ב”ש לב”ה הרי שהיתה חיגרת או סומא אומרי’ לה כלה נאה וחסודה והתורה אמרה (שמות כג) מדבר שקר תרחק אמרו להם ב”ה לב”ש לדבריכם מי שלקח מקח רע מן השוק ישבחנו בעיניו או יגננו בעיניו הוי אומר ישבחנו בעיניו מכאן אמרו חכמים לעולם תהא דעתו של אדם מעורבת עם הבריות Our Rabbis taught: How does one dance before the bride? The House of Shammai say: The bride as she is. And The House of Hillel say: ‘Beautiful and graceful bride’! The House of Shammai said to the House of Hillel: If she was lame or blind, does one say of her: ‘Beautiful and graceful bride’? Whereas the Torah said, ‘Keep thee far from a false matter’ (Ex. 23:7). Said the House of Hillel to the House of Shammai: According to your words, if one has made a bad purchase in the market, should one praise it in his eyes or depreciate it? Surely, one should praise it in his eyes. Therefore, the Sages said: Always should the disposition of man be pleasant with people.

Even more broadly, the Jewish tradition teaches us that we may “modify a statement” for the sake of peace, based upon God’s behavior in the story of Abraham and Sarah. The sage Rashi (1040-1105) picked up on a nuance in these two verses (Gen. 18:13-14):

יב. וַתִּצְחַק שָׂרָה, בְּקִרְבָּהּ לֵאמֹר: אַחֲרֵי בְלֹתִי הָיְתָה-לִּי עֶדְנָה, וַאדֹנִי זָקֵן? 12. And Sarah laughed to herself, saying: ‘After I am withered shall I have pleasure, my husband being old?’
יג. וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה, אֶל-אַבְרָהָם: לָמָּה זֶּה צָחֲקָה שָׂרָה לֵאמֹר, הַאַף אֻמְנָם אֵלֵד–וַאֲנִי זָקַנְתִּי? 13. And the LORD said unto Abraham: ‘Wherefore did Sarah laugh, saying: Shall I of a surety bear a child, old as I am?

Rashi pointed out that when speaking to Abraham, following His promise to Sarah, God changed Sarah’s words so her husband would not know that she had been laughing at his old age. The lesson derived from the distinction between these two verses was also underscored in the Talmud (Tractate Yevamot 65b):

וא”ר אילעא משום רבי אלעזר בר’ שמעון מותר לו לאדם לשנות בדבר השלום… דבי רבי ישמעאל תנא גדול השלום שאף הקדוש ברוך הוא שינה בו דמעיקרא כתיב (בראשית יח) ואדוני זקן ולבסוף כתיב ואני זקנתי: R. Ile’a further stated in the name of R. Eleazar son of R. Simeon: One may modify a statement in the interests of peace… At the School of R. Ishmael it was taught: Great is the cause of peace. Seeing that for its sake even the Holy One, blessed be He, modified a statement; for at first it is written, My husband being old, while afterwards it is written, And I am old.

It seems that the Jewish tradition approaches the ideal of speaking the truth very sensibly. After all, we are only human, and so few of our relationships in this world work out tidily. Telling the truth is an ideal that we should always aim for, and the acceptable exceptions to this rule are only for the sakes of other people. Even then, we ought to be wary, for in my personal experience, the road to hell is truly paved with good intentions.


My Papa was a man of the utmost integrity, but he was also a very practical man. Ultimately, I remember him prioritizing the golden rule above all else.

In my childhood, he was always disappointed in me for my falsehoods and deceptions, but mostly because of how my lack of consideration for others (including him and Mama) reflected upon my character. Suffice it to say that I wasn’t lying for the sake of peace, as the Talmud would have it.

Thinking through this now, I’m not at all sure of the best balance between truth and intention, which I suppose is ultimately a situational matter. Nobody ever said that being a moral person is easy.

I am wondering which of these is at the root of our increasing lack of trust in our leaders and institutions… perhaps a bit of both?

Ethical will: Listening

We find ourselves on the eve of the 2020 U.S. Presidential election, and voices across the world on both ends of the political spectrum are declaring that all we know as humankind will come to a devastating end if their preferred candidates don’t win.

What befuddles me is that I personally know well-intentioned and well-educated people with diametrically opposed political views, equally certain that the other side is utterly misguided (at best). The people I am referring to are my close friends, family, and mentors; they are among the most upstanding human beings that I have known. How can one side’s assessment be entirely wrong and the other side be right? How can they all be so sure of themselves?

Worse, both here in Israel and in the USA where my mother and brother still reside, it feels to me as though nobody has any interest in listening to those with whom they disagree politically.

And, regardless of who wins this election, I can’t imagine any scenario in which people on opposite sides of the aisle start heeding one another’s concerns.

I have truly never felt so disheartened.


I considered expressing my sentiments in a poem or a blog post, but instead I’ve decided to add a page to this ethical will of mine. This feels to me a productive use of my anxious energies.

While I follow U.S. politics very closely, having lived in Washington D.C. for three years after earning my graduate degree in public policy, I do not believe that I have anything valuable to contribute to the political discourse. Also, given the political climate, making any such attempt seems pointless, and I’m disinclined to churn out words simply for the sake of producing content.

Therefore, taking a 30,000 foot view, as they say, I would like to focus instead on my perspective on the root cause of the breakdown in our national and international discourses…

What follows is my personal attempt at lemonade:


In Jewish tradition, Moses was the greatest of our prophets, meaning that his relationship with God was closer than any other’s. Deuteronomy 34:10 reads:

וְלֹא-קָם נָבִיא עוֹד בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל, כְּמֹשֶׁה, אֲשֶׁר יְדָעוֹ יְהוָה, פָּנִים אֶל-פָּנִים. And there hath not arisen a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face;

Famously, Moses protested to God that he was not fit to be His prophet. Why not? Because, as Moses himself put it, his lips were uncircumcised (Deut. 6:30):

וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה: הֵן אֲנִי, עֲרַל שְׂפָתַיִם, וְאֵיךְ, יִשְׁמַע אֵלַי פַּרְעֹה. And Moses said before the LORD: ‘Behold, I am of uncircumcised lips, and how shall Pharaoh hearken unto me?’

‘Uncircumcised lips’ has been interpreted in a number of ways throughout the centuries, but, most fundamentally, it meant that Moses could not speak well. Despite this (and some suggest: because of this), he heard God’s voice more clearly than anyone in history.

This may be contrasted with the prophet Jeremiah’s criticism of the ancient Israelites (Jer. 6:10):

עַל-מִי אֲדַבְּרָה וְאָעִידָה, וְיִשְׁמָעוּ–הִנֵּה עֲרֵלָה אָזְנָם, וְלֹא יוּכְלוּ לְהַקְשִׁיב; הִנֵּה דְבַר-יְהוָה, הָיָה לָהֶם לְחֶרְפָּה–לֹא יַחְפְּצוּ-בוֹ. To whom shall I speak and give warning, that they may hear? Behold, their ear is uncircumcised, and they cannot attend; behold, the word of the LORD is become unto them a reproach, they have no delight in it.

In fact, this theme of the Israelites not heeding God and His prophets went all the way back to the start of Moses’s own endeavor to serve as God’s prophet. In Exodus 6:12, Va’eira, Moses complained as follows:

וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה לֵאמֹר: הֵן בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, לֹא-שָׁמְעוּ אֵלַי, וְאֵיךְ יִשְׁמָעֵנִי פַרְעֹה, וַאֲנִי עֲרַל שְׂפָתָיִם. And Moses spoke before the LORD, saying: ‘Behold, the children of Israel have not hearkened unto me; how then shall Pharaoh hear me, who am of uncircumcised lips?’

Here, again, we see Moses’ concern regarding his ‘uncircumcised lips’, but in Exodus this greatest of all prophets is underscoring something beyond his own human limitations: Moses is highlighting the Israelites’ failure to heed him.

The Sefat Emet (Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, Poland, 1847 – 1905) deftly tied these two strings of thought together, and the renowned modern-day Torah scholar Aviva Zornberg (1944-) explicates the Chassidic Rebbe‘s teaching for us as follows:

Moses refers to his lips as ‘uncircumcised’ because “Speech… normally creates listeners… it is the listener who creates the act of speech… As long as there is no one to listen to God’s word, language impotently stutters” (The Particulars of Rapture, p. 84).

Simply, if we truly hearken to one another, we will find ourselves able to express ourselves more eloquently; and I have been finding this to be particularly true during children’s formative years:

The more we make a sincere effort to listen to our daughters and sons, the more articulate they will become.

Ethical will: Impartiality

Judgmentalism has always come easily to me.

-Me, ‘The Skeptic’s Kaddish 45’, May 30, 2019

During my kaddish journey following Papa’s death, I struggled with being judgmental of myself. In fact, this was one of the primary impetuses behind that yearlong writing project… Frankly, I had been feeling FAKE by going through the motions of communal mourning rituals with my religious community, while lacking faith in a personal Higher Power. I knew that that Papa would never have wanted that, nor respected it, and I couldn’t stand it either… so I began to share my truth.

It has been my experience that those of us who are most judgmental of ourselves also tend to be judgmental of others. A particular acquaintance of mine struggles with this more than anyone else I’ve known, and while many of the sentiments that he articulates are off-putting to me, my own inclination towards stinging judgmentalism permits me to empathize with and pity him. In his brutal judgments of others, I hear his impossible expectations of himself. His harsh judgmentalism puts my own into perspective.

The funny thing about [my] judgmentalism is that there’s always somebody for me to judge.

When I was more committed to Jewish tradition as an expression of God’s will, when I was praying three times daily and very careful never to eat any food that wasn’t certified kosher, when I felt more certain of my faith… I found myself having to withhold many a comment about those who were less observant.

On the other hand, now that my personal commitment to daily religious observance has slipped, now that I have strongly embraced my skepticism and doubts, now that I see tradition as almost entirely an expression of human needs and experiences… I find myself judging those who believe in Something that they cannot prove.

This reminds me of a popular adage I’ve oft heard in Jewish educational circles:

Anyone to my right is a zealot; anyone to my left is a heretic.


Now, the Torah, as I’ve written elsewhere, is a legal tradition at its core. The ancient Israelites lived their lives according to what they believed to be God’s Word, and they established judicial courts accordingly to adjudicate the inevitable disputes.

Somewhat as an aside, it was Moses‘ father-in-law Jethro, a non-Israelite, who first suggested the establishment of a hierarchical court system, rather than leaving Moses to shoulder the burden of adjudication on his own. Notably, according to Jewish doctrine, only Jews are obligated to live their lives according to God’s Torah, but gentiles are still considered obligated to abide by the seven Noahide laws, one of which is: the establishment of courts of justice.

It’s clear that judgment has an important place in Judaism. Indeed, Deuteronomy 16:19-20 is written as follows:

לֹא־תַטֶּ֣ה מִשְׁפָּ֔ט לֹ֥א תַכִּ֖יר פָּנִ֑ים וְלֹא־תִקַּ֣ח שֹׁ֔חַד כִּ֣י הַשֹּׁ֗חַד יְעַוֵּר֙ עֵינֵ֣י חֲכָמִ֔ים וִֽיסַלֵּ֖ף דִּבְרֵ֥י צַדִּיקִֽם׃ You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just.
צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף לְמַ֤עַן תִּֽחְיֶה֙ וְיָרַשְׁתָּ֣ אֶת־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לָֽךְ׃ Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the LORD your God is giving you.

These two verses, I find, are very instructive for us. For me, they are something to aspire to.

On the one hand, verse 20 makes it clear that we Jews ought to pursue justice. This is part and parcel of Torah. Through this lens, I am able to recognize and appreciate that judgmentalism isn’t inherently bad, although it certainly may be painful for me.

Verse 19 serves to clarify the ideal of judgment for me. Yes, we must pursue justice, but how does one do so? The answer: ‘you shall show no partiality’.

In other words, yes, we are creatures of judgment, and, yes, this may be not only natural but correct. However, we must always recognize and acknowledge our biases, and these biases are more than likely to shift over time, further highlighting their subjectiveness. So we must, of necessity, ask ourselves, “How would I describe my perspective? Who do I perceive to be different than myself and in what ways? And- how am I intuitively inclined to regard them?”


On a personal note, I am finding that the struggle of being judgmental has not gotten any easier for me emotionally over the years. However, the more I have been able to recognize and acknowledge my own mistakes and failures, the more I find myself capable of understanding the human failings of others.

Ethical will: Raising individuals

Given that I put a premium on being true to one’s self, one would be correct to assume that this value fundamentally informs my parenting priorities. As is nearly always the case with my ethics, this is no novel notion of mine.

Let us look at Proverbs 22:6 together:

חֲנֹ֣ךְ לַ֭נַּעַר עַל־פִּ֣י דַרְכּ֑וֹ גַּ֥ם כִּֽי־יַ֝זְקִ֗ין לֹֽא־יָס֥וּר מִמֶּֽנָּה׃ Train a youth according to his way; he will not swerve from it even in old age.

Perhaps I should end this post here. What have I to contribute of substance to this ancient wisdom? Should it not be obvious that all children have their own strengths, weaknesses, personalities, and ways of understanding? That they deserve the same opportunities to grow into and actualize themselves, which every single parent would like to have for themselves?

* * *

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (Germany, 1808-88) did, in fact, illustrate this idea in the context of the Torah’s tale of the twins Esau and Jacob. Why, he wondered, did one twin follow their parents’ path and the other (Esau) go astray? Rav Hirsch suggested that this was due to a grave mistake perpetrated by the brothers’ parents Isaac and Rebecca.

[A BRIEF ASIDE: Something I profoundly appreciate about our Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) is that it doesn’t shy away from or attempt to smooth over the shortcomings and failings of our matriarchs, patriarchs, kings, prophets, and heroes. Rather, we are to derive life lessons from their terrible mistakes.]

Rav Hirsch was bothered by something in Genesis 25:27. Let’s take a look:

וַֽיִּגְדְּלוּ֙ הַנְּעָרִ֔ים וַיְהִ֣י עֵשָׂ֗ו אִ֛ישׁ יֹדֵ֥עַ צַ֖יִד אִ֣ישׁ שָׂדֶ֑ה וְיַעֲקֹב֙ אִ֣ישׁ תָּ֔ם יֹשֵׁ֖ב אֹהָלִֽים׃ And the youths grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the field; but Jacob was a mild man who sat in tents.

Why, wondered Rav Hirsch, does the verse say that the twins were different only after they grew up? Was it not obvious that their natures were very different long before they came of age? Based on this verse, the great rabbi deduced that Rebecca and Isaac raised the twins in exactly the same way. Their childhoods had been identical. He wrote:

כל עוד היו קטנים, אף אחד לא העניק תשומת לב להבדלים בפנימיותם (עיין פסוק כד); נתנו להם אותו גידול ואותו חינוך. הוריהם שכחו כלל גדול בחינוך: ״חֲנֹךְ לַנַּעַר עַל־פִּי דַרְכּוֹ״ וגו׳ (משלי כב, ו). As long as they were little, No one paid attention to the differences in their inner natures (see verse 24); they gave them the same upbringing and the same education. Their parents forgot a big rule in education: ‘Educate a youth according to his way…’ (Proverbs 22:6).

Rav Hirsch brought his point home as follows:

״ויגדלו הנערים״: רק לאחר שהבנים גדלו והפכו לאנשים, הופתעו כולם לגלות, ששני האחים, שמרחם אחד יצאו, ואשר קיבלו את אותה השגחה, התחנכו באותה הדרך, ולמדו אותם לימודים; היו כה שונים בטבעיהם ובפעולותיהם. “And the youths grew up”: Only after the boys grew up and became adults was everyone surprised to discover that the two brothers, who had come out of one womb, and who had received the same supervision; been educated the same way; and been taught the same studies, were so different in their natures and actions.

According to Hirsch’s lengthy exegesis, the upbringing and education received by the twin brothers suited Jacob but not Esau, which explains why Esau did not grow up to become a righteous man.

* * *

One of the amazing aspects of watching our daughter grow up is our ever-developing familiarity with her temperament and personality.

When she was yet a baby and even a toddler, I harbored skepticism regarding the extent to which her actions and reactions were anything more than behaviors common to most, if not all, children at those ages. Now I know that I was very wrong.

I recall a video from her daycare when she was but a one-year-old, in which she vehemently shook her head and rejected a pair of maracas offered to her during a holiday celebration. Every other child seated in that little circle was happy to grab some maracas from the music teacher and shake them. At the time, this incident mostly amused me.

Since then, based upon my and my wife’s observations, and based upon the feedback that we’ve received from multiple daycare and preschool teachers, I have come to recognize that our daughter often likes to play independently from other children and come up with activities for herself. She does not always want to play with others, and she does not always want to do what others are doing. She doesn’t have problems socializing with her peers; she is simply aware of her need for personal space. Now, given our worldviews, we’ve never needed reassurance that this is anything other than perfectly healthy behavior, but multiple teachers have felt the need to underscore: “Don’t worry, this is totally fine!”

The above is but an example of a character trait, which exhibited itself in our daughter’s behavior at a very early age. There are, of course, many, many others – and, as Rav Hirsch expounded upon in his Torah commentary, this is true for all children.

It is for parents to observe their children and fathom them. Our approaches to rearing and education must be adapted accordingly.

Ethical will: Realize your creativity

The first verse of the Torah (Gen. 1:1) is as follows:

א בְּרֵאשִׁית, בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים, אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם, וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ. 1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

Here, at the outset, the Torah’s very first mention of God is as a Creator.

Now, fundamental to Jewish theology is the idea that humankind was created in God’s image. The phrase ‘image of God’ occurs three times in the Book of Genesis: 1:26–28, 5:1–3, and 9:6.

God’s incorporeality, of course, is also fundamental to Judaism, suggesting that His “image” cannot have anything to do with humankind’s physical attributes. Further to the point, the Hebrew word for ‘image’ used in this Biblical phrase is ‘tselem’ (צלם), which is not the Torah’s term for forms and bodies. Rather, in describing such three-dimensional shapes, the Torah uses the words ‘toar’ (טואר) and ‘tavnit’ (תבנית).

Therefore, as Torah scholars have given much thought to over the centuries, human beings must possess other traits that reflect God’s own. One proposition that resonates with me deeply is that of Rav A. I. Kook (1865-1935). In his opus ‘For the Perplexed of the Generation’, he writes at the very beginning (1:1):

(א) שהאדם נברא בצלם אלהים זה הוא יסוד התורה. עיקר הצלם הוא החופש הגמור שאנו מוצאים באדם שעל כן הוא בעל בחירה. (1) The foundation of the Torah is that man was created “in the image of God”. The essential meaning of “the image” is the complete freedom we find in man, [which means] that man must have free will.

Free will.

What shall we do with it?

* * *

Without free will, we would essentially be robots, programmed to live out our lives in particular ways, rendering morality irrelevant. On a basic level, free will empowers humans to choose between right and wrong, imbuing the concepts of “Good” and “Bad” with meaning.

These choices are primarily reactive. How to most properly react to other people in different situations? To animals? To nature? To the world? This facet of free will is inherently contextual.

Here I would be remiss not to admit that mine is not the traditional Jewish view, which defines a moral Jewish life as one which is lived according to the Torah’s (i.e. God’s) precepts. Jews must pray to God regardless of context, just as they must observe the Sabbath, wear special fringes on each corner of their four-cornered garments, and refrain from eating non-kosher food, etc., etc. Such religious commandments are not reactive, and, for me, neither are they matters of morality.

* * *

The other aspect of humankind’s free will, I believe, is our creativity. Unlike other animals, we have the capacity to create things that are entirely new to the world; in fact, it has been by virtue of this special human attribute that we have conquered the earth (for better or worse).

It is my belief that genuinely being true to ourselves calls for exploring and actualizing our unique creative drives. The fulfillment we receive from creating that which is uniquely ours is among the most precious experiences that make our human lives worth living.

Ethical will: Curiosity and mistakes

In Pirkei Avot (Chapters of the Fathers) 2:6, the great Hillel is quoted as follows:

הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, אֵין בּוּר יְרֵא חֵטְא, וְלֹא עַם הָאָרֶץ חָסִיד, וְלֹא הַבַּיְשָׁן לָמֵד, וְלֹא הַקַּפְּדָן מְלַמֵּד, וְלֹא כָל הַמַּרְבֶּה בִסְחוֹרָה מַחְכִּים. וּבְמָקוֹם שֶׁאֵין אֲנָשִׁים, הִשְׁתַּדֵּל לִהְיוֹת אִישׁ: He used to say: A brute is not sin-fearing, nor is an ignorant person pious; nor can a timid person learn, nor can an impatient person teach; nor will someone who engages too much in business become wise. And in a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.

The most famous section of that Mishnah is surely the last line:

In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.

However, for my purposes right now, I’ll focus on the line I highlighted:

Nor can a timid person learn.

I suppose that for the purposes of an ethical will I could simply stop here because this concept is so very uncomplicated, but I have what to say about Papa in this context.

* * *

For some reason, I don’t have many lucid memories of my childhood, as some do. My wife, for example, has a fantastic memory, and she remembers events from her early years in fairly high resolution. Still, hazy recollections of mine do remain, and snippets have increasingly been coming back over these last two years.

I’ve already mentioned that Papa had a computer at home for as long as I can remember. In the 80’s it was definitely not the norm to have a PC, although I don’t think I knew that as a child. For me, playing games on a computer was normal.

One of my early, hazy memories of Papa goes as follows:

For some reason or another we went together to a computer store. Most likely, he had to purchase some piece of equipment or software for himself, and I just happened to be along for the ride. At the store, there were some computers on display for customers to use, and I was curious so I went over to look at one of the machines and gingerly slid the mouse around to see the cursor move. I wanted to play with it further but was afraid that something might go wrong.

“Can I try it? I’m afraid to mess it up.”
“You should never be afraid of pushing buttons on a computer – there is nothing you can do to one of these machines that you won’t be able to undo. If you fear them, you will never learn to use them. Only by trial and error can you gain knowledge.”

* * *

My five-year-old daughter knows the answer to the following question before she opens her mouth because we’ve had this very same exchange countless times. Still, she continues to ask me:

Abba’chka, I made a mistake, but that’s okay, right?
Yes, Dear, making mistakes is a good thing.
Why?
(she always asks this with such eager anticipation)
Because that’s the only way to learn. If you fear making mistakes, it will be very, very difficult for you to to discover more about the world around you.

* * *

Lastly, for now, I think it’s also important to underscore that we best serve ourselves in this world by approaching other human beings with genuine curiosity, rather than avoiding those who hold views that differ from our own.

People too have buttons, and one such button is the human inclination to talk about one’s self. If we approach others with a sincere desire for understanding, and if we are careful to use open-ended questions (rather than questions that only require short, simple answers), most people will be all too happy to respond.

Human beings, of course, are not computers… but kindness is the key.

Papa was genuinely curious to understand the people he differed with. I remember him proactively engaging ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem with questions while they were protesting against traffic on the Sabbath, querying animal rights activists in Tel Aviv as they campaigned for veganism…

Me, ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ 34, Mar. 10, 2019

Ethical will

I finally began writing my ethical will last week.

Oof. This is hard for so many reasons, the first of which is that I have hardly lived up to my personal ideals by any stretch of the imagination. Secondly, most people who seriously engage in writing ethical wills for their descendants have children with children of their own, whereas I am only a father with one young child – clearly, no sagacious elder. In addition to flipping my humility switch, this endeavor leaves something of a morbid taste in my mouth. I’m not expecting to die any time soon, but life has schooled me: you never know.

* * *

During my year of reciting kaddish for Papa, I was introduced to the concept of an ethical will, and it spoke to me because much of what I continue to recall and appreciate about Papa was his character.

[Papa] was among the most decent, most kindhearted, and most modest human beings that I ever met.

– Me, ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ #45, May 30, 2019

He was brilliant, of course, and I remember that too, but I cannot capture his genius, nor convey it to those who never knew him. His website, I suppose, is the best remaining evidence of his mind, and his book of probability riddles will be coming out in the not too distant future – with a foreword written by his friend Nassim Nicholas Taleb, of Black Swan fame.

* * *

Before I launched this website, I had been in the process of thinking through the idea of writing of a ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ book, and my vision for such included an ethical will, which would be informed by my memories of Papa.

More than that, I was hoping to derive my list of ‘ethics’ from the ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ itself. In other words, I wanted my ethical will to parallel my year-long kaddish journey, thereby rendering the two a single, seamless product. Every post of my original ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ included some recollections of Papa, as well as my personal reflections upon tradition, theology, family, parenting, childhood, or memorialization, etc.

However, I hit two primary stumbling blocks. First, while every blog post did contain ethical content, there was a great deal of thematic overlap between my posts. Secondly, my process of writing the ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ on a near-weekly basis had been organic in that I had blogged all year about whatever I was experiencing, thinking, reading, and remembering. However, forcing those existing blog posts in their chronological order upon my list of personal ethics left me very little room for creativity or spontaneity. In attempting to write my ethical will that way, I couldn’t find my voice.

* * *

Last year, I was taking a Talmud class, which focused upon the religious laws governing the Jewish Sabbath. In the tractate on Shabbat, the rabbis of the Talmud struggled to come up with a comprehensive list of 39 categories of work that are prohibited on the Sabbath.

Why 39, you ask?

Because that’s the number of categorical Sabbath prohibitions listed in the Mishnah, which is the first major written collection of the Jewish oral traditions known as the Oral Torah. It was redacted at the beginning of the 3rd century CE in Israel, whereas the Babylonian Talmud was completed later, by the end of the 5th century CE in exile.

The rabbis of the Mishnah lived earlier than the rabbis of the Talmud, thus being in closer proximity to the Divine revelation at Mount Sinai, so their teachings were held as authoritative by the rabbis of the Talmud. Hence, if the Mishnah asserted that there were exactly ‘forty minus one’ categories of work prohibited on the Sabbath, the Talmud could do nothing but accept that count.

Suffice it to say that the rabbis of the Talmud performed all sorts of mental gymnastics to apply the Mishnah’s list of 39 prohibitions to the realities of their own times, hundreds of years later and no longer residing in the Land of Israel. In fact, while the Talmud ultimately managed to hew to the all-important ‘forty minus one’, their final list was slightly different than the Mishnah’s had been.

If the rabbis of the Talmud hadn’t been fettered to the Mishnah’s ’39’, who knows what their final list of categories would have looked like?

* * *

And… so…

I gave up on my concept. Perhaps a more talented or cleverer writer could extrapolate and articulate a list of values from my series of 51 kaddish blog posts, but I am not that person.

After writing several months’ worth of reflections in my blog and returning to poetry after a decades-long hiatus, I finally wrote a first entry in my ethical will. It wasn’t at all easy for me to do, but it feels very important…

We’ll have to see where it goes.