Archive | Rabbi Yogi

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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Our ancestors gave themselves and us to God

Posted on 16 May 2018 by admin

There is a great political cartoon I saw recently titled Genesis of the Trial Attorney. The single-frame cartoon depicts Moses coming down the mountain with the tablets of stone in his hands. The Jewish people stand below, seemingly ready to accept the law in its fullness, when one man comes forward with confidence and opines, “OK… You say ‘commandments’ but I hear ‘recommendations.’”
As Shavuot nears and we prepare ourselves to re-accept the Torah and its laws anew, the crafty assertion made by this fictional attorney bears great consideration, if not for those who stood at Sinai, but for all the future generations of Jews who would come from that notable generation. For even if those at Sinai accepted the Torah’s laws with their celebrated cry of consent — “na’aseh v’nishma” (“we will do and then we will understand”) — all future generations did not. What, then, obligates them — us — in this divine contract? After all, can a parent accept a contract that extends to their children who have no say in the matter?
Nonetheless, we know that Torah literature takes our obligation of Torah law as a given. After all, they are called the 613 mitzvot (“commandments” — not “good deeds” as the word “mitzva” is so often mistranslated). Similarly, the Talmud is replete with the statement “kvar mushva ve’omed me’har Sinai,” “(a Jew is) already sworn in at Mount Sinai.” What is, then, the halachic mechanism that binds later generations of Jews to the Sinaitic commitment of their forefathers?
None other than Nachmanides (1194-1270) tackles this thorny issue. In Nachmanides’ opinion, the oath of an entire nation is fundamentally different from the oath of an individual. Whereas an individual can obligate only himself in a contract or oath, a national oath passes on to all future members of that nation.
In my mind, I imagine it as similar to a treaty made between nations. For even if the presidents of the countries who negotiated a peace agreement were to die (or similarly, if the citizens who elected those officials were to die), the treaty’s binding nature would continue unabated. Why? Because the agreement itself ultimately lay between larger entities, in this case countries, and those entities are alive and well. So it is with the oath made at Sinai. The nation itself accepted the Torah, and all future members of the tribe would enter into the agreement of “na’aseh v’nishma” as a result.
In honor of the coming holiday and in honor of the in-depth Torah study that lies at Shavuot’s core, I’d like to offer a fresh approach to our original question based on the scholarly writings of Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (1820-1892), known throughout the Torah world as the Beis Halevi. The Beis Halevi (Drushim, 17) was bothered with a different component of the “na’aseh v’nishma” oath: namely, why the Jewish people’s oath was ever considered halachically valid in the first place. After all, Jewish law states that a commitment is not considered legally binding unless all of the details and requirements of that commitment are clearly specified and delineated at the time of the agreement (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 207:21). In the case of the Jews at Sinai, the proverbial cart most certainly came before the horse, as their national pledge proceeded the delineation of the vast majority of the commandments.
The Beis Halevi suggests an approach to this question by noting a seeming contradiction to the aforementioned law. Halacha allows a person to sell himself as a slave (the nature of the unique type of slavery that the Torah allows is beyond the scope of this article). A slave does not know exactly what kind of work he will be forced to do by his new master, nor the number of hours his work will entail. Nevertheless, such a sale is halachically valid. Why?
According to Rabbi Soloveitchik, the reason is because a slave is selling himself and his body (something quantifiable). What a slave is not doing is agreeing to a series of future unknown obligatory tasks (as that would most certainly be ruled an invalid agreement).
So too, says the Beis Halevi, the Jews at Mount Sinai were not merely agreeing to a series of yet unspoken laws (something considerably problematic in halacha). Rather, they were offering themselves, their whole selves — body and soul — to God as servants.
Based on this, perhaps we can suggest that the reason why all future generations are obligated in a Torah to which they themselves never swore allegiance is because they were born to people who had given themselves to God as servants. And a child born of a slave is a slave himself.
Ashreinu. How blessed are we to be servants of God. Servants to a loving Master who desires our best and rewards us fully for our good deeds. Ashreinu. How lucky are we to have laws that not only uplift, but sanctify us!
Such servitude is yet freedom by another name.
Rabbi Yogi Robkin is the outreach director of DATA of Plano. He can be reached at yrobkin@gmail.com.

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Sorry, PETA: Humans are different from animals

Posted on 03 May 2018 by admin

I wouldn’t call myself a great animal lover. Sure, I’ve had my fair share of childhood pets. There was MC Hamster, Flopsy the rabbit, a fish tank filled with your run-of-the-mill pet store fish and, finally, our longest living pet, Kishka, the runt of her doggy litter who outlived the rest of her brothers and sisters. That being said, and like many other children, I tended to be excited at the idea of pet ownership more than the day-to-day realities of pet rearing.
The one thing that has always stuck with me, though, is care for animals. Like abuses committed against peoples, the mistreatment of any sentient being has always struck deeply at my core and, as I would learn later on in my yeshiva years, the Torah prohibits such mistreatment (tza’ar ba’alei chayim in Talmudic terminology) amongst its Biblical commandments.
Personal confession: Even as a healthy, meat-eating American, I check the PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) website almost every week — and enjoy doing so. Much of its animal advocacy has led to positive changes in the world of animal welfare, and I am endlessly fascinated with its undercover journalism. Over time, though, I began to pick up on an unspoken, yet ever-present, wholly unkosher component of PETA’s ideology.
Biblically speaking, human beings are the caretakers of the Earth (see Beresheet 1:26) and, as such, are obliged to care and show compassion for the vulnerable creatures and the environment around them (See Ramchal’s Path of the Just, Chapter 1.) We may eat animals, as long as we slaughter them humanely, and we may utilize animals for their brute strength or soft pelts if needed. Never, though, may we needlessly abuse them.
In PETA’s world, that is not the case. It is not enough to exercise compassion when utilizing animals for the good of mankind. Even the most humane slaughter is barbaric in PETA’s eyes. This same blanket castigation goes for the usage of any and all animal-sourced products as well, no matter how humanely they may have been procured and no matter how necessary they may be for mankind. Why? Because in PETA’s eyes, human beings and animals are essentially the same. The murder of a man or a pig is murder, and no need can ever justify murder.
PETA’s ideology was on full display in its 2003 ad campaign “Holocaust on your Plate,” in which billboards compared Holocaust imagery with imagery of modern agricultural practices. In one ad, a billboard is split between a picture of Jewish children in a concentration camp, all wearing prisoner outfits and standing behind barbed wire, and another picture of young pigs peering through bars in a kennel of sorts. The title on top: “Baby Butchers.” In another, similarly designed ad, we see a picture of severely emaciated men lying down in a concentration camp barracks as well as a snapshot of chickens enclosed in coops. The title for this nauseating ad: “To Animals, All People Are Nazis.”
Yes, PETA is known for its affinity of shock-value advertising, meant to awaken sensibilities and garner publicity. But underneath all of that lies the ideological equivocation of human and animal suffering and of human and animal death.
As if to eliminate any doubt as to PETA’s ideological belief system, PETA recently released a new video featuring the voice and words of rapper RZA titled We’re Not Different in Any Important Way. Over a video of human faces slowly morphing into one another and eventually into the faces of animals, RZA speaks these words:
“We are all the same, in all the ways that matter. It doesn’t matter what we look like, how old we are, what language we speak, or who we love. It doesn’t matter if we have fur or feathers or fins, the length of our nose or the number of legs. We are not different in any important way. We all have thoughts and feelings. We all feel love and pain and loneliness and joy. We can all understand but we are not always understanding. We experience ourselves as separate from the rest, but none of us deserves to be treated with less respect. Our task must be to break free from prejudice, and to see ourselves in everyone else.”
At the end of the video these words appear on the screen: “Face it: Inside every body, there is a person.”
In PETA’s eyes, humans are truly not “different in any important way,” and inside every animal “is a person.” This is human/animal equivocation at its finest. And if randomly guided evolution is all one sees, then perhaps one has a point. For without a divine soul, “the superiority of man over beast is naught, for all is vanity” (Kohelet 3:19). And if we are all the same, as PETA suggests, what rights have we over the animals?
(Alternatively, one might argue that if we are but animals at our core, why must we behave any differently from other animals who hunt and kill animals for food? What would separate mankind apart from the rest of the food chain and obligate us in a wholly distinct code of consumption ethics?)
However, it is precisely because of man’s distinct nature that he would choose to care for the vulnerable beasts around him, rather than take advantage of them — something practically unheard of in the animal kingdom. Ironically, it is PETA’s very concern for animals that speaks to the soul of man, the very thing that indeed separates and elevates him from the likes of the cow, the pig and the fish — and the very reason that man is given responsible dominion over the earth and all of its creatures.
Rabbi Yogi Robkin is the co-director of DATA of Plano.

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Posted on 19 April 2018 by admin

Imagine if your wife had a bird’s-eye view of what you did at the office every day. Would she find herself impressed with your productivity level and work ethic? Or, would she discover a ship that needed much righting? Could she rightly point to multiple items on your business to-do list left unattended to, as well as time that could have been used more efficiently (say, for more sales calls and less YouTube dancing squirrels)?
For many men, this is more of a theoretical scenario than a real one, as offices are typically tucked away in an office park, miles away from the house, and office visits from family members are somewhat of a rarity.
How different is it for our wives? Even as many modern women work outside of the house, the primary duty of taking care of the home typically remains upon them and essentially transforms our homes into their “workplaces.” And there lies the challenge. We live in their “workplaces.” How do we remain profoundly appreciative for all that our wives do for our households, never treating their familial service as a job to be held over their head, or their performance as something subject to our critical analysis?
This challenge proved too difficult for one of my students. He is a keen observer and persistently felt an underlying feeling of annoyance walking through his house each day, his dwelling much too untidy for his liking. His wife didn’t work, and he felt that she had the time to keep the house in order if it was truly a priority in her mind. He knew full well the myriad responsibilities that she had on a daily basis. They had a large family, after all. But, he still felt that there was enough time in the day to also care for the house properly and, of course, have a freshly prepared dinner ready each night by 6.
His fraught emotions turned more and more to charged, critical statements directed to his wife. “I thought you were going to take care of that already.” “Why is dinner never ready on time?” “This house is filthy.” His venting brought him relief from emotions otherwise suppressed, while his wife had to endure the heartache that came with each and every verbal blow.
Recognizing that he had an issue that needed to be dealt with and that he was the responsible party, he came to speak with me. I shared with him the Rambam’s famous injunction that we should always seek the middle path in middos (character traits), and that this requires us to veer to the opposite extreme of wherever we happen to be. That only by moving from one extreme to the other can we free ourselves of our bad habits and ensure that we end up with a balanced approach to life.
As Rabbi Reuven Leuchter explains on Page 89 of Teshuva: Restoring Life:
“The underlying assumption behind the Rambam’s approach is that every midda (character trait) has an extreme quality. When we find ourselves under the influence of a particular midda, it alone determines our perceptions and feelings. We become oblivious to any other perspective or reality. Only by shifting to the opposite extreme can we counteract this blindness. Only by focusing on the direct opposite of what we are experiencing and by treating the initial extreme as if it does not exist can we eventually arrive at a point in the middle.”
I advised my student to apply the Rambam’s methodology to his own life and to veer to the opposite extreme. His critical perspective of his wife was blinding him from ever perceiving a different, more positive reality of his wife’s help in the upkeep of their home. He needed to not only refrain from criticism of any kind, but to desist from any discussions or requests, however innocuous they might seem, concerning the subject of housekeeping. As he was not yet able to walk the middle path, any discussion of housekeeping was likely to turn ugly. The only exception to this rule would be expressions of gratitude for anything his wife might have done in the house. I encouraged him to use his observant nature to discover positive contributions that his wife had made each and every day and to heartily express his gratitude.
“This commitment would need to be for one month,” I told him, “and only then might you attempt to form a healthy, middle-of-the-road approach.”
To my utter delight, a month passed, and with it a renewed sense of peace and tranquility in the student’s home. Both husband and wife found themselves happier. A fresh set of lenses (which only took shape after a few grueling weeks of self-restraint) enabled my student to finally see how hard his wife truly worked for the family, and his wife felt appreciated for the first time in quite a while. After experiencing newfound calm in the house, my student recognized how responsible he had been for creating a toxic environment in the house, as well as how much pressure and anxiety he had exerted on his wife.
Unable to discuss any household needs with his wife, he found himself picking up the broom and the dustpan to take care of problem areas around the house. It dawned on him how rarely he had ever offered to help with the housework that mattered so much to him.
My student could now attempt life in the middle path, but he would need to be vigilant lest he slide back to his old habits.
During this period of the counting of the Omer, we are instructed to use each day as a steppingstone toward self improvement. The Rambam’s advice can help us get there.
Rabbi Yogi Robkin is the co-director of DATA of Plano.

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Does the Torah scholar rise above personal interest?

Posted on 22 March 2018 by admin

Can you trust the rulings of the rabbis? This is a question that my brother and I have discussed and debated for quite a while now. The root of our brotherly debate is not what you might imagine. Neither my brother nor I believe that generations of great halachic authorities would knowingly corrupt the Torah’s intent.
My brother merely argues that as great as any Torah scholar may be, he is still a human being and, like other human beings, susceptible to personal leanings and interests that subtly influence his rulings and conclusions. The talmid chacham (Torah scholar) might believe that he is interpreting the Torah according to the letter of the law, his thinking goes, but in reality, it is his desire to rule a certain way that may ultimately lead the way.
I argue that through a lifetime dedicated to Torah and Torah study, the talmid chacham rises above his natural inclinations, subjugating all that he is and all that he wants to the Torah and its truth.
It was with great satisfaction, then, that I recently discovered a section of Emunah U’Bitachon (Faith and Trust, a philosophical work written by one of the greatest rabbis of the 20th century, the Chazon Ish, Rabbi Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz zt’’l, 1873-1953) that dealt with just this subject, and, of course, shared it with my brother.
In Chapter 3, Section 30, the Chazon Ish writes as follows:
“There is yet another disease of the spirit that the evil inclination uses to keep the belief in sages (emunas chachamim) from entering people’s hearts, and that is the fickle scale of personal interest (in halachic terms: negia). The disciple is obligated to believe that there is no personal interest powerful enough to incline the heart of a scholar to pervert justice, for the goal of the Torah scholar is to bring merit to his soul, and to stain his soul with sin would hurt him far more than any physical blow. So how could he — for money or from a desire to please someone — harm his soul by perverting justice? In addition to this, the quality of truth is the most basic quality of the sage, and even the slightest untruth is alien to him.”
The Chazon Ish goes on to explain the disastrous results that emerge in a society distrustful of its Torah sages:
“But the evil inclination can undermine this trust, by entrapping those who tend toward convoluted reasoning, and offering them a complete theory… that personal interest has definitive power for the petty and the great alike — even the wisest are prey to it, as are the chassidim and the righteous. According to this theory, the scholar (who gives in to personal interests) has nothing to be ashamed of, for such is human nature; but those who claim so do not know that according to this assumption, the entire generation is hereby orphaned, and there can be no judges, and no leaders (pp. 130-132).”
I asked my brother what he thought of the Chazon Ish’s statements, and he quickly texted me back with a compelling question: “How can the Torah make that assumption, that he, a sage, is above personal interest? What proof is there that they have achieved metaphysical/supernatural status, that they can transcend their humanity?”
I considered my brother’s question throughout the day. I felt euphoric when I arrived at a conclusion later that night. You see, the Chazon Ish isn’t suggesting that the talmid chacham achieves some sort of metaphysical status, and with it a relief from the pull of personal interest. Rather, he is informing us that it is in the natural state of affairs for a person who utterly dedicates themselves to Torah to develop a new set of negios (“personal interests”) — a negia toward spiritual merit and a negia toward truth. Just like any personal interest, these interests pervade his being — both his conscience and his subconscious — and direct him toward particular goals. In this case, the truth.
Consider the nature of a typical mother or father. They are probably much like everyone else, in that they desire their fair share of wealth and goods for themselves. That being said, the love that they have for their child is so great, that they will not hesitate to spend all that they have in pursuit of a life-saving procedure for their baby. The parents may have two sets of competing personal interests (accumulation of wealth versus an expensive, life-saving procedure for their child), but they do not exert their influence to anywhere near the same degree. So it is with the talmid chacham. He may share many of the same personal interests that motivate the rest of us, but his personal interest in maintaining the integrity of the Torah exists in a wholly different dimension and exerts the influence that matters the most.
(It is worthwhile to note that the Chazon Ish is not suggesting that due to the talmid chacham’s acquired set of spiritual negios he will never come to sin. The Torah itself is filled with many examples of great leaders making sinful mistakes. Rather, the Torah is informing us that there are degrees to which a talmid chacham sins, and that the grave area of corrupting the Torah is beyond the normal talmid chacham’s sin threshold.)
Now, there are examples of sages corrupting the Torah, and the Talmud has a special name for such people — megaleh panim ba’Torah she’lo ka’halacha (literally, “revealing faces of the Torah that are not in accordance with halacha”). The Talmud declares that corrupting the Torah is such a heinous crime that such people lose their share in the world to come. Yet, such sinners are the exception, not the rule. When these people are discovered, and they are always discovered due to their track record of specious halachic rulings, their rulings as disregarded and we are left once again with a pure halachic record. The Chazon Ish is teaching us that the default position of a talmid chacham is an allegiance to Torah truth, and therefore we need not concern ourselves or suspect a talmid chacham of being in the minority.
Now, I can imagine your thoughts as you read this column. “How incredibly convenient for a rabbi to preach that we should trust the rabbis.” Unfortunately, there is little that I can do for you in the way of assuaging your suspicions. If the words of the saintly Chazon Ish are not enough for you, and if you’ve never had the merit of sitting in the dust of the sages of Torah, uncovering their nature firsthand, then there is nothing that I can say that will put your mind at ease. For just as the blind man cannot see colors, so it is that many will never recognize the true nature of the talmid chacham.
Rabbi Yogi Robkin is co-director of DATA of Plano. To contact Rabbi Yogi Robkin, email him at yrobkin@dataofplano.org.

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Mordechai’s story shows trust in God can alter reality

Posted on 08 March 2018 by admin

Every year, I hear the Megillah read, and every year, I find myself perturbed by the same question: Why was Mordechai perfectly confident that the Jews in the Persian Empire would be saved from Haman’s genocidal decree?
Mordechai, after all, had lived through one of the bloodiest periods in Jewish history, the destruction of the First Temple (Esther 2:5-6), and witnessed the havoc and carnage that King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia had wrought. And yet, Mordechai informed Esther in no uncertain terms that if she remained silent and did not attempt to use her position of power as queen of the empire to save the Jewish people, “relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another place” (Esther 4:14). How does Mordechai know this? He is not a prophet. The Megillah remains silent on this point.
The Chassidic master Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchov (1740–1809) suggests something that might sound surprising to the modern ear. It was Mordechai’s complete and absolute trust in God, his bitachon, that molded reality. Mordechai trusted God to save the Jews, and therefore God had to reciprocate in kind, by fulfilling Mordechai’s desire.
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak wasn’t the first sage to suggest that bitachon could alter reality. Rabbeinu Bachya Ibn Paquda, writing in the first half of the 11th century, notes of the promises assured specifically to one who exhibits trust in God: “But one who trusts in God is safe from harm, and can rest assured that no evil will befall him” (Chovot Ha’Levavot, introduction to Section 4).
According to this line of thinking, bitachon is good for more than just setting one’s mind at ease that everything that happens in life is decreed by a loving God. Bitachon will actually shelter you from harm. (It should be noted that even according to this understanding of the nature of bitachon, everyone’s level of bitachon is unique and will therefore manifest itself in reality to different degrees.)
Many great sages followed this general line of thought, from Rav Yosef Albo (1380–1444), to the Maharal (early 1500s?–1609), to more recent scholars such as Rav Zundel of Salant (1786–1866) and the Alter of Novardok (1847–1919).
The Lubavitcher Rebbe (1902–1994) quotes the third rebbe of Lubavitch, the Tzemach Tzeddek, as replying to a petitioner, “Think positively and things will be positive. “This implies that the very act of thinking positively (having bitachon) will give rise to results that are visibly and manifestly good” (Likkutei Sichot, Parashat Shemot 1991).
Leaving aside the many theological difficulties with this position (most notably, the issue of the suffering of the righteous person of faith), this philosophical stance seems well represented in different verses in Tanach, which suggest a connection between bitachon and divine providence.
King David famously writes, “…but as for one who trusts in God, kindness surrounds him” (Tehillim 32:10), and, “… rely upon God for your enjoyments, for He will grant you the desires of your heart” (Tehillim 37:4). Isaiah similarly writes, “The being that relied (on You), protect him with peace, peace; for in you did he trust” (Isaiah 26:3).
Rabbi Avrohom Yeshaya Karelitz (1878–1953), known to the Jewish world as the Chazon Ish, rejected this understanding of the nature of bitachon. In his philosophical work Emunah U’Bitachon he writes as follows:
“There is an old misconception rooted in the hearts of many when it comes to the concept of bitachon. This term … has mistakenly become a term to describe the obligation to believe that if a person finds himself in a situation where he faces an undecided future, with two ways apparent — one good and the other not — surely the good outcome will be the one to occur; if one is doubtful and fears the opposite of good occurring, he is lacking in bitachon. This understanding of bitachon is not correct, for as long as the future has not been revealed through prophecy, the future is not decided, for who knows God’s judgments and rewards? No, bitachon is not that, but rather the belief that nothing happens by chance, and that everything that occurs under the sun is the result of a decree of God” (beginning of Chapter 2).
Scholars understood the Chazon Ish as categorically rejecting the previously mentioned understanding of bitachon, going so far as calling it “an old misconception.” In this light, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein (1933–2015) argued that the Chazon Ish promoted a bitachon that does not “scatter the clouds of misfortune” or “raise expectations” at all, but rather merely “expresses a steadfast commitment. Even if the outcome will be bad, we will remain reliant on and connected to God” (By His Light: Character and Values in the Service of God, p. 142).
According to the Chazon Ish’s interpretation of the nature of bitachon, how are we to understand Mordechai’s steadfast belief that the Jews will be saved? (Other studies of Mordechai’s belief do not rest upon his bitachon.)
I believe that the answer lies in one glaring sentence written at the very end of Emuna U’Bitachon, Chapter 2, which seems to have been glossed over by the masses.
“There is more to the trait of trust, for a holy spirit rests on the one who trusts in God, accompanied by a strength of spirit that tells him that God will indeed help him. As King David said, “if you bring a host upon me, my heart will have no fear; if a war comes upon me (in this I will trust).” This matter varies according to the level of the person’s trust and his degree of holiness.
In other words, even the Chazon Ish seems to agree that there is a level of bitachon, albeit a lofty one that holds the power to alter any reality, or in Mordechai’s case, any decree. To contact Rabbi Yogi Robkin, email him at
yrobkin@dataofplano.org.

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Go with God, and power will never corrupt

Posted on 22 February 2018 by admin

We are all well aware of the side effects of power. It can intoxicate as well as corrupt. But can it cause brain damage? This is the question asked by author Jerry Useem in a recent article in The Atlantic (Power Causes Brain Damage, July/August 2017 issue). His conclusion, as the title of his article suggests, is that power, in fact, has the ability to alter one’s brain — and not all for the good.
Much of the research on the impact of power on the brain was conducted by Dacher Keltner, a psychology teacher at the University of California-Berkeley, who discovered that subjects under the influence of power acted as if they had suffered a traumatic brain injury. They became more impulsive, less risk-aware and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view.
Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at McMaster University, described something similar. When he put the heads of the powerful and the not-so-powerful under a transcranial-magnetic-stimulation machine, he found that power, in fact, impairs a specific neural process, “mirroring,” that may be a cornerstone of empathy. This presents a neurological basis for what Keltner has termed the “power paradox”: Once we have power, we lose some of the capacities we needed to gain it in the first place.
Other experiments have uncovered that powerful people do worse at identifying what someone in a picture is feeling, or guessing how a colleague might interpret a remark. Most importantly, Keltner added, is the fact that powerful people stop mimicking others’ behaviors, tensing when others tense or laughing when others laugh. It is precisely this behavioral mirroring that helps trigger the same feelings that others are experiencing, and without it, the powerful are led down a dangerous course toward what Keltner calls an “empathy deficit.”
How very analogous is this to historian Henry Adams’ (1838-1918) description of power as “a sort of tumor that ends by killing the victim’s sympathies.”
So, what is it about power that causes such trouble? The research suggests that power primes our brain to screen out peripheral information. In most situations, this provides a helpful energy boost. In social ones, it has the unfortunate side effect of making us less sensitive to those around us.
Keltner’s advice to the powerful is to remember that power is but a mental state. Recount a time you did not feel powerful and your brain can once again commune with reality.
While Keltner’s research is indeed illuminating, his remedial suggestion appears less than promising. It would seem that a conscientiously minded person of power following Keltner’s lead would need a set time (or times) each and every day for “powerless” self-reflection in order to dispel the demons that lie in power’s wake. How likely, though, is someone to follow such an uncomfortable day-to-day formula? And even if they were to fastidiously follow that formula, would the results prove anything more than temporary reprieves from empathy deficit?
As a rabbi whose primary source material is the Torah, it’s of great interest to me that Moses, one of the most powerful men to ever walk this Earth, never suffered from any degree of empathy deficit. Quite the opposite. From the moment of Moses’ maturity when he “went out to his brethren” to defend the anonymous Israelite suffering under the blows of his Egyptian taskmaster (Exodus 2:11-12), to his defense of the entirety of the nation of Israel at the sin of the Golden Calf (“And now if You would but forgive their sin! — but if not, erase me now from Your book that You have written”) (Exodus 32:32), until his very last breaths at the end of 40 years of leading the people through the desert and shouldering countless national trials along the way, Moses never tires of service. His empathy and sensitivity toward others never wane.
It’s more than a bit instructive that the defining characteristic which the Torah uses to define this most powerful of men is humility. “Now the man Moses was exceedingly humble, more than any person on the face of this Earth” (Numbers 12:3). And it is this very humility which enables Moses to wield his power and influence for the good of the people, without succumbing to the dire consequences of the “power paradox.”
As hard as it is for us to imagine immense power and exceeding humility paired as one, Moses’ experience teaches us that when one’s identity is centrally that of a servant of God, power is acquired with a healthy dose of perspective. For with every step toward greatness and Godliness (those traits which would foretell Moses’ power as a leader), there Moses encountered his Creator, and consequently a reckoning with his own mortality, inadequacies and limitations. Moses didn’t need to reflect upon moments of powerlessness to bring himself back to Earth. Moses’ entire existence was an extended meditation on his own vulnerability and ultimate powerlessness in the face of the King of Kings.
We, too, experience powerful emotions of powerlessness when we pray each day. We are reminded that we are servants, not beings meant to be served, and we are reminded that all our gifts, our talents, and our power come from the source of all power. Who, then, are we to gloat?
Perhaps more than anything else, the powerful need a religious awakening of sorts. Some God on the brain where the power used to be.

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