Archive | Rabbi Yogi

Avraham did well after winning his ‘lottery’

Posted on 29 November 2018 by admin

I’ll admit it. I got excited along with the rest of the country when the Mega Millions lottery hit a whopping $1.6 billion jackpot in October of this year. I bought a ticket and enjoyed an overly long conversation with my wife about what we would do with the money if we won.
We decided that we’d knock down our house and build a better one in its place (with a Texas-proof foundation), we’d take some amazing family vacations around the world, set up funds for all of our children and future grandchildren, and why not throw in a private chef for good measure (or at least until we get a kosher Chinese joint in town)?
We were just as excited, as I’m sure many readers can relate to, considering the new charitable vistas a billion dollars would open up to us. We could finally get our shul that building our community has been eyeing for years, and we could pay off the debts of organizations we admired. The possibilities were endless. I would be hard-pressed to argue that it wasn’t worth the $2 cost of the ticket for all the imaginative fun that little slip of paper created for us during those 24 spirited hours.
On the flip side of the mass lottery hysteria that was gripping the country lay a question that none of us, myself included, really wanted to consider, lest it ruin our collective daydreaming. Would winning the lottery be a genuinely positive thing for us in the first place?
Sure, we’ve read of lottery stories that warm the heart. The Lohse family from Bondurant, Iowa, who have used and continue to use their $202 million winnings to improve the lives of the people in their small city. They’ve made considerable improvements to their local parks, built a new football stadium for the local high school and even opened a $4.5 million grocery store because the city of 4,000 didn’t have one yet.
Other lottery winners reported on the news outlets have largely set aside self-indulgence, instead focusing on setting up considerable trust funds for all the current and future members of their family. These winners might not set records for charitable giving, but their winnings have certainly helped create comfortable lives for many of those around them.
But for every lottery success story we hear of, there seems to be a parallel tale of lottery nightmares to match. Stories of people losing preposterous amounts of winnings in short stretches of time on gambling, drugs, alcohol and vice. People whose lives have subsequently spun out of control, causing them to lose their marriages, their children and even their very lives.
How do we know, then, which camp we would fall in if we were to win the lottery? Would we use the lottery winnings for good, making the world and our families’ lives better in the process, or would such massive, newfound wealth corrupt and tempt us until we couldn’t recognize ourselves in the mirror?
Examining the details of the life of Avraham, the very first of the Jewish patriarchs, should shed much needed light on this matter. After all, is Avraham not the earliest recorded historical figure to win a lottery of sorts, when God, as if out of the blue, first reveals Himself to our forefather (then 75 years old) and promises him vast earthly wealth if he would but follow Him to the Holy Land?
As the Torah recounts:
“And the Lord said to Abram, ’Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. And I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will aggrandize your name, and [you shall] be a blessing” (Beresheet 12:1-2).
And, as Rashi notes, “I will bless you” is a reference to a divine gift of wealth.
Avraham, in other words, was the very first person to hit all five lotto numbers and the Powerball.
What’s interesting to note is that the Sages of the Mishnah teach that Avraham was tested with 10 distinct trials during his lifetime, all of which he subsequently passed (Pirkei Avot 5:3), and all of the commentaries agree on one thing — God’s asking Avraham to leave his home and go to the Holy Land is counted as one of those 10 tests.
It’s hard to comprehend. I can imagine how hard it must be to uproot your family from your hometown, leaving much of your family behind and moving to a new, foreign and mysterious place (“the land that I will show you”), but who are we kidding? Is there anyone amongst us who wouldn’t take the leave-your-homeland challenge for divinely assured vast wealth? Sign me up!
According to Rabbi Yochanan Zweig, dean of the Talmudic University in Miami, Avraham’s test was not about the journey at all. The real test, in fact, was to arrive only after he received his promised riches. What would happen then? Would he use these gifts for himself or would he employ them to better humanity?
Avraham’s test was to be a foreshadowing of the tests that all future lottery winners would face one day.
Of course, we know how the Biblical narrative goes. Post-lottery Avraham becomes the everlasting paradigm of chesed (loving kindness), leaning on his resources to feed and care for hungry desert travelers who fatefully passed by his place of dwelling. The Midrash notes that Avraham didn’t stop there, instead taking the opportunity to nourish the travelers’ souls with teachings of the oneness of the Almighty and of the misguided nature of idolatry. Avraham, far from being corrupted by his earthly possessions, employed them in his life’s mission — to love and educate humanity.
And here lies Avraham’s secret to passing spiritual tests — extensive advance preparation. For although the text of the Chumash reveals almost nothing of Avraham’s life and nature before this first test, the oral tradition informs us of Avraham’s spiritually rich early years discovering the one true God, and of his later years — still before this first test — willingly persecuted for this belief. Avraham was prepared well in advance of God’s test, fortified with a deep sense of mission and purpose. When money was added to that equation, Avraham knew how to use it accordingly.
So, is it good to win the lottery? It all depends on your preparation.
Rabbi Yogi Robkin is the outreach director of DATA of Plano. He can be reached at yrobkin@dataofplano.org.

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Our Tree of Life must remain strong in tragedy

Posted on 09 November 2018 by admin

I heard about the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue on my walk home from shul on Saturday afternoon. A Jewish neighbor of mine went out to grab his mail and stopped in his tracks when he saw my family and I walking down the sidewalk in our Shabbos attire. After a little informal chit-chat, he asked me about my feelings about Pittsburgh.
“I’m not sure what you’re referring to,” I replied. “You mean you haven’t heard?” He stopped for a moment, seemingly surprised by my ignorance of the matter. “A gunman shot up a shul in Pittsburgh.”
My heart stopped. I was stunned to silence. However, as a Jew connected to a national memory stretching back through the anti-Semitic ages, I was not completely shocked.
I’m certainly not the only one who has sat in shul and proactively planned an escape route in case of a terror attack. In fact, I regularly think about my unique role in case of such an attack as one of the only people in my synagogue who faces the back of the sanctuary, with a perfect view of anyone, familiar or otherwise, who might come in.
As Shabbos ended, whatever feelings of peace and tranquility I had managed to retain over the remainder of the holy day left me as I read one news article after another and update after update on the carnage that was wrought in Squirrel Hill by a man firmly set on killing as many Jews as he could get his hands on. Sadness tinged with righteous anger filled me. One mourning Jewish heart in Texas reaching out to Jewish brothers and sisters far away.
My 9-year-old son noticed my distressed, mournful countenance, and soon I sat him down and told him what had transpired in Pittsburgh. It wasn’t long before tears began tumbling down his cheeks. “I’m scared to go to shul,” he said. “Will that happen to us too?”
I’ve no doubt many Jewish parents had this same conversation with their children that night and in the days that followed. Sadly enough, such conversations are Jewish rites of passage — waking us up to a realization as old as our people that we live in a world in which people might want to kill us for the simple fact that we are Jews.
I remember sharing my sons fears and waking up to the truth of the fragile existence of the Jew in this world during what seemed like yearly bomb threat evacuations at my Jewish day school in Atlanta and through multiple swastika-painting incidents at two different schools I attended. More than these events, though, it was watching CNN’s live coverage of scud missiles raining down on Israel during the Persian Gulf War that made me fully aware of the potential consequences of my heritage. I was only a little older than my 9-year-old son was then.
We, as individuals and communities, will mourn and pray over the coming days and weeks. We will try, as best we can, to allay our children’s fears. These things are both appropriate and praiseworthy. But we must equally confront the hulking elephant in all of our rooms. The question of all questions at a time like this. Why do we continue to expose ourselves and our children to this national fate? Why do we not choose to slink back and camouflage ourselves amongst our non-Jewish neighbors and communities? We can assimilate as many others have done before. And so, the question remains, why don’t you? And why don’t I?
Ben Shapiro, editor-in-chief for The Daily Wire, asked this question to his audience of online readers and wrote what I believe to be a quintessentially Jewish response to the question. I will leave you with his profound words, words which we ought to share with our children as they begin to navigate their new reality in a world much darker than it was but days ago.
“In that Pittsburgh synagogue on Saturday morning, the Jew-hating murderer rushed into a room in which a brit milah was taking place: a circumcision ceremony, a ceremony as old as the Jewish people, a ceremony welcoming an 8-day-old child into the community of the Jews. In other parts of the synagogue, different minyanim were reading the story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac on a mountain.
“Why would Jews continue to inaugurate children into the most targeted community in human history? Jewish destiny may be inescapable, but why embrace that destiny? The members of the Tree of Life synagogue were shot to death in a synagogue. So why continue to cluster in synagogues, fulfilling age-old commandments, the elderly passing down their traditions to infants?
“Because, as the Tree of Life synagogue’s name attests, the Torah — the Jewish destiny — is a ‘tree of life for all those who cling to it.’ (Proverbs 3:18) And we are enjoined to choose life. That, after all, is the story of Abraham and Isaac: a story not of God asking Abraham to kill his son, but a story of God asking if Abraham is willing to place his son in mortal danger in service to God — and God’s grace in saving Isaac thanks to Abraham’s commitment. That is the story of the Jewish people. That is the story members of the Tree of Life Synagogue were reading as they died al kiddush Hashem, in the sanctification of God’s name.
“And that is the story of our civilization. An attack on the Tree of Life is an attack on all of us — those of us who wish to imbue our own children with a sense of Godliness in a dark world, a sense of eternal value in a society eating away at itself. Inside the sanctuary, all was peaceful on the Sabbath — until the gunshots rang out.
“The only proper response is the same response Jews have given throughout time: to fight back. To stubbornly cling to that which stamps us with the image of God. To fight darkness with light, untruth with truth, and death with life.”

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With G-d as my witness, I shall not want

Posted on 18 October 2018 by admin

If a man achieves a great feat in a forest and no one is there to witness it, does the success resonate less within the man? Does it feel less significant?
It’s a difficult question, I admit.
As for myself, I can’t shake this feeling inside of me that a great act both deserves and requires a great witnessing to match; and that the witnessing itself impresses significance upon a deed (a retelling of one’s personal unwitnessed events to interested parties often serves as something of a surrogate witnessing). After all, we humans are selective viewers, restricting our purview to those things we deem worthy of our time and interest, and keeping our watchful eyes on the goings-on of only people we care about most. The gift of one’s attention says, “What’s going on here matters.” It proclaims, “These actions, these lives no less, are significant and meaningful!”
As the character of the wife in “Shall We Dance” answers to the question of why she wants to be married:
“We need a witness to our lives. There are eight billion people on the planet…I mean, what does any one life really mean? But in a marriage, you’re promising to care about everything — the good things, the bad things, the terrible things, the mundane things…all of it, all the time, every day. You’re saying, ‘Your life will not go unnoticed because I will notice it. Your life will not go unwitnessed because I will be your witness.’”
In an article in Psychology Today (Aug. 22, 2016), Dr. William S. Breitbart writes extensively and eloquently of this collective need to be witnessed:
“What is clear is that we human beings need to have our lives witnessed, Viktor Frankl wrote ‘the only thing worse than suffering is suffering that goes unwitnessed.’ (Frankl – The Doctor and the Soul, 1955/1986). This need for our lives to be witnessed, I believe, is related to the concept of ‘significance.’ The question of significance is an essential one. ‘Did it matter that I lived?’ ‘Did I leave some mark in this world?’ ‘Did I have some impact on this world or on someone?’ Was there a ‘sign’ that I was here. The idea of having a life witnessed relates to the question of whether someone else in this world noticed me, and ultimately judged the value of my life. It is as if one was a playwright and had a play that only you performed, but was never viewed by an audience, or reviewed by a theater critic. Were you a playwright? Was the play a work of art? A work of great significance?”
Witnessing has an additional function, as within it lies the power to lift up the moments in our lives to transcendent heights. If unobserved accomplishments last but singular moments in time and live on in but the select hearts and minds of the protagonists themselves, witnessed occasions take on a lifeforce of their own, inviting others to both partake in the moments of our lives as well as to share their memories of the event with others not present. A witnessed event may be recorded in a book or passed down as family or national narrative. And the life of that witnessed event can long survive the life of the character of whom the story is told. As such, witnesses allow us to transcend the limited confines of both self and time. It allows for the building of legacy.
But there are significant drawbacks to our need to be witnessed, great dangers awaiting our demand for external validation and significance. It’s true that we tend to act better in the company of others than we do in the privacy of our own homes, but it’s easy to fall in to the trap of worrying more about “looking good” than actually working on “being good.”
And with eyes focused outward comes both unhealthy societal pressures that must be met if we are to remain in good standing with our neighbors and peers, as well as a steady inculcation of foreign value systems that work to slowly but steadily replace our Jewish values for central primacy in our lives.
What’s more, there is scant room for the development of the prized trait of humility when “likes” on social media don’t generate themselves — we need to be “out there” for the public to see if we are to earn their approval and esteem.
And after all is said and done, we still find ourselves questioning if we are truly loved and valued by the people around us. It’s a no-win affair.
Breitbart suggests a different, rather confounding solution to the witnessing dilemma at the tail end of his article. He concludes that we, ourselves, serve as our own life’s witnesses:
“We are never completely alone. Our observing ‘self’ or ego is our constant companion; that constant voice, commentator, judge, critic, witness to our lives. In living a truly authentic life, the only judge or critic who really matters is us, our observing self. So as you live, you are creating your legacy through witnessing and striving towards a life of significance.”
While Breitbart’s solution circumvents the many issues detailed above that emerge from the need of external validation, his suggestion seems more word play than anything else. For, in as much as I am more or less aware of the details of my life, I cannot also bear witness to my life. A witness stands ipso facto removed from the person being witnessed, and any significance that a witness brings to the table derives from the very fact that he is separate. It’s hard, then, to believe that many, if any, will find comfort in a life “self-witnessed.”
And what of the transcendence of external witnessing? What of the comfort that comes with the knowledge that one’s life, one’s legacy, will endure beyond the grave, in the memories and in the impact made upon those still living? In Breitbart’s vision one must be satisfied that “The legacy you live does not require remembering after death; it is a legacy lived unto death.” I, for one, find no solace in such a forecast.
There are other issues, as well. While external validation often comes with unhealthy societal pressures, it also comes with healthy pressures that push us forward. Caring friends and family tell it like it is, pointing out areas in one’s life that require attention and improvement. Their cajoling is generally aimed at moving us out of our comfort zone (the thing we despise the most), something “self-witnessing” is less likely to generate on its own.
And none of this touches upon the problem that is the natural conclusion that Breitbart reaches, that in “self-witnessing” we become “the only judge or critic who really matters.” That’s a biased judge indeed, one more likely to accept excuses and let things slide than to convict and chastise. Can we really, then, rely upon ourselves alone to know if we are acting appropriately and living lives of real significance?
There is a third option, though, one that sidesteps the pitfalls of both external witnesses and Breitbart’s “self-witnessing”: G-d is our life’s witness. G-d carefully watches all we do, both because we are the apple of His eye (“So said the L-rd, ‘My firstborn son is Israel. [Shemot 22:4]’”), and because our lives matter so that the Almighty himself to cares to watch.
The benefits of G-d serving as our witness are multifold. For starters, He’s always witnessing, and the entirety of our lives is uplifted and transcended in His witnessing (as opposed to human witnessing, which only covers the public portion of our lives).
With G-d as our witness, we are propelled to evolve into our best selves – to become more and more G-dlike. Such witnessing generates a healthy external pressure without any of the damaging and often misguided social pressures that come with human witnessing.
There is no concern of foreign value systems creeping into our lives with G-d as our witness. To the contrary, we are infused with the will to keep our Witness’ values in the face of competing value systems. As King David proclaims, “I will speak of Your testimonies before kings, and I will not be ashamed” (Tehillim 119:46). And with our steadfast commitment to living a life in consonance with G-d’s will, we can feel confident in the knowledge that we are living big, significant lives and bound tightly in the favor of the only One whose opinion really matters.
Equally as important, with our need for witnessing fulfilled in full by G-d, we come to grasp that we need not the approval or recognition of flesh and blood, and with this final, vital shard of wisdom the gates of humility open up to us in all their glory. Our compulsion for self-promotion and exhibitionism slowly give way to the subtle pleasures of humble living, and the excitement once felt whilst basking in the limelight moves aside for the hallowed feelings which arise when we let the other lights around us shine a little brighter. It is fair to say that with G-d as my witness I shall not want for anything more.

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Spiritual redemption can help reverse your addictions

Posted on 04 October 2018 by admin

The Talmudic story of Rabbi Eleazar ben Dordaya seems to materialize itself in most Yom Kippur sermons. And for good reason. This is a story whose message is as inspirational as it is timely – that no one is too far removed for teshuvahh (repentance).
And yet, the story ends suddenly, with the protagonist’s early death — a death that arrives amid a downpouring of remorseful and broken-hearted tears. And it is this part of the story that is so rarely expounded upon or explained (after all, better to focus on the happy stuff). And that is a shame, for in the proper interpretation of the story’s cryptic conclusion lies arguably the greatest lesson on teshuvahh of them all.
“It was said of Rabbi Eleazar ben Dordaya that he did not leave out any harlot in the world without coming to her. Once, he heard that there was a certain prostitute in one of the towns by the sea who accepted a purse of coins for her hire. He took a purse of coins and crossed seven rivers for her sake. As he was with her, she blew forth breath and said: ‘As this blown breath will not return to its place, so will Eleazar ben Dordaya never be received in repentance.’ … Said he: The matter then depends upon me alone! He placed his head between his knees, he wept aloud until his soul departed. Then a bat-kol [a prophetic voice] was heard proclaiming: ‘Rabbi Eleazar ben Dordaya is destined for the life of the world to come!’ … Rebbe [on hearing of it] wept and said: One may acquire eternal life after many years, another in one hour! Rebbe also said: Not only are penitents accepted, they are even called ‘Rabbi’! (Talmud Avoda Zara 17a)”
Teshuvah is supposed to lead to a fresh start, to another crack at the good life. Not so for Rabbi Eleazar. And according to Rabbi Aaron Lopiansky, the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva of Greater Washington, the reason for Rabbi Eleazar’s death is as clear and obvious as it is tragic.
For Rabbi Eleazar, life was about one thing and one thing only, maximizing sensual pleasure. And, as evidenced from the story above, he chased after this objective with all of his heart, all of his soul and all of his resources.
But when Rabbi Eleazar recognized that this final sinful escapade had led him down a spiritual path of no return, that he had hit his rock bottom, he knew that he needed to make amends for the life he had lived and right away. His waterfall of prolonged tears made clear that his regret was of a sincere and authentic nature and that his teshuvah would be accepted.
Nevertheless, his teshuvah also, inevitably, put an abrupt end to his life’s great pursuit, his essential joy and his reason for getting up in the morning. His teshuvah became his dead end instead of his fresh start. And utter despair and malignant hopelessness set in and finished the job. For without hope death is as inevitable as tomorrow’s sunrise, as certain as gravity’s pull.
Had Rabbi Eleazar developed a prior sensitivity to the spiritual pleasures of this world, had he come to know that there were other things besides carnal pleasure that could touch his senses and enliven his heart, he might have filled the void left by the loss of his life’s immoral pursuit with an equally potent spiritual calling. Alas, such was not the case with Rabbi Eleazar, and in his death we are made conscious of the somber consequences of an unresolved teshuvah.
Had Rabbi Eleazar lived today he would have been called an “addict” (the Talmud calls him “avik bah tuva” — “greatly attached” to immorality) and hopefully found his way into a 12-Step program in the mold of Alcoholics Anonymous. It’s indeed encouraging that the 12-step model seems to have picked up on the fateful lesson of the Talmud’s tale, introducing the addict to the dynamic force that is spirituality and G-d consciousness (six of the 12 Steps involve a higher power), to feed the hunger pangs long quieted by vice.
A September 2005 article in Business Report (“Rabbi claims to have cracked the addiction code”) featuring Rabbi Abraham Twerski, a world-renowned addiction specialist, effectively describes the successful 12-Step phenomena and its core tenet of spirituality.
“Whether the person is a specialist or a hobo (or both), if they have an addiction problem, the underlying symptoms are the same: hungry ghosts demanding to be fed. All addicts describe the gaping, empty hole inside; they feel something is missing in their lives and they try to fill it with substances or relationships or careers, ever seeking the secret to happiness that will change their haunted lives.
“I too searched far and wide for the cure to addiction, but my medical and psychiatric background did not lead me to the cure because the source of addiction does not lie here.
“After half a century in psychiatric practice, I know without a doubt that the source of addiction is spiritual deficiency. Irrespective of whether we are religious or atheist, all human beings are spiritual by nature and spirituality is the cornerstone of our recovery.”
Spirituality, he said, is the secret substance that feeds our hungry ghosts, that fills the gaping hole. “Spirituality comes to all of us when we finally face ourselves, are honest with ourselves and learn to respect and care for ourselves and others. Without it we die.”
Such is the cycle of not only addiction, but of man’s continued reliance upon sin. When spiritually deficient, we seek to feed our disquieted inner void with counterfeit goodies, only to find that these goodies are more impediment than resolution, more disease than salve. And so, in sheer desperation, we begin the long and difficult trek up the sacred mountain, uncovering our long dormant spiritual sides and feeding our “hungry ghosts” the only genuinely nutritious food that will sustain it – soul food.
We can all learn much from Rabbi Eleazar ben Dordaya’s death as well as from the life-saving formula of the 12 Steps. For a teshuvah process to be successful in the long run, it’s just as much about stopping the bad as it is about replacing it with the good.
Rabbi Yogi Robkin is the outreach director of DATA of Plano. He can be reached at yrobkin@dataofplano.org.

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Growth-mindedness does have its risks

Posted on 07 September 2018 by admin

I’d like to share with you a response I received to my last column.
Dear Rabbi Robkin,
I read your article regarding Stanford psychologist Carol S. Dweck’s dichotomy of having a “growth mindset” versus a “fixed mindset.” Your article describes the fixed mindset in man as one who “places artificial limits and avoids failure,” whereas the growth mindset generally “thinks big, exhibits more positive effort, and experiences less helplessness.”
You then described an experiment where Apple executive Scott Forstall nurtured a group of growth-minded individuals within a company think tank. These individuals were predisposed toward risk taking in order to fulfill Forstall’s charge to “do something that we will remember for the rest of our lives.” And it was these members who ultimately created the iPhone.
You then challenged us readers to adopt a growth mindset in preparation for the High Holidays so that we might break out of our adopted molds and grow to our potential.
I have several problems with this piece, but let’s start with the “experiment.” I am skeptical of the true risk taken by the company. Apple wasn’t the trillion-dollar behemoth that it later became, but it did have capital. This think tank may have been a risk, but I imagine the true risk was not for the company. The risk was taken on by the individuals within the think tank, some of whose ideas might not have panned out. Mr. Forstall does not let us know whose proposals were rejected, who left the company and who was fired.
Growth-minded individuals, who, as you say, are less risk-averse, sometimes succeed. We see this throughout history. There’s a reason that we discovered the western hemisphere, visited the moon and, yes, invented the iPhone.
And then there are the failures that are too many to name. They jumped off the Eiffel Tower with strap-on wings, explored the Antarctic, climbed Mount Everest and died. They lost their money in risky stock purchases. They put all of their funding into developing a car and lost it all. They flew to Hollywood to start a career in acting and ended up addicted or in debt. Society as a whole is not impacted by these failures. Collectively, we may even benefit from them, learning what not to do and moving on from there. But for the majority of the growth-minded, the results of risk taking are not as rosy as we’d like to make out.
Then there are the success stories, like Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Christopher Columbus, Alexander the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, Howard Hughes, Thomas Edison, Harvey Weinstein and, well, Donald Trump. These people are successes. There is no doubt about it. They are also highly controversial figures. There is a consequence to beating the odds. You develop an ego, take more risks and build up casualties. You may be fine, but you may leave a trail of misery in your wake.
I think there is something to be said for having checks to unbridled growth. There is a difference between fear of failure and avoidance of risk. The fixed mindset as laid out in your article may not build trillion-dollar companies, but it will have a better chance at maintaining that company. The fixed mindset may make a lousy firefighter or cop, but it will make a great breadwinner and family member. Growth with balance is the key. We have a word for unchecked growth in the medical world — it’s called cancer.
As always, it was a pleasure reading your article and your insights. I look forward to your next column.
Sincerely,
Dr. Shimshon Kaplan
Cleveland, Ohio

I accept Dr. Kaplan’s assertion that unbridled and unchecked growth-mindedness has its drawbacks and risks, and I equally concur that fixed-mindedness is an underappreciated asset with considerable value to both the individual and society at large. I would only add that, even as the examples in my article are secular in nature (from both psychology and business), leaving room for Dr. Kaplan’s compelling counter-examples, the aggressive growth-mindedness I am endorsing is specifically the spiritual kind.
To this extent, consider this mishnah in Pirkei Avot (Chapter 2:7) which discusses excess and, by extension, the topic of growth-mindedness.
“One who increases flesh, increases worms; one who increases possessions, increases worry… one who increases maidservants, increases promiscuity; one who increases manservants, increases thievery; one who increases Torah, increases life; one who increases study, increases wisdom; one who increases counsel, increases understanding; one who increases charity, increases peace.”
The mishnah is juxtaposing the acquisition of physical goods and pleasures with the acquisition of their spiritual counterparts. And whereas exorbitant physical indulgences and their associated drives come with an exhaustive laundry list of detrimental personal costs, the same cannot be said of an ever-growing spiritual ambition and arsenal. Rather, “One who increases Torah, increases life.”
All that said, growth-mindedness in spirituality isn’t without its risks. To be open to growth is to be open to personal experimentation, and experimentation isn’t a one-way street. A common fear that I hear from outreach professionals like myself is that as quickly as a student can experiment themselves into Judaism and observance, they can experiment themselves out. And so we cling to the hope that our students will be growth-minded in their personal receptiveness to positive change, but fixed-minded enough to remain steadfast in their newfound commitments. A tall order indeed.
How beautiful, then, is the imagery of Torah as a tree of life. For a living tree grows and flourishes over time, while its roots, dug deep in the ground, serve as a resolute anchor, holding its fixed position in place and guarding it from the mighty winds that would uproot it. And so it is in Torah. We must always be growth-minded, adding new layers and fresh dimensions to our life’s spiritual edifice, and at the same time, we must be fixed-minded, establishing sacred anchors that keep our course straight and guard us from destroying all that we have built. Growth paired with stability. Two necessary components for the spiritual life.

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Get into a growth mindset during Elul

Posted on 23 August 2018 by admin

While you’ve certainly heard of the iPhone, few know of the revolutionary process that went into recruiting the talented team that would eventually create this incredibly popular device.
The story starts with the groundbreaking research of Carol S. Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford University. Dweck studied the science of how our self-conceptions influence our actions. Her work with children revealed two mindsets in action: a “growth” mindset that generally thinks big and seeks growth, and a “fixed” mindset that places artificial limits and avoids failure. Growth-minded students were found to employ better learning strategies, experience less helplessness, exhibit more positive effort and achieve more in the classroom than their fixed-minded peers. They are similarly less likely to place limits on their lives and more likely to reach for their potential.
Onto the scene arrives Scott Forstall, a senior vice president at Apple, who read Dweck’s book on mindsets and was so inspired by her findings that he decided to identify and recruit a team comprising solely growth-minded individuals for his brand-new, top-secret project. To separate the growth-minded employees at his company from their fixed-minded peers, Forstall delivered a curious pitch to superstars across the company and watched carefully for their responses.
Forstall warned that this top-secret project would provide ample opportunities to “make mistakes and struggle, but eventually we may do something that we will remember the rest of our lives.” Those who immediately jumped at the challenge were accepted as part of the team, while those who did not were left off. Forstall surmised that he had found his group of growth-minded individuals who, far from growing dismayed or discouraged by the tremendous challenges that lay ahead of them, would remain inspired, curious and committed through it all. And it was this team of growth-minded individuals that just so happened to go on to create the iPhone the world has grown to love. (From The One Thing — The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results by Gary Keller)
As is evident, the effects that our mindsets have on what we go on to accomplish in life is truly remarkable and, at the same time, incredibly frightening. The good news, as Dweck pointed out, is that mindsets can and do change. And like any other habit, you can set your mind to it until the right mindset becomes routine.
While a Jew should always be growth-minded, it is during the month of Elul, the Hebrew month before the High Holidays, that we are reminded to switch gears if we have reverted to a life model of fixed-mindedness. Beginning in the month of Elul, the resonating sounds of the shofar echo in synagogues throughout the world before our morning prayers, reminding us to wake up from our spiritual slumber and meet the challenges of the moment.
Elul invites us to reconsider the possibilities of our lives — how we might proceed forward toward a life of meaning, commitment and purpose, and how we might return from the wayward paths we have claimed as our own.
Yes, growth in all of its forms invites challenge and therefore the possibility of failure as well. But with a growth-mindset by our side, the high expectations that come with the new year can be met with an equal amount of excitement and determination to make this year the best ever.
Rabbi Yogi Robkin is the outreach director of DATA of Plano. He can be reached at yrobkin@dataofplano.org.

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The wealthy may not necessarily be so rich

Posted on 25 July 2018 by admin

After a record-breaking Amazon Prime Day, the newest figures came out and the net worth of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos topped a whopping $150 billion. Of course, the internet went crazy (no surprise there) estimating how much money Bezos was making per day, per hour, per minute and per second. (Money magazine did a calculation of Bezos’ staggering net growth from Jan. 1 to May 1 of this year and found that he made $275 million a day, which, when broken down, equals $11.5 million per hour, $191,000 per minute and $3,182 per second.)
News of wealth of this proportion generally leads to mass daydreaming by the public. We all wonder what we might do, where we might go and what we might purchase with so much money at our disposal. It’s a fun game to play, no doubt, but it’s important in the midst of all the hysteria and hoopla surrounding the acquisition of physical wealth that we not lose sight of the deeper, truer wealth that remains accessible to all of us and the dangers that surround the unchecked pursuit of money.
Ben Zoma famously taught that the Torah’s definition of wealth is far different from the world’s. “Who is rich?” he asked, “One who is happy with his lot” (Pirkei Avot 4:1). True wealth, Ben Zoma taught, is not measured by how much one possesses but by how little one lacks. Someone who has attained his goal and wants for nothing is the truly wealthy individual. Whereas the individual flush with cash and possessions who nevertheless craves more and more never finds that peace of mind he so desperately seeks.
Such an individual never ceases imagining that the next new and exciting acquisition will finally provide him with that much-sought-after, illusive inner serenity. And all for naught. Ironically, it is the unending pursuit of money and the feelings of dissatisfaction with one’s current standing that often accompany the pursuit of money that causes a man to be poor by Torah standards.
How do we become the types of people who become happy with our lot? The commentaries (Chasam Sofer, Chofetz Chaim and others) suggest that the answer to that question lies in the unusual wording of the mishnah itself. For instead of utilizing the common phrasing “One who is happy with what he has,” the mishnah adopts the distinct phrase “One who is happy with his lot.” And a “lot” implies that the happiness referenced herein stems specifically from the knowledge that all that one has is allotted by the Almighty for a specific function and purpose in this world: your one-of-a-kind purpose in this world.
So, whether one has vast wealth or far less than one’s neighbors, our collective happiness depends on recognizing God’s fingerprints on our wallets and trusting that we have exactly that which we need to fulfill our purpose on this Earth. Any happiness-depriving jealousy of others would be deeply inconsistent with such a spiritual vision.
On the flip side, King Solomon warns of the intoxicating nature of money and our endless and fruitless pursuit of it: “Whoever loves silver will not be sated with silver, and he who loves a multitude without increase — this too is vanity” (Kohelet 5:9). The Sages similarly recounted, “No one leaves this world with even half of his desires fulfilled. One who has one hundred wants two hundred. If he has two hundred he desires four hundred” (Kohelet Rabba 1:34).
As for an insight into the deep-seated makings of mankind’s unquenchable thirst for money, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch Zt’’l (1808-1888) offers this following profound commentary on Pirkei Avot 4:1:
“Striving after money, the means for pleasure, has no limit; for though money in itself does not give pleasure, it makes possible all future enjoyment. Therefore, the lust for money can never be satisfied.”
The physical pleasures of this world all have a satiation point. Eat enough food and drink enough drink, and your stomach is full. One’s hunger pangs subside, and there’s hardly room inside for more. So it is with other earthly pleasures. A hunger for pleasure wells within, yearning to be quenched, and once satisfied goes silent again — or at least for a short while.
Money is different. It offers no direct physical pleasure and therefore has no satiation point. Money rather represents the capital for all future pleasures to come. And just as the possibilities for man’s future are limitless, so too is his drive to acquire the medium (money) that will help finance those prospects.
As far as Judaism is concerned, wealth is not to be disparaged. On the contrary, money in the right hands can serve as a powerful force for good in this world. The world needs more individuals devoted to significant charitable giving as it does breadwinners committed to familial self-reliance. Money, however, must always remain in our eyes as a means to such larger sacred goals, never as an end in itself, a goal to achieve. After all, one can go mad laboring to score a goal on a target that never stops moving.

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Torah study: antidote for instant gratification

Posted on 12 July 2018 by admin

In our June 28 article, we noted the great difficulties human beings have with overcoming the pull of instant gratification and the psychological basis for this human paradigm, according to the study of behavioral economics.
We also introduced the advice dispensed by scholars in the social sciences to utilize our propensity for nearsightedness to our advantage in battle by implementing immediate pains or pleasures that encourage self-control and disincentivize succumbing to instant gratification (for example, I can only listen to my favorite podcast when I work out at the gym, and if I smoke a cigarette, I have to give $5 to the KKK). I was curious what traditional Torah sources had to say about the subject of overcoming the pull of instant gratification and if they were, in fact, in line with the findings mentioned above.
The Torah sources that immediately came to my mind were two mishnayot in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers). The first mishna comes at the very beginning of the second chapter.
“… weigh the loss (that may be sustained through the fulfillment) of a commandment against the reward [that may be obtained] for (fulfilling) it. And (weigh) the gain (that may be obtained through the committing) of a transgression against the loss (that may be sustained) by (committing) it. Keep your eye on three things, and you will not come to the hands of sin: Know what is above you: an Eye that sees, and an Ear that hears, and all your deeds are written in a book.”
Based on what we have learned, this mishna’s advice seems, well, futile. Yes, a proper cost-benefit analysis of any particular sin or mitzvah should surely lead to a religiously sensible reaction, but human beings, as we have demonstrated, suffer from a serious inability to properly evaluate different options in the face of temptation. After all, how accurate are your mental determinations when you’re a heaping pile of emotions and drives? (It is for this very reason, by the way, that another mishna in Pirkei Avot, 4:23, warns us: “Do not seek to appease your fellow man at the time of his anger, or to comfort him when his dead lies before him.” For, as long as someone is shaken and agitated, he isn’t amenable to rational suggestions.) And thoughts of future divine retribution from an all-knowing God? For many of us, that’s way too far off in the future to inhibit pleasure seeking in the present.
Here’s the second mishna on the topic, found at the very beginning of the third chapter:
“Akavia ben Mahalalel says: Keep your eye on three things, and you will not come to the hands of sin: Know from where you came, and to where you are going, and before Whom you are destined to give an account and a reckoning. From where did you come? From a putrid drop. And to where are you going? To a place of dust, worms and maggots. And before Whom are you destined to give an account and a reckoning? Before the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.”
The problems with the advice given in this mishna are similar to the problems introduced in the first mishna. Thoughts of one’s humble beginning and eventual end, as well as considerations of a future day of reckoning, are distant from life in the present, and therefore infinitely less persuasive. Such thoughts similarly require rational thinking processes, something humans carry in short supply during periods of enticement.
I knew there were vital points of consideration that would open up the gates of wisdom for me, but I didn’t know what they were. Luckily, I would soon find the missing link I was looking for in former Chief Rabbi of Israel Yisrael Meir Lau’s magnificent commentary on Pirkei Avot. Rabbi Lau notes most interestingly that these mishnayot do not reference methods to avoid “sin” itself. Rather they depict practices that would ward off “the hands of sin,” “li’dei aveira.”
“In Hebrew, the word for hands can also mean handles. Sin is stored so to speak, in a container whose handles are corrupt personality traits, such as ego and lust. The more pronounced these traits are in a person, the more he is prone to sin. When a person does not possess these handles, he will not come to sin” (Volume II, page 323).
According to Rabbi Lau, the advice laid out in these mishnayot was never meant to aid someone currently in the grips of sin itself. These mental considerations were rather intended for quieter, less turbulent times in one’s spiritual life. For in moments of personal calm and quiet, far away from the intoxicating snare of the lesser angels of our nature, soulful contemplation indeed finds its place. And within these calm confines, thoughts of one’s purpose and place in this life and thoughts of the consequences of one’s actions have the ability to resonate deeply within us and potentially neutralize or at the very least lessen many of our worst personality traits which serve as the “handles to sin.”
This, indeed, parallels that which we referenced earlier from the findings of behavioral economics: “When we can hold all alternatives at a distance, our evaluations of them remain true to their values in our lives.” Like a healthy diet or regular exercise that wards off obesity and the host of physical side effects that come with it, focused soulful contemplation acts as preventive medicine for the spiritual life, keeping the negative character traits that lead to sin at bay.
As far as what might stand in as curative medicine for the spiritual life, a Talmudic passage (Kiddushin 30b) seems to describe a panacea of sorts for the spiritually entrapped: “So says The Holy One to Israel: My children, I have created the evil inclination and I have created the Torah as its antidote.” And as the Talmud continues further on the page, “If this scoundrel (the evil inclination) accosts you (seeking to tempt you to sin), drag it to the study hall (and study Torah). If it is like stone it will be dissolved (by the Torah). If it is like iron it will be shattered (by the Torah).”
In this latter passage, we find that the evil inclination is close at hand. It has, in fact, accosted you and infected you. Now you need a cure, or an “antidote” as the Talmud calls it. The advice given is notably unlike the advice given in Pirkei Avot. In fact, there’s no mention at all of any sort of silent meditation or contemplation to keep sin at bay. Rather, we are instructed to “drag” our evil inclination (nobody said this would be easy) to the study hall and learn Torah.
Just as the findings of behavioral economics suggest, instant gratification must be met head-on with another immediate counterbalance that encourages self-control. In this case, that immediate counterbalance is Torah study, a spiritual shot in the arm and a bit of Godliness to dispel the powers of negativity and sin. In this emotionally charged space, we are told to meet negative emotion with positive emotion and unholy passion with holy passion. An immediate antidote indeed. A power great enough to dissolve stone and shatter iron.
On a deeper level, the Torah study functions as a positive channeling of the passionate desires once focused on sin, now refocused and directed on a passion for God and His Torah. Not only, then, do we have an immediate counterbalance to instant gratification, but even the satisfaction of fulfilling one’s fiery passions! (See Afikei Mayim Shavuot, Page 228, which explains that this is the deeper meaning behind Maimonides’ oft-quoted dictum: “A person should always turn himself and his thoughts to the words of the Torah and expand his knowledge in wisdom, for the thoughts of forbidden relations grow strong solely in a heart which is empty of wisdom.”)
As we’ve seen, there is a place for mindful meditation as spiritually preventative medicine, and a place for prompt reaction in the form of Torah study as spiritually curative medicine. Both strategies are needed for any long-term success in the spiritual life, and both beautifully parallel the modern findings of behavioral economics.

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Self-control is a difficult trait to achieve

Posted on 27 June 2018 by admin

Part 1 of a two-part series on self-control. Part 2 will run July 12.
I think we can all relate to the challenge of overcoming the lure of instant gratification. Whether it’s the magnetic pull of the glazed doughnut to the dieter, the couch to the procrastinator or the vice to the seduced, exercising self-control is one of the greatest — if not the greatest — challenges of life. And generally, we stink at it.
The findings coming out of the new and burgeoning field of behavioral economics help to explain this troublesome human paradigm. Humans, they argue, have present-biased preferences that make self-control difficult. Shahram Heshmat (Behavioral Economics of Self-Control Failure in Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, September 2015) explains the concept as follows:
“… behavioral economics shows that individuals discount (devalue) too strongly future rewards and overemphasize near-term pleasures. When we can hold all alternatives at a distance, our evaluations of them remain true to their values in our lives. But our subjective evaluation of a reward (our appetite for it) grows when we are closer to the reward than when we are far away, and unless we somehow commit ourselves to our previous preferences, we succumb.
“This inconsistency rests on an illusion that we all experience every day. For example, imagine you set your alarm clock at midnight to wake up at 6 a.m. the next morning. But when the alarm goes off, the choice that you made last night now seems absurd. The warmth and comfort of the bed makes you change your mind. What was chosen the night before is now rejected.”
In other words, when faced with the potential felicity of immediate gratification, our usually trusty decision-making skills and rational thinking go out the window. And in just a matter of seconds, we transition from rational actors to irrational actors. It’s no wonder humans struggle so mightily with the forces of procrastination, overeating and addiction.
To address this problem, researchers in the social sciences suggest meeting the allure of instant gratification with another immediate pleasure or pain that encourages self-control. My father, an avid student of behavioral economics, established a rule for himself prohibiting listening to his beloved podcasts except at the gym, while working out. Suddenly, relaxing on the couch didn’t look as appealing.
Behavioral investigator Vanessa Van Edwards detailed a pain-centric approach called Anti-Charity, in which you strengthen your resolutions and quiet the voices of mutiny in your head with a commitment to give a certain amount of money to a charity you abhor every time you break with your commitment. Will I smoke that cigarette if it costs me a $5 donation to the Ku Klux Klan? I didn’t think so. As crazy as it sounds, the immediate, painful realization that smoking one cigarette means supporting a horrible institution with a minimal donation resonates more in the mind than the long-term consideration that smoking will eventually kill you.
Speaking from personal experience, I can testify to the power of the Anti-Charity strategy. Although, it should be noted that because of the halachic issues involved in potentially donating to a damaging and sinful organization (like the KKK), my commitment involved the second-best thing – a donation to a particularly disdainful political figure (the donation itself not a sin, but it felt pretty bad nonetheless).
The religious life introduces loads of new arenas requiring self-control. what we eat, how we work, when we work, how we speak, what we look at, how we judge, how we react, what we wear and on and on and on. I was curious, in light of the findings that demonstrate humanity’s trouble with properly evaluating near-term pleasures, what the Torah’s advice for overcoming temptation might be and if it addresses the central issues described by behavioral economics.
What I found in my investigation was initially disappointing, yet ultimately spiritually edifying and everyday pragmatic. Make sure to look out for my next article, in the July 12 issue of the TJP, in which I will reveal my findings.

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Examine your assumptions so you can change

Posted on 31 May 2018 by admin

Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey know a thing or two about the nature of human change. For over two decades, this highly decorated professorial pair from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education researched the subject, and in the process uncovered an underlying rationale that helps to explain why human beings find change so difficult and what we can do to overcome those very obstacles. “Immunity to change” is the term they used to describe our species’ adversarial relationship with change, and in 2009 they cowrote a book by that very name.
Kegan and Lahey quoted a study that showed that when doctors tell heart patients that they will die if they don’t change their habits (diet, exercise, smoking, etc.) only one in seven will be able to follow through successfully. It’s hard to imagine a greater motivation than life itself, and yet that doesn’t seem to be enough — the ability to change remaining maddeningly elusive.
As Kegan joked in an online lecture, “If 14 frogs sat on a log and three of them decided to jump into the water, how many frogs would be left on the log? … I know a big part of you wants to say 11 is the answer to that question, but I wanna suggest to you that 14 might be a better answer, because there’s a big difference between deciding to (do something) and actually doing it.”
Kegan and Lahey set out to uncover what it is that stands in the way between our genuine intentions and the change we wish to see, and in the process uncovered what they term “hidden competing commitments,” which inhibit the probability of change.
Here’s an example of what this looks like: Multiple studies have found that one year after being prescribed life-saving medication (say, to prevent strokes), only 53-57 percent of patients will still be taking their medication. When asked why they stopped, the most common answers given were “I don’t know,” followed by “I get busy.” These non-answers, said Kegan and Lahey, are indicative of the immunity to change and the need to uncover the hidden competing commitments that stand in the way of these patients’ success.
Kegan and Lahey would probe a patient’s psyche. “How would it feel to do the opposite of what you’re doing now? If you did take your medication every day?” The answers given were eye-opening not only to Kegan and Lahey, but to the patients themselves, having never consciously considered the question before. “I would feel like a sick, old man,” patients would often say. “I’d be like my dad, with one foot in the grave.” Hearing these words come out of his mouth, one patient noted the glaring irony in his situation: “That’s interesting. You’re showing me that the thing I’m doing to not feel like an old man is likely to leave me a dead man.”
Analysis
• Hidden competing commitment: the commitment of the patient to not feel like a sick, over-the-hill man.
• Big assumption: If I have to take medicine every day for the rest of my life, it means that I am an old person in decline.
Kegan and Lahey would subsequently invite the patients to examine their big assumptions, asking them to observe their big assumptions in action. In the case of life-saving medication, the patient might be asked to commit to taking the medication for one or two weeks and measure whether this, in fact, made him feel like a sick old man. Human beings, as “meaning-makers” at their core, might also consider adopting a fresh perspective, turning the medicine-taking process from a dreaded burden (“Death, here I come”) into a pleasing opportunity (“Thank God I can stay young and vibrant with one little pill”). The thinking goes, remove the roadblock laid out by hidden competing commitments, and the commitment to change can take over.
In my decade plus as an outreach rabbi, I’ve heard many similar-sounding non-answers from otherwise religiously motivated individuals as to why they are not committing to particular mitzvot or observances. If Kegan and Lahey could hear my students speak, they would point to their immunity to change and some, as-yet-undiscovered, hidden competing commitments. Maybe my students are committed to living a certain kind of lifestyle, and they assume that certain mitzvot are simply incompatible. Or, perhaps they harbor negative associations with certain observances that they would otherwise be open to incorporating into their life.
Like Kegan and Lahey, I encourage my students to examine their big assumptions for what they are: assumptions. Commit to a mitzvah for a period of time and examine the reality on the ground. As King David exclaims, “Taste and see that Hashem is good” (the literal translation of Psalms 34:9). “Taste and see” — experiment and experience a life with Hashem and His commandments, and you will find that “Hashem is good.” A life lived in consonance with G-d is “good.”
It’s not unusual to hear fresh perspectives out of the mouths of mitzvah-experimenters, as well. Unrealized spiritual and earthly benefits of mitzvah observance are often discovered in the process, and even when certain mitzvot are found to be incompatible with lifestyles once held dear, it’s not unusual to hear that they are more taken with this new lifestyle than they are with their old one. “Taste and see.”

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