The Perfect Present

Many readers are familiar with the lovely book by Dr. Spencer Johnson, The Precious Present. In it a person learns to be happy by acknowledging that the present is perfect.

There are two assumptions made by the book, and there are hundreds of other books which make the same assumptions and so they are well worth analyzing.

Premise 1: A person, every person, wishes (yearns, desires, hopes, etc.) to be happy.

Premise 2: All a person has is the present (since the past and the future are out of a person’s reach).

Therefore: Be happy with the present since happiness is what you want and the present is all you have.

Happiness/contentment, therefore, is a choice one makes based on a desire for such happiness/contentment and a recognition that the present is the only raw material which can be used to generate such happiness (it can’t be anywhere else).

Does this sound circular?

Why not conclude that life is an endless source of misery, that one’s desire/yearning for happiness is nothing but a childhood fantasy and that there is nothing to find in the present but empty suffering?

The miracle of a satisfying moment lived in alignment with one’s Eternal Calling is a miracle, indeed. It is logical only if one accepts the role that one’s Neshama plays in one’s life.

The Creator conceals all miracles in just enough camouflage to provide human beings with the merit of choosing to see the miracle and not the camouflage. Here is an illustration of yet another concealed miracle.

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The Owner

When a salesman calls to make a product recommendation, he wants to know that he is speaking with the person who can make the purchasing decision. He does not want to waste his efforts making his pitch to someone who might be interested but who cannot follow-up on that interest with writing a check. For the salesman, the only thing that matters is the person who holds the purse strings.

When Chazal make a recommendation, or clarify an aspect of our world and lives, they are assuming that they are speaking to the one who oversees implementing their recommendations or utilizing the clarification they are offering. They are only speaking with the owner; the person who can direct his mind, body, and soul in light of the new information that has been taught. Unfortunately, because we do not generally feel that we can decide and implement for ourselves, we are left wishing and hoping. We hear the message that Chazal are teaching us, but we do not feel the capacities to implement those messages. The only way to become ‘executive’ over our capacities is to learn what those capacities are and develop a sense that those capacities are ‘mine.’ Interestingly, every one of us is executive over ourselves, sometimes in surprising ways!

Imagine that a person inherited a company from his late father. On his first day at his new post, many officers of the company stepped into the office to wish him both condolences on the loss of his father and success in his new mission. After a few days, the nature of the visits changed, however. The officers were now stopping by to make suggestions and requests regarding very specific aspects of the operations of their divisions in the company. Unfortunately, his late father did not have the opportunity to train him into the job and he doesn’t know the ropes. His inclination was to say to yes to each suggestion and to each request since, after all, the officers are good people whom his father entrusted with the operation of their divisions. Sooner or later, though, he came to realize that some of the requests contradict one another. Saying yes to one officer meant saying no to another. There was no way to be the ‘nice guy’ and say yes to everyone. The problem was that he didn’t know the company well enough to know where it was important to invest and where it was best to hold off.

He thought that the solution might lie in consulting with someone who would make the decisions for him, but it became clear that the other person was running a similar, but not identical, operation, and that his advice was not always suited to the unique aspects of his company. There was no alternative but to set out to learn the details of the operation. It was a bit humbling, but he knew that it was the right move. He would learn from the officers who worked for him. He asked them each, in turn, to assign someone in the ‘trenches’ of that division whom he could shadow and observe, to learn the details of each aspect of the business. At times, when someone couldn’t come it to work that day, he would ask to be assigned to that person’s job, to fill in, and, at the same time, to learn the workings of that part of the business from the inside.

And so, slowly, he started learning the aspects of the business that he owned. His decisions were becoming more appropriate. He was still making some mistakes, but before long it became clear that he knew the business better than the officers of the divisions, and that his mistakes were because he was human and still learning, not because he didn’t know the business. Sometimes, an old loyalty to an officer who had been with the company for many years, distorted his perspective and he made decisions that he quickly realized were contrary to his better judgement; the result of a distortion that had crept in due to the old relationship. But, with time, focus, lots of consultation, and experience, he became a more reliable and appropriate decision-maker. His officers began to trust his judgement, even if they received a negative response to their requests. He was growing as an owner of the company, and he could sort through the various suggestions that were put in front of him to see which would advance the interests of the company and which would waste valuable resources of time, effort and money.

You are the owner in the story. When you came into the world, people gathered to congratulate you on your new job as owner of the company called You. Before long, however, those same people started making suggestions and recommendations as to how you should run the You company. And, since they were all good people, you would wish to say yes to all of them, but for the fact that their instructions were causing you to bump into yourself. When someone told you to concentrate on your prayers, you found that your learning suffered because you didn’t know how to strike a balance. And when you heard about character development, you were shown examples of great people who were quite different from you, their businesses were not your business and it was hard to know what aspects of their great lives you could emulate and what parts you could only admire. You were left without an option but to learn the details of the person/company called You from the inside. Only with an insider’s understanding of the company could you make delicate decisions about what is to be the focus of your efforts today and what will be placed on the back-burner. Those good ideas which are not to be the focus today are not forgotten, but they are not placed front and center. The ability to give a thought, especially a good idea, its proper place is part of the art of running the company called You.

We are often given the sense that we are not the owner of the company called You. Or, another way of saying the same thing, there are many messages which support the assumption that we are not in the driver’s seat. Some of those messages have a measure of validity, such as the power of the Yetzer Hara, the Negative Inclination within each person, and some of the messages come from sources entirely outside of the system in which Chazal operate. Those include the message that we are but the products of our upbringing and our environments and that free choice is impossible. By imbibing these messages, we are disconnecting ourselves from Chazal. We are causing ourselves to not be the audience to which Chazal are speaking!

Every insight and awareness that emerges from Chazal is intended to translate into a change in us. Getting to know and own our souls is the way to make ourselves the audience for Chazal. Knowing how and when to use the message of Chazal is a delicate interaction between the Chazal and the self. The more we learn about both the Chazal and ourselves, the better we can utilize the insights that Chazal provide for us.

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There is a popular old legend that a person only uses a fraction of his brain. There does not seem to be any science behind this myth, but the idea that we have more capacity than we are aware of is attractive to people. It stems from our being witness to tremendous feats that people can accomplish with their bodies. At first glance, their bodies look a lot like the bodies of others, and yet they can stretch, flex, train, and push their bodies to do things that surprise and amaze us. From there, it would seem like a small leap to the notion that we can flex our otherwise similar brains and accomplish amazing feats with our brain, as well.

There is not much to support the body-brain analogy, as attractive as the idea might seem. But the idea of stretching ourselves to release the potential in us remains attractive and should be pursued. People who climb want to see how high they can climb, swimmers want to see how far or fast they can swim; runners want to know just how quickly the human body can run a mile.

And if the body-brain analogy is weak, there is a great deal to learn from a body-soul analogy. Most people utilize but a fraction of their souls. And there is a very high price which we pay for neglecting our soul. In the case of the body, we suffer from atrophy and loss of tone if we do not utilize the capacities of the body, but there is not much proof that we gain longevity or the like from being a body-builder. Going beyond the basics to body-building is primarily driven by the desire to know just how far a person can stretch the capacities of the body. With regards the soul, there is a parallel atrophy which sets in if a person does not utilize all the parts of his soul. But, in contrast to the less-clear benefits of becoming a body-builder, there are profound benefits from becoming a soul-builder, and those benefits go well beyond just knowing how far one can go in utilizing his soul.

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Yom Kippur and the Spiritual Smorgasbord

Yom Kippur Smorg

I hope that you find that this short class enhances your Yom Kippur experience!

With warm wishes for a Gmar Chasima Tova,

Rabbi Ephraim Becker

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Audio classes now available

Yeshiva Ohr Avraham, under the guidance of Rav Mordechai Sher, has posted a number of talks which I delivered at the Yeshiva.  They can be downloaded at no charge at the following link:

Shiurim of Rabbi Ephraim Becker

Thank you, Ohr Avraham and Rav Sher!

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Remembrance and Asking the Right Question – the Holocaust and Purim

The Sabbath prior to Purim is designated as a Sabbath of Remembrance. The specifics of what is to be remembered is the vicious attack of the Amalekites on the nascent Jewish People as they miraculously emerged from Egypt. The attack is said to have ‘cooled the waters’ of the awe in which the Jewish People were held at that great time and is said to be the enabler and precursor to all subsequent attacks against the Jewish People.

The form that the attack took was not only physical. There was a specific philosophical attack in the battle between Amalek and the Jews. Amalek insisted that life could be lived without attributing anything to Divine cause and effect. Everything that happens in the world can and must be attributed to coincidence, nothing can be seen as Providence. The Amalekite attack was the attack of ‘happenstance.’ The ‘cooling’ effect that this attack had was not only in taking the Jewish People down from their invincible perch, but to cool the awe that had been generated by a world that stood witness to the fact that the Egyptian persecutors were punished, measure for measure, for having oppressed the Jewish People. Not only does the Almighty exist, He directs the affairs of mankind in the most precise and exacting way. This sense was dulled by the encounter with Amalek who forever stands in opposition to any inquiry into why events happen. There is nothing to ask because the world runs by happenstance, not by cause and effect. This is all packed into the few words of the text that describes the incident in Devarim 25

 זָכוֹר אֵת אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה לְךָ עֲמָלֵק בַּדֶּרֶךְ בְּצֵאתְכֶם מִמִּצְרָיִם: אֲשֶׁר קָרְךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ וַיְזַנֵּב בְּךָ כָּל הַנֶּחֱשָׁלִים אַחֲרֶיךָ וְאַתָּה עָיֵף וְיָגֵעַ וְלֹא יָרֵא אֱלֹקִים

After such a clear description of the nature of the attack, it might be surprising to find a moral analysis in the Talmud to understand how it was that the People could have been vulnerable to such an attack. The Rabbis discover a weakening in Torah study that left the People vulnerable.  In other words, the description of the Amalek attack is addressed on two levels. One level describes the evil of the perpetrator, and another analyzes the conduct that left the victim susceptible to the attack. In Jewish thought the one is unrelated to the other. Moral analysis is designed to help the victim learn the moral lesson that he is meant to learn in order to improve his future relationship with the Almighty. The moral culpability of the criminal is a result of his criminal intent. Each person is meant to learn his moral lesson. The criminal must accept his punishment in order to move forward, and the victim must address the breach that made him vulnerable in order to move forward. In this case, Amalek must undergo utter obliteration and the Jewish People must strengthen their faith with an unwavering diligence in the study and observance of the Torah. Amalek cannot make any claims to be the Divine rod to improve the Jewish People. Even, in the nearly preposterous case, had they had such intentions, they should not have volunteered themselves for the job.

This theme repeats throughout the Torah. By way of example, the Prophet Eliyahu is dispatched to the evil King Ahab with the famous rebuke ‘you have murdered and then claimed to be the heir’ after having schemed to kill Naval whose vineyard Ahab coveted. And at the same time as describing the horror of the crime, the Rabbis ask why is it that Naval fell prey to such a terrible murderer.  The Rabbis conclude that he once failed to share his gift, his beautiful voice, with the Jews of Jerusalem whose pilgrimage was traditionally highlighted by their enjoyment of his singing. The fact that Naval had a moral failing does not in any way excuse Ahab, and the analysis is not meant to mitigate the guilt of the evil king. Such moral zero-sum is the product of moral laziness. I don’t have to deal with my guilt because the victim has a moral accounting to do. This claim can never exempt a criminal. The rapist cannot claim exemption because of the immodesty of the victim.

And so it is that the Megilla starts at a point quite a bit prior to the political story of Haman’s ascendancy to power. We would have expected the story to begin when power began to shift. Haman came to power, Mordechai did not acknowledge Haman’s claims to be worthy of being worshiped, Haman became angry and swore to destroy not only Mordechai but the Jewish People and the People are saved from Haman’s evil decree through the intervention of Queen Ester. That would seem to sum up the story, from a perspective of political cause and effect.

However, the Megilla starts years earlier and opens with the festivities hosted by Achashverosh in which the Jews participated, against the ruling of Mordechai, the rabbinic leader of the time. It is there that the story really starts and it is there that the People became vulnerable to the vicious attack by the Amalekite descendant, Haman. While the People’s moral failure does not exempt Haman, it sets the stage for the more comprehensive moral discussion of what created the vulnerability in the first place.

This lengthy preface is needed in order to make the point of this piece with the hope of evincing a minimum of wincing, although I imagine that there will be some wincing nevertheless.

It seems that a new sin was born after the Holocaust. It is called the sin of introspection. Indeed it is an adoption of the Amalekite philosophy to never attribute anything to Divine cause and effect. In our horrific WWII brush with Amalek we adopted their position. Strangely, though the Allies won the battle, the Nazis won the philosophical war.

The rules of the new sin are clear. One is forbidden to ask the question regarding what moral shortcoming might have caused the Jewish People to be vulnerable to the Amalekite attack of the World Wars. Never mind that one may not actually ascribe the tragic loss of life to a specific transgression; one may not even entertain the question. To do so is sacrilegious, sanctimonious and subjects the questioner to the ultimate slur; he is to be labeled as a fundamentalist. Surely nobody would wish to be called such a lowly name. Calumny.

The prohibition reads as follows: Given that saintly people perished in the Holocaust, and given that the perpetrators are the embodiment of evil in the world, therefore be it known that nobody may entertain the thought that the Jews have anything to introspect about. We are perfect in light of the evil act of genocide.

And while we could all agree that we are perfect in comparison to the evil act of genocide, our moral compass would be off if we said that we are perfect because of the evil of genocide. The evil of the perpetrators is untouched by the moral inventory of the victims, for to say otherwise is to erase the moral message of history, something which Jews have never before allowed themselves to do.

The prohibition quickly spread to other similar enactments. One is not permitted to pause and reflect on the meaning of a financial reversal; on the moral causality of an embarrassment or a setback. Such reflections must be forbidden for if they are allowed, then it is only a small step to asking such questions about the Holocaust! Jews have always been mindful to build fences around prohibitions so as to prevent an integral breach of law. You may never think about any difficulty in your life and what moral message you are meant to draw from that difficulty, lest you come to think that the Almighty had something to say via the Holocaust, and thus you will desecrate the memories of the sacred martyrs and exempt the murderers.

I will not lay claim to having answers to the mighty moral questions that the Holocaust presents, but I similarly refuse to abide by the new prohibition against entertaining such thoughts. We must bow our heads humbly when tragedy strikes and introspect, reflect and improve until the moral failing, whatever it may be, has been thoroughly addressed. Had the Jewish People paused to introspect we might find ourselves in a very different space today; saddened by the tragedy and emboldened to raise the banner of Torah, fear of Heaven, and character improvement ever higher. The prohibition against asking the hard questions must be violated and a spirit of contrite introspection must begin. The introspection is not about finger-pointing (the other person is surely to blame for the tragedy), it is about using a tragedy as a stimulus to grow, to change, to improve and to come closer to the Almighty who guides the hand of history down to the tiniest details. We do not need to have the answers; we need to be relentless in asking the questions so that we never stop coming closer to our Divinely assigned mission.

It is told that the saintly Chofetz Chaim ordered that the Jews of Radin commit to a day of repentance and fasting when the banks of the Mississippi river overflowed in what is known as the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. He understood that nothing in the world is meaningless. If the Almighty brought a great tragedy to that part of the world, then He must expect that the rest of the world will pause and listen to the moral message. Nothing happens for nothing and the Chofetz Chaim demanded of himself, as flawless as he was, to pause and improve in light of the tragedy.

Those who are willing to introspect when the Mississippi overflows its banks spare themselves and the world even more chilling reminders to improve. Those who write off the entire notion of such introspection even when considering the most unimaginable horror are simply cruel. I’d far rather be dubbed a fundamentalist with the Chofetz Chaim on my side than be a cruel person who invites ever more harsh moral reminders. Is there not enough sickness, terror ala ISIS and war in the world for us to each consider violating the prohibition against asking moral questions?

רמב”ם הלכות תעניות פרק א:א: מצות עשה מן התורה לזעוק ולהריע בחצוצרות על כל צרה שתבא על הצבור שנאמר (במדבר י’) על הצר הצורר אתכם והרעותם בחצוצרות כלומר כל דבר שייצר לכם כגון בצורת ודבר וארבה וכיוצא בהן זעקו עליהן והריעו
הלכה ב: ודבר זה מדרכי התשובה הוא שבזמן שתבוא צרה ויזעקו עליה ויריעו ידעו הכל שבגלל מעשיהם הרעים הורע להן ככתוב (ירמיהו ה’) עונותיכם הטו וגו’ וזה הוא שיגרום להם להסיר הצרה מעליהם
הלכה ג: אבל אם לא יזעקו ולא יריעו אלא יאמרו דבר זה ממנהג העולם אירע לנו וצרה זו נקרה נקרית הרי זו דרך אכזריות וגורמת להם להדבק במעשיהם הרעים ותוסיף הצרה צרות אחרות הוא שכתוב בתורה (ויקרא כ”ו) והלכתם עמי בקרי והלכתי עמכם בחמת קרי כלומר כשאביא עליכם צרה כדי שתשובו אם תאמרו שהוא קרי אוסיף לכם חמת אותו קרי

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