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.

To India (and others) with love

How did I end up on WordPress?

The Times of Israel website is an international news portal, read by millions of people around the world every month, and, of course, the percentage of its readership that is Jewish is particularly high, as one would probably expect.

Given this, I naturally decided to publish my ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ series there following my father’s death. The decision was an instinctive one.

Later, after I’d completed my year of reciting kaddish, I eventually decided to transfer the ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ to this personal WordPress blog, primarily so that I, my family, and our friends could more readily browse and navigate my yearlong kaddish journey in honor of Papa.


The WordPress that readers do not see

WordPress, WordPress, WordPress.

I suppose I should have expected nothing less in 2020.

In a world of soundbites, Tweets and Instagram posts, I rejected those limited mediums in favor of substance. I’ve always been a writer at heart; blogging came naturally to me. But- inescapably- today’s WordPress is just another node on the social network.

Those of you who don’t blog on WordPress wouldn’t know that WordPress encourages its bloggers to create Facebook and Twitter accounts for their blogs, as well as to monetize our blogs in various ways. It also goes a step further – the website provides us with readership statistics. Look how many people have viewed your blog today! Look how many people have commented! Look have many people have ‘liked’ one of your posts! Look! Look! Look!

Look to see what countries most of your views are coming from! Look! Look! Look!

In any case, I don’t quite understand it, but it seems that most of my views are coming from India and surrounding countries.


Would you like to understand me?

And, so, I find myself in an unexpected position, as everything I write is from a distinctly Jewish perspective. I don’t have any personal connection to India (although I ❤️ Indian food), but apparently many residents of India, among others throughout Asia, find my content intriguing.

On the one hand, some ideas and values are universal, and I relish discussions on culture, religion, and politics across international borders. On the other hand, being committedly Jewish is a very particular experience in some very fundamental ways, and I’d like to expound upon some of these for my new readers. Based upon our interactions, it would seem that you’d like to know more about where I’m coming from.

Below are some preliminary personal reflections on how I relate to being a Jew.


Judaism: not a “religion”

Much of this feels odd for me to write because it’s all so ingrained in me, but, still, let’s lay out some basics.

The first thing that I would like to make clear is that Judaism is unlike every other “religion” that I am aware of in one very specific way (feel free to challenge me with contradictory evidence). The reason I put the word “religion” in quotes is – Judaism is not really a religion. Or, rather, if you want to insist that it is a “religion” (as some do), then you must make a distinction between “Judaism” and “Jewishness”.

In Russian, for example (but not in colloquial American English), there rightly exist two separate terms: 1) Yevrei (A Hebrew; a Jew by nationality) and 2) Iudei (A person of the Jewish faith). A Yevrei is analogous to an Indian, and a Iudei is akin to a person of the Hindu faith.

For the vast majority of Jewish history, no such distinction existed because, as I’ve written, previous to the Jewish Emancipation in the 18th and 19th centuries:

… one had been either a Jew living among Jews in a Jewish community according to Jewish traditions or: not. There existed no distinction between ethnicity and religion.

The more curious among you may be interested to know that a Jew by the name of Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677, Dutch Republic) was the first Jew to publicly challenge the basic tenets of Jewish faith, including the core doctrine that the Torah is of Divine origin. Spinoza was an Enlightenment philosopher and the Jewish community expelled him for his iconoclastic views. In those times, a Jew could not declare his rejection of the Jewish faith and expect to remain in the Jewish fold.

In the modern day, this is no longer an issue outside of the most traditional circles. Many Jews comfortably identify as agnostics or atheists, while maintaining their cultural Jewish identities and even affiliating with Jewish religious communities. In many conversations of mine with religious people of other faith traditions, I have found that this concept is very challenging for them. Can there be such a thing as an atheist Christian or Muslim?


Peoplehood: a primary facet of Jewish identity

Personally, I have always felt very comfortable in my skin as a Jew, and I was always proud of my ethnic identity even as a child, long, long before I decided that it bore deep exploration.

As I have explored the many facets of Jewish identity over the years, as well as my respective degrees of attachment to them, my thinking has gradually evolved, and ultimately, I’ve come to some fairly straightforward understandings of myself.


An understanding of peoplehood as extended family

I had a wonderful conversation not so long ago with somebody who had converted to Judaism through an Orthodox conversion process. Of all the Jewish denominations, Orthodoxy (in all its variants) is the most legalistic. It is the most committed to the observance of halakhah, which is Jewish religious law.

Orthodoxy (and Conservative Judaism as well) maintains the traditional legal definition of ‘Who is a Jew’, which is as follows: one must either 1) be born to a Jewish mother, or 2) convert to Judaism before a council of 3 adult Jewish males who committedly live according to halakhah.

The Orthodox convert with whom I was conversing laid out the following train of thought for me:

  1. Halakhah is God’s Law.
  2. God’s Law defines who is a Jew, including the setting of the standards for conversion to Judaism.
  3. Conversions to Judaism performed according to halakhah are legitimate, and conversions conducted by other standards are illegitimate. (Reform Judaism, for example, does not consider halakhah binding.)
  4. Any understanding of Jewish group identity not based upon God’s Law is inherently unreliable and based upon human, limited biases.
  5. These limited human biases regarding the matter of “Who is a Jew” ultimately have no bearing upon “true reality” (which is entirely defined by God’s will) and boil down to nothing more than mere human racism.

In the interest of dialogue, I responded as follows:

  1. It is natural to love one’s family, including family members who may have different ethnic identities than one has him/herself.
  2. According to Jewish tradition and religious doctrine, the Jewish people are the descendants of our forefather Abraham and foremother Sarah, and this, according to our tradition, includes all converts throughout the centuries.
  3. It is therefore no more racist for a Jew to have a special love for his/her people than it would be for someone to love their extended family, and neither halakhah nor God need enter into this equation.

That’s how I see it. The Jewish people are an extended family.

By the way, there is another simple reason why my love of the Jewish people is not racist: conversion. Simple put, the Jews have never been an exclusive club. While we are, indeed, a people, any human being on earth can join our tribe.


An understanding of peoplehood as another step beyond the monkeysphere

Are you familiar with Dunbar’s number? It’s a very important concept, otherwise known as the monkeysphere. I’ll quote Wikipedia:

Dunbar’s number is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships—relationships in which an individual knows who each person is and how each person relates to every other person… Humans can comfortably maintain 150 stable relationships…

150 stable relationships is the average limit for us humans, but that’s not to say that all of those relationships are equally meaningful to us. Within our respective monkeyspheres, we usually care most about our nuclear family members, then our friends, and then our communities, right?

Of course, we humans are also naturally concerned with other human beings far beyond our monkeyspheres. For example, we are likely to be concerned with the well-being of other people in the cities and countries where we reside. Many of us are even concerned with all of humanity’s well-being – otherwise why would one be concerned about global pollution and carbon emissions?

There is clearly a spectrum for every one of us, ranging from the most particular to the most universal relationships, and one of my rabbis once made a beautiful point to me in this vein, regarding the concept of Jewish peoplehood.

Essentially, he explained, our universal concern for others throughout the world is grounded in our ability to empathize with and appreciate the worth of every individual human being. We are capable of relating to the humanity of those whom we will never meet because we intimately recognize the humanity of those who are within our monkeyspheres, and we intuitively understand that all humans have close, stable relationships with other humans – just as we do ourselves.

If we take this a step farther, we can make the following argument: our relationships with our nuclear families inform our relationships with our circles of friends, which in turn inform our relationships with our communities, which in turn inform our relationships with those who live in our cities, etc., etc.

Essentially, each of our spheres of concern allow our limited human minds to grasp the concept of the next larger sphere beyond it. One cannot truly be universally concerned for all of humanity if one does not first understand the experiences of being human and of maintaining close human relationships.

My relationship to my people is one of my many spheres of concern. Because of this relationship, I am better able to value your humanity, dear Reader, even if we’ll never meet.

By the way, the fact that my people live throughout the world in different countries and cultures makes it all the easier for me to relate to people who may have very different life experiences than my own.


Carrying my people with me everywhere

At its core, the Torah has always been a legal system. Regardless of whether it is of Divine origin or not, it is the Law that we have lived by since first becoming an independent nation. Of course, we became a nation some three millennia ago – at a time when all nations were known by their gods; and the One God, the Creator of the Universe, was, for the ancient Israelites, their Monarch.

There was a time when I had convinced myself of the Torah’s Divine origin. I believed that, ultimately, all of halakhic practice came from God, and that I was obligated by God to adhere to it.

After a year of studying Torah in Jerusalem, I traveled to Russia for a summer to work at a JAFI children’s camp. There, I was one of only two observant people on staff (the other was my not-yet-wife). We two were the only ones limiting ourselves to kosher food, and I was the only one who prayed three times a day, donning phylacteries and prayer shawl every morning.

Even back then, believing as I did that I was following God’s will, the experience of committedly adhering to the traditional Jewish way of life in the diaspora left me with an unexpected insight, which had nothing to do with the spiritual or the supernatural.

In a substantive way, our lives in our respective countries are defined by local legal systems, languages, and popular cultures. Humans are of particular nationalities while they live in their home countries, but once they emigrate, how many future generations maintain the nationalities of their parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents? Let’s say a couple moves from India to the USA. How strongly will their American-born children identify as Indian? What about their American-born grandchildren?

Every summer that I traveled to work in Russia, the traditions of the Jewish people surrounded me like a bubble, reinforcing my national identity. One who follows the traditions of the Torah can never fully assimilate into another culture; (s)he can never cease identifying as a member of the Jewish people, even as (s)he may very strongly identify with the country in which (s)he resides.

As a Jew who finds tremendous personal meaning in his ties to the Jewish people, the calculus is quite simple.

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: Be true to yourself

There is nothing new under the sun, including in this ethical will, but I feel it necessary to plant some flags. Also, in embarking upon this endeavor, I am taking my own advice by being true to myself. As this feels important to me, I shall respect that drive.

To start:

There are many voices around you, but you must listen to your own voice.

– Pocahontas to King James, Disney’s Pocahontas II (1998)

The obvious and necessary first step towards being true to yourself is listening to yourself, as noted by Disney’s Pocahontas. From birth, we are shaped by multiple, external voices, and while these ought not be disregarded, be mindful that nobody else can journey with you from womb to tomb. So – are you comfortable living with and as yourself?

Listening to one’s self does not come easily to everybody, particularly not to children, for they rely upon their parents’ guidance to develop their understandings of the world. Parents need strike a balance between encouraging their children to draw their own conclusions about their life experiences and explaining everything to them. As children develop, the balance should naturally shift.

Famously, God said to Abram (Gen. 12):

א וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-אַבְרָם, לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ. 1 Now the LORD said unto Abram: ‘Go to yourself, from thy land, and from thy homeland, and from thy father’s house, unto the land that I will show thee.

This verse continues to fascinate scholars today, and I deliberately chose this translation over others that are also broadly accepted. (I believe this to be the most literal translation)

Essentially, in order to “go to himself” (to become himself?) Abram (who would later receive the name Abraham) had to leave the land where he was living, the land he had been born in, and his family. One could nitpick over what other influences shape us during our formative years, but I believe the Torah, in its literary way, was suggesting that Abram had to distance himself from every influence in his life in order to truly realize himself. Only by doing so could Abram eventually become the father of the Jewish nation.

Metaphorically, we all need, at some point, to step back from the major influences in our lives in order to most deeply understand ourselves at our cores. What remains of “you” when you change your circumstances? Of course, there are sundry influences upon each of us, and it may be nigh impossible to distance ourselves from all of them simultaneously… but that misses the point, which is: we must attempt to identify the external forces acting upon us in order to best understand ourselves.

We can always step back towards them later, with awareness, and some may, in fact, be very positive and even dear to us. (NB: I am in no way repudiating the tremendous potential value of any of our formative influences)

* * *

There is at least one other angle to this idea that I would like to touch upon, which is: I believe that those who respect themselves most will remain true to themselves, regardless of outside expectations.

Later in Genesis, Joseph introduces his brothers to Pharaoh, and advises them as follows in chapter 46:

לג וְהָיָה, כִּי-יִקְרָא לָכֶם פַּרְעֹה; וְאָמַר, מַה-מַּעֲשֵׂיכֶם. 33 And it shall come to pass, when Pharaoh shall call you, and shall say: What is your occupation?
לד וַאֲמַרְתֶּם, אַנְשֵׁי מִקְנֶה הָיוּ עֲבָדֶיךָ מִנְּעוּרֵינוּ וְעַד-עַתָּה–גַּם-אֲנַחְנוּ, גַּם-אֲבֹתֵינוּ: בַּעֲבוּר, תֵּשְׁבוּ בְּאֶרֶץ גֹּשֶׁן, כִּי-תוֹעֲבַת מִצְרַיִם, כָּל-רֹעֵה צֹאן. 34 that ye shall say: Thy servants have been keepers of cattle from our youth even until now, both we, and our fathers; that ye may dwell in the land of Goshen; for every shepherd is an abomination unto the Egyptians.’

However, it turns out that Joseph’s brothers have a strong sense of confidence in their identities. In chapter 47, they introduce themselves to Pharaoh as follows:

ג וַיֹּאמֶר פַּרְעֹה אֶל-אֶחָיו, מַה-מַּעֲשֵׂיכֶם; וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֶל-פַּרְעֹה, רֹעֵה צֹאן עֲבָדֶיךָ–גַּם-אֲנַחְנוּ, גַּם-אֲבוֹתֵינוּ. 3 And Pharaoh said unto his brethren: ‘What is your occupation?’ And they said unto Pharaoh: ‘Thy servants are shepherds, both we, and our fathers.’
ד וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֶל-פַּרְעֹה, לָגוּר בָּאָרֶץ בָּאנוּ, כִּי-אֵין מִרְעֶה לַצֹּאן אֲשֶׁר לַעֲבָדֶיךָ, כִּי-כָבֵד הָרָעָב בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן; וְעַתָּה יֵשְׁבוּ-נָא עֲבָדֶיךָ, בְּאֶרֶץ גֹּשֶׁן. 4 And they said unto Pharaoh: ‘To sojourn in the land are we come; for there is no pasture for thy servants’ flocks; for the famine is sore in the land of Canaan. Now therefore, we pray thee, let thy servants dwell in the land of Goshen.’

And… then… even though “every shepherd is an abomination unto the Egyptians”, Pharaoh responds by putting Joseph’s brothers in charge of the royal livestock. Hardly a rejection, is it?

Certainly, I would be among the last to suggest that any reading of a religious text is correct to the exclusion of others, but this understanding of these verses reads particularly true to me: Pharaoh gave Joseph’s brothers respect for staying true to themselves, in the face of external pressure to hide their true identities.

As I wrote above:

… be mindful that nobody else can journey with you from womb to tomb. So – are you comfortable living with and as yourself?

* * *

I’d like to bring this home with a classic Hasidic tale about Reb Zusha of Hanipol, a student of the Maggid of Mezritch, who, in turn, was a student of the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidic Judaism. It goes as follows:

Reb Zusha was laying  on his deathbed surrounded by his disciples. He was crying and no one could comfort him.

One student asked his Rebbe, “Why do you cry? In your life, you have been as wise as Moses and as kind as Abraham.” 

Reb Zusha answered, “When I pass from this world and appear before the Heavenly Tribunal, they won’t ask me, ‘Zusha, why weren’t you as wise as Moses or as kind as Abraham,’ rather, they will ask me, ‘Zusha, why weren’t you Zusha?'”