The One Key to Break Free Forever

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TAKE A BREAK!!! Stop right now and picture yourself in the travel destination of your dreams.  Focus in on it and figure out why you chose it.  What would be different?  What would you experience?  Why do people love to travel?  Taking ourselves out of our environment and going somewhere totally different lets us see and experience new things, interact in new ways, and leave our current state and become someone else.

Sure our bodies, minds, and emotions go with us when we travel but what we really love is living in a world that’s not the daily grind.  Even the stuff that we love in our lives (our coffee maker, our beds, our cars, whatever) we would happily get rid of in exchange for the experience of being somewhere or something else.  But why?  Don’t we pick the lives we live carefully?  We hopefully live in a home we like, have friends we like, and a job we like.  Why are we so excited to leave it?

We’re excited because we get bored with the status quo, as it makes us think that we personally are “status quo” or unchanging.    We think that because our daily lives don’t change much, we as people also are locked into being who we are.  A dynamic life becomes much harder when we start to let habits kick in and take over.  And before long, we’re miserable.  We’re miserable not because of our lives, but because we start to think that we are who we are and can’t change.

We start to use words like “can’t.”  I “can’t” do that.  What we are really saying I “won’t” do that, but we hate making decisions that cut off options.  We claim we have a nature and a temperament.  “I’m not a morning person” or “I am a morning person.”  We say things like “I’m not good at math” or “I can’t lose weight.”  We start to think that life and business have these arbitrary societal rules.

Lack of change creates boundaries, fixed ideas, and closed-mindedness, and finally leads us to being frustrated and lazy and living lives of quiet desperation.  We naturally think that we are who we are, the rules of the world are the rules of the world, and nothing could ever change.  Traveling then gives us a short breath of fresh air that life is dynamic.  We similarly clamor to the next season of our favorite TV show or new iPhone because it reminds us someone somewhere is making new ideas.  We love the excitement of meeting someone who doesn’t feel confined by life or plays by the rules.  And on the dark side, we find drugs and other things to either “set us free” or numb the pain.

At the root of the issue is that we have to realize that we aren’t fixed.  We aren’t shy, smart, charismatic, broke, wealthy, fat, skinny, or anything else.  We are whatever we want to be.  Our habits lead us to where we are now, and they can lead us out if we choose.  The greatest travel you can do is traveling in your mind.  Find a new frontier you’ve never seen before and go there.  Talk to someone you’d never have the nerve to talk to before.  You’ll feel alive.  Learn something new you never saw before.

If you become a person of transition and travel you could lead a phenomenally dynamic life without ever leaving your city.  I’m not anti-travel; the opposite, I think travel is great BECAUSE it leads you to realize that there is more to life than your daily existence.

I spent so much of my life scared to change.  I was frustrated that I couldn’t do certain things.  I’m still so annoyed I’m not where I want to be.  But what I’ve found is that now I tell myself that I no longer work on projects or jobs.  I’m the project.  I work on me.  So if I want to know more about something, it’s pointless to be upset; just go learn about it.  If I feel stagnant in my life, I need to go change something.  See, the point is that once you see yourself as a canvas instead of a finished painting, you lose your security but you find your freedom.

Freedom and security are opposites.  The most secure place in the world is a prison.  You can’t be free while hoping to be static and comfortable.  This summer, try to travel more than just across the world; try to go somewhere with your life.  Do this by trying to really understand and believe that we are a work in progress—and that we should actually be making measurable progress daily.

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How To Go From Busy To Driven

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We have a problem.  With tech being what it is today, we think we should have a lot more free time.  Yet with tech being what it is today, we seemingly have a lot more to do.  If people are consuming between four and ten hours on hand held devices like iPads and smart phones, we don’t have as much time as we think we do (even though we never have to go to Target anymore thanks to Google Express).  So while we perceive that there is more time out there thanks to technology, in reality people are getting more and more busy.

Being busy is actually something new and something dangerous.  As a college student I recall having endless hours to sit and do nothing all day.  I’d schmooze with friends, maybe have a leisurely workout, go to Chipotle twice a day (gasp, I wasn’t always kosher or a size 32 waist) but in general, relax.  Granted I don’t think I got much done with those four years of my life (besides of course meeting my wife and my best friend) I never really felt busy.  Today, I’m a mess.  Yes I have a family and a job but that’s not what makes me busy.  It’s this incessant buzzing in my head to do more, read more, consume more of the tremendous amount of media and information that’s all around.

And its compounded because everyone else also seems busy and accomplished.  Why?  Because we are broadcasting our lives on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.  Of course we need content to upload on these fantastic sites so we make up all the cool things we do all day long.  We are busy showing everyone how busy we are!

Isn’t it good to be busy?  No! Being busy is the opposite of being focused.  Busyness implies being all over the place with a million things to do, while being focused means driving in a meaningful direction.  One who is driven isn’t busy, they are focused.  Granted both busy people and driven people don’t have time, but one is going somewhere while the other isn’t.

The more successful the person, the less busy they are.  One of the major game changing lessons in my life that I heard over and over again from successful people is that they are keenly aware of what they do well, and leave everything else to other people.  Being aware of your strengths, your goals, and your missions allows you to focus on what you want and block out all the noise.

Today, as I build my businesses, family, and myself, my greatest fear is being busy.  It’s truly amazing that as my responsibilities with my current position have dwindled as I prepared to leave, I found myself having less and less time.  I realized that as soon as I wasn’t busy with my job, there was so much I hadn’t focused on that needed time and development.

We work for meaning, but we also work for money.  While I had a great salary, I never learned about money.  What did I know about taxes?  Investments?  Real estate?  Stocks?  So while I was busy making money I was never working towards becoming wealthy.  I worked out a lot, but I never learned or focused on nutrition.  I gave speeches about family life and Judaism, but I spent less and less time focusing on those things themselves.

I read that salespeople only spend some 45 min a day in front of a prospect.  Why?  Because they’re so busy prepping their script, drinking coffee, etc.  They are busy, but they aren’t focused.  Their job is to get in front of clients.  The more client meetings, the better you get at learning to sell.  Focused is having a clear goal, getting whatever tools you need to get there, going for it, and cutting out the noise of everything else.

So often I hear people talk about all the big things they want in their life; meaning, great relationships, great health, financial success.  But they’re usually too busy to actually start building whatever they want.  Because busyness is a disease; it dulls our desire to push forward with our goals.

And on top of it, being busy makes you burned out and tired.  But if you’re a busy person, you can’t even relax! Whereas if you’re focused or driven, you recognize relaxation is a necessary step to reaching your goals.  I lost more weight when I stopped lifting weights and had a strict diet.  I got better in the gym (once I got back in it) when I took more rest days.

It’s very scary not to be busy because being busy makes us think we’re being productive.  BUT if you can stop being busy for a few minutes, you can start to be focused.  STOP DOING ANYTHING.  IMAGINE YOU’RE IN JAIL OR DEAD.  NOTHING HAS TO HAPPEN.  Now think; what do I want in my life?  What do I need to know to get there?  How can I get that information?  What steps do I do next?  What do I not have time for?  Considering these scary questions makes us confront that part of us that screams that we need to accomplish.  But the beauty of it is that if we do asks these questions, and stop being so busy, we might actually start moving in the right direction.

TWO STEPS TO MENTAL TOUGHNESS

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Everyone wants to be at the top but no one likes to climb.

What makes a person want to be successful?  Do we all have it?  Are some of us predestined and others of us not?  Or do we all want to be excellent and just some have a clearer goal than others about how to get there?

Chris Sacca, billionaire angel investor, said the thing that makes him want to invest in a fledgling company (like he did with Twitter and Uber) is that the founders were so certain of success that they “felt it in their bones.”  How many of us feel that way about anything we are doing?  And if we do feel that way, how successful are we in those endeavors?

I think deep down, we’re really afraid of failure more than we are afraid of hard work.  If we knew what path would make us successful, then we would do it.  Or I think we’d try more.  In my work as a health coach, once my clients see they can lose the weight with my system, they’re successful in doing it.  And it is hard work, but they see the game is winnable.

Judaism provides two fundamental and beautiful insights into the mindset of a champion.  The first is that a tsaddik falls seven times, and keeps getting back up.  Greatness and excellence are only built by making mistakes, suffering setbacks, and pushing forward.  That’s why people who are street smart usually succeed in business more than people who are book smart.  Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Bill Gates—all these guys were brilliant in business specifically because they kept pushing forward and innovating rather than quitting.  Our current education system in America punishes failure instead of embracing it. Judaism says not only do you have to embrace your failure, but if you don’t go through it, you’ll never get to the top.

Secondly, Judaism teaches that we need to be open and upfront with our challenges.  This is truly revolutionary.  What we in the west are trained to see and respect is the final steps of a person’s journey.  The huge weight loss, the billion dollar company, the millions of followers, the ‘perfect marriage or children.’  When we accustom ourselves to see this very erroneous perspective of success, we hide our true selves, and get discouraged.  What we should be looking at instead is how they got there.

Why do we get discouraged when we just look at the final product?  Human greatness is so diverse and impressive that when we compare ourselves to the final product of anyone, we feel bad because we’re so far away.  But what we don’t see is what they had to do to get there, or where they started from, or what they lost to get to where they are.  So we see only a part of the picture.  If we’d see the whole picture suddenly we’d be a lot more inspired.   If we understood where people started, we’d understand it doesn’t make sense to compare.  If we see how hard people had to work to get to where they are we’d see what we had to do.  Bill Gates used to work 18 hour days!  The Chazon Ish would learn Torah until he literally collapsed from exhaustion.  If we saw what people had to sacrifice for their goals, maybe we’d decide we didn’t want them anymore, or that we’d be ok working a bit harder to get them.

Secondly, by focusing on the final product as indicators of success, we hide our true selves.  That means that the things we need to do most are the things we don’t want to do.  I always had large biceps and calf muscles, my whole life I needed to lose weight and do sit ups.  Guess how often I did abs?  0.  Guess how often I did arms?  Every day!  If we aren’t honest with ourselves, or we are too embarrassed by the accomplishments of others, we only focus on what we do well and not what we need to work on because we’re embarrassed to admit our shortcomings.  If we focus on the process that others took to become great, we realize this strange phenomenon: champions focused on improving of their weak spots, not their great areas.

It made such a huge impression when I read that Robert Kiyosaki of Rich Dad, Poor Dad fame realized that if he wanted to be rich, he had to learn how to sell. He was really shy.  So he took a job as a salesman specifically because it was his weak area.  How many of us would take a major we weren’t good at, or select a subject we needed the most help as to be the focus of our lives?  Judaism teaches us that to be a growth oriented person means accepting you aren’t perfect.  Be open with your lack of perfection.  And WORK on that area that makes you not perfect.  If you do that, you can start to feel your inner champion potential in your bones.

STOP LIVING SOMEONE ELSE’S LIFE!!!

300-workout-routine-leonidas-yellEver feel stuck, unmotivated, or distracted?  Do you ever wonder if this all there is to life?  If so, consider this train of thought the greatest gift you ever received.

Now this may terrify your friends, boss, spouse, parents, or anyone else close to you.  It probably will scare you also.  Maybe your whole life is a lie and you were meant to be doing something far more productive for society?  For yourself?  Are you living your dream?  Is your dream even realistic?

A prominent head of state in North Korea was killed for falling asleep at a military parade.  By anti-aircraft guns.  Based on how afraid we are to admit something is boring or not what we want to be doing, it’s almost like we’re afraid the same thing will happen to us.  But maybe the reason we aren’t happy or aren’t paying attention is because the thing we are doing, the path we are on, ISN’T INTERESTING FOR US AND NOT SOMETHING WE SHOULD BE DOING!

50 Cent said that people are enthralled (my word, not his) by those who they expect to fail and then succeed beyond everyone’s wild imagination.  Why the cultural fascination?  Because deep down we wish it was us.

Now immediately the defense mechanisms shoot up.  I can’t have the body, the bank account, that spiritual connection that these other people do that ‘made it.’  You can’t?  Or you don’t want to?  The most painful and empowering awareness I have is that I can do anything I want.  It drives me somewhere between euphoric and depressed.  Euphoric because the idea that nothing is outside of my reach is so empowering.  Depressed because both its really hard to push yourself, and it’s really hard to build and wait.

But deep down inside us, we all want to be great.  We want to be bigger.  From a mystical side, our soul longs to expand, and to live out some enlightened life full of being able to choose who we are and what we become.  If you get a person in that rare moment of clarity, of honesty, they’ll tell you they want more.  They want to make changes in their lives.  They want to be in better shape or have better relationships.  But we might only admit it in rare moments because we are so afraid to say it aloud out of the fear of disappointing themselves if it shouldn’t happen, or that others should know we aren’t the perfect people our facebook profiles say we are.

So why listen to yourself?  Well, YOU know what you want.  You are aware when and how your life isn’t on the level you want it to be.  And a person in tune with themselves is dangerous because it’s hard to influence or control a self-actualized person because they’ve taken control over themselves.

The media, society, and our friends and parents and teachers sometimes are threatened by us being us.  That’s why many oppressive governments don’t want their population literate, or to have internet, or to be exposed to the outside world.  Because people might think for themselves.  By us being free to choose who we want to influence us, we are largely uncontrollable to outside forces.  And there is no greater advocate and no greater path to becoming who you want to become than getting to know yourself.

How do we do that?  Three simple ways to start to listen to yourself:

  1. Educate yourself about yourself. What resonates with you? What do you dream about, like to do, fantasize about?  What work would you do if you weren’t getting paid?  If you can’t figure that out, what would you do if you never had to worry about money?  If that’s still too hard, if you had one last day on Earth what would you spend it doing?  That powerful line of questioning gets you naturally in tuned with what you really care about.
  2. Whatever you find out from step one, figure out how you attract or become whatever you care about. If it’s finding a very attractive mate, figure out what that attractive mate would want and become it.  If it’s a passion for a career, figure out how to do it.  If it’s a desire for money, learn how to make it.  If its spiritual clarity, ask people who are convinced of their beliefs why they feel so strongly. Tony Robbins says, “success leaves clues.”  Meaning, once you know what you want, take responsibility to get the training, coaching, and mentoring to become what you want.  EVERYONE CAN IMPROVE IN ONE OR TWO AREAS OF THEIR LIVES, even if they don’t need a complete life make over.  Become a student of someone who does something you care about better than you.
  3. Be unapologetic of who you are. WE ARE DYING INSIDE when we try to conform to external systems that don’t resonate with us.  Social systems will say you should behave a certain way or believe a certain thing.  It’s possible some systems might be too small to incorporate who you are.  Find new systems.    As a Jew, it took me a very long time to appreciate Judaism being broad enough to speak to who I was, and not who I thought I was supposed to be.  But that’s not every system.  Part of my social system growing up didn’t believe I should be an observant Jew.  Who I wanted to be was beyond that system.  No problem, I found a new system.  Friends don’t want you to change.  You don’t need new friends UNLESS you aren’t strong enough to change despite the critics (which few of us are).  See, you pick everything in your life.  If you want comfort, a lack of judgement, a lack of people not understanding you, you also pick not being who you are, and living a lie that you picked for yourself.  Be ok with who you are, grow to be who you want to be, and chances are the same people that once thought you were nuts will ask you for advice.  And if they don’t, that’s cool too.

Brainwashing Your Problems Away

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How many companies would be destroyed if only people realized they had the ability to cure themselves?  As technology simplifies our lives, our problems, fears, health, anxiety, and existential crises actually grow at almost the same speed.  The explosion of information has lead us to an explosion of images, products, and worldviews to compare ourselves against, to be influenced by, and to be sold to.   I’m not anti-technology by any stretch, but anyone can admit that many of our problems have  transferred from ‘reality’ to a ‘virtual reality.’

This is expected as this is how everything in the world is going.  Forget about the gold standard, cash, checks… even credit cards are being phased out.  Apple pay and Bitcoins are the future.  No more tapes and CDs, now all music is digital.  Books and movies are digital.  So our problems also become digital as well.

As illustration: It used to be that we’d date and marry the people in our immediate or near immediate circles. The funny guy in our group of friends.  The cute girl who works at Starbucks.  The hot dude in the office.  But now long gone are the days when you dated the people you know, because there are an almost infinite number of dating possibilities offered by apps.  And what’s more, you only see them superficially, which makes all the stats easily interchangeable.  Why settle for a 5’5 guy when a 5’11 guy is only two swipes away?  Why put up with someone attractive with limited intelligence when you are sure there’s a comparatively attractive person with more intelligence somewhere out there?  And once we get married, do our spouses stay as skinny, or make as much money, or keep their youthful hairline as our friends’ spouses?  Little do we realize that every study on the matter shows the more options people have to compare with, the harder it is for them to make decisions and be happy with the decisions that are made.

Take the Facebook/LinkedIn Syndrome as example 2.  Whereas we used to have only a few people to compare our grades, success, money, and lifestyle with, suddenly we’re seeing the vacations, new cars, Harvard diplomas, and washboard abs of everyone we’ve ever spoken to longer than two minutes.  And what’s worse is we only see what they want us to see (and project and equally flat and superficial view of ourselves) without considering the hard work, or extenuating circumstances, or sacrifices they had to make to get them there.  So conscience or not, our minds are being warped by living in the ocean of the surreal.  Just imagine how boring our lives can seem once you spend any serious time involved in some of the entertainment of today; from the EDM festivals to the zombie movies, from Sons of Anarchy to the Bachelor?

So suffice to say that while the world is easier per say thanks to Google Express, Wikipedia, and Netflix, it’s also a lot more difficult because our minds are focused on so many more things that aren’t real/relevant, and our ability to think is compromised because we are consistently being bombarded with an endless flow of new information.  Whereas scholars of old would contemplate one idea deeply in order to arrive at a profound understanding, now at best we try to memorize the top 20 articles on BuzzFeed or Yahoo Finance.

The good news is that since the solution is in the mind, because all of the problems start in the mind.  As Napoleon Hill, Tony Robbins, the Rabbis of the Talmud, Jack Canfield, Viktor Frankl and just about any other expert on the mind not in the back pocket of the drug companies (shudder, that was harsh) say, it’s not what happens to you that counts, it’s how you respond.  Excluded of course are people with actual chemical imbalances.  You decide what you’re going to make an issue about and what you’re going to not let bother you.  You figure out what you’re going to appreciate and be happy about and what’s going to hurt you.

I always tell my clients that the battle against being fat is waged in your head.  Are you eating because you’re unhappy or because you’re hungry?  Are you really hungry or are you bored?  Do you need the food or just want the momentary taste?  And if you do just want the taste is it worth not fitting into your pants?  Same with money.  Do you really need that job or internship or would you be far smarter learning about investments, money, and building a business?  Do you invest in the run of the mill college education, or figure out what you think you want to do before you start?  Is fear the driving factor behind your decisions or are your really living the life you want?

I’ve lived this concept this year more than I ever have had to before in my life.  I’ve had to change my internal monologue.  I’ve had to change what I spoke about, because what you articulate is what you think, and consequently what happens.  I have worked tirelessly to tell myself I’m a winner, I’m talented, I can be physically fit, and I can offer encouragement to people.  I’ve told myself I can support my family, and become wealthy.  And finally, while some of my affirmations are in the process of happening and others have happened, it all follows as a result of me convincing myself its possible.  That’s a very empowering idea—you can create whatever you want, as long as you realize it starts in your head and your speech, and doesn’t just happen to you.   And the flipside is also true; the more time you spend complaining, and articulating your problems, you’re actually concretizing the problems and making them REAL!  There are always two ways to deal with life; from weakness or from power.  Do you say “we can’t afford that” or “how can we afford that?”  Do you say “Why am I fat” or do you say “How can I lead a healthy lifestyle?”  Same question, usually radically different outcome.  And it’s all in your head.

The Ironic Tragedy of Modern Anti-Semitism

masada_sunriseAs a writer, I find it is hard not to sound like a college professor.  I can write like an academic, but I’ve always preached not to follow them.  So I’ll write like me.  Jewish kids these days have to deal with the fact that the “world at large” doesn’t support Israel.  As Jews, they are seen as the ambassadors of Israel, and oftentimes feel that they need to be drawn in to the fray to defend the Jewish homeland.  Many of them, close friends and students of mine, write pieces on social media about how they never questioned their identity or felt threatened until they came to college and experienced anti-Semitism but they are proud to be Jewish.

As a rabbi, a father, and a Jew, it makes me sad.  Pride shouldn’t come just because people don’t like us.  Pride and dedication to a cause that is hated or misunderstood is hardly pride.  If I am something, shouldn’t I be it, embody it, love it, and learn about it before I’m hated for it?  The problem is, as Ethics of the Fathers tells us, love that is dependent on something falls apart when the “something” is gone.  So if a student is proud to be Jewish once they see the campus environment hates Israel, will they still be passionate once the world has quieted down?  Or more realistically, once they’ve left college and no longer hear about the critiques? Where will the pride be then when they run from grad school to the office to the yoga studio?

Or even worse, let’s say the hatred never goes away.  On one hand, they stay active, identifying, and “proud.”  On the other hand, they have no choice because they are labeled as the ambassadors of this “immoral” country the Jews call home.

Does the average Jewish college student really consider Israel home?  As I related before, I am often told by students “I’m culturally Jewish.”  The implication is that the person saying that is not religious.  But then, with further inspection, we find he isn’t really culturally Jewish either.  Does he dress Jewish?  Date Jewish?  Act, eat, drink, or sleep Jewish?  Does he even know that Jews have a specific way to do all of the above that we’ve been doing for thousands of years?

Hence why I’ve been hurt to the point that its almost too hard to deal with, so I write it off with my hard earned “emotional scar tissue.”  Judaism has, for over 3,000 years, been a family.  We’re connected by the bonds of family, to G-d and to each other.  Jewish is our last name, if you will.  Family isn’t a religion, a people, a culture, or a philosophy.  Sure that’s part of it, but it doesn’t define it.  As the great R’ Klatzko told me back when I was a college student myself, “Judaism is a relationship.”  It just is.

And so unfortunately, at these late hours in human civilization, Jews are being brought back to  a recognition of Judaism because the world says “you aren’t like us.”  The unsuspecting Jewish college student says “I’m proud to support what you think is immoral.”  But the biggest tragedy isn’t that people don’t like us, it’s that we never ask why people like us?  And what are the implications of ‘coming on board’ when all I am doing is defending?
As mentioned before, the Jewish people could never leave alone, or be left alone.  In the cosmic scene of humanity, the Jews have, like it or not, stood for the infinite morality that time, history, and culture can’t change.  Stealing is stealing, murder is murder, kindness is kindness.  We have unshakable definitions of all of the above.  What’s so sad is that this last Divine attempt, if you were, to bring us back as a people to a recognition of our essential relationship with our people, is diverted into social media sound bites.  What does it mean to call Israel home?  Why is Israel our home?  What are we doing to make it our home?  Do we really  want it to be our home?  Or do we just want to the noise to stop, the hatred to end, the lime light to turn off so that we can go back to our lives, our degrees, our yoga, and not live with the moral weight of being an immortal people?  That we have to stand up and make the world better with the actions that our Creator said would make the world better?  What do we want?

Are we really proud of who we are?  And if we are, shouldn’t we learn who we are so we can be more proud?   Can we channel our pride not to defending who we are, because we won’t ever convince the world otherwise, but rather BE WHO WE ARE.  Let’s care for the stranger, visit the sick, rejoice with the bride and groom.  Maybe if we lived it more, people would look at us, and instead of accusing us of genocide and land theft, they’d say what an amazing G-d these Jews have that commands them to do such holy acts.

Make Time to Pay Yourself Forward: How to get done what you need to do so you can do what you want

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It’s been a while since I’ve let my mind slow down enough to allow me to write.  My video blog (watch me daily on Facebook) has been a lot of fun, and is my medium of choice because my (self-diagnosed) ADD mind wanders too quickly to be put down on paper or the technological equivalent.  But having a moment to stop and think makes me recognize the crucial importance of time, and how necessary it is to master it in order to get what we need done.

The famous financial book The Richest Man In Babylon first recorded the fundamental principle of accumulating wealth: pay yourself first.  Before you pay the bills, figure out how much you’re going to put aside, and put it aside before anything else.  Inevitably, money not specifically earmarked for something will go down the booze, coffee, or unnecessary expenses drain before it finds its way into your savings or hopefully investment account.

The same must be true for time.  You need to pay yourself first with your time.  What that means is that you have to write out the necessary tasks you’d like to accomplish that day and how much time they will take, and WHEN YOU WANT TO DO THEM.  If you master that skill, you will be amazed with how much you can do.

As the world becomes more complicated, and more things vie for your time through the endless sea of information presented via social media, time not allocated to do what you want to do simply won’t happen.  Everything else in the world will take your time leaving you with the gnawing sense of feeling busy but getting nothing valuable accomplished.

What is valuable to be accomplished?  Could be your school work, homework, or anything else.  But what is EXTREMELY valuable but oftentimes left off the “to do” list are the things that will make you better long terms.  The investment in self.  These things include going to the gym, spending quality time with the people you love, and investing in your education.

Everyone goes to school, but few people get an education.  Read books.  Lots of books.  Listen to podcasts or watch informational videos on YouTube.  THERE IS SO MUCH OUT  THERE.  Invest some time in yourself, in making you better and more marketable.  Guaranteed if you don’t put that time in your calendar as if it were an unbreakable appointment, it won’t happen.  And if it doesn’t happen, you walk the road of mediocrity, working for the people that made time to grow themselves.

CULTURAL JUDAISM and THE PAIN OF MISSED OPPORTUNITIES: A YOM KIPPUR STORY

baseball-fiedl-under-lightsNo joke; there was an article from the Washington Post that this year, on Yom Kippur, Jews might have to make some serious sacrifices. Baseball playoffs could potentially coincide with the “Day of Atonement,” and Jews from the respective cities might have to decide between baseball and Yom Kippur. For college football fans, abstaining from attending or watching the game would be another great sacrifice. The article (http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/whats-a-faithful-jew-to-do-the-yom-kippur-baseball-dilemma/2014/09/18/c3319b7a-3f5c-11e4-b03f-de718edeb92f_story.html) was well written and honestly I didn’t know if I should laugh or cry.
There were a few troubling lines in the piece. The author relates, “Even nonobservant Jews try to keep what is known as “the Day of Atonement” somewhat holy, going to synagogue, fasting, and minimizing earthly activities like television or work.”
First of all, who is the author calling “nonobservant?” It sounds pretty observant to me attempt to keep the “Day of Atonement” somewhat holy. In 2014, perhaps we should say it’s a beautiful thing that we suffer the agony of trying to choose a clear and present love (like sports) over a distant love, like Judaism.
At least in California, no one calls themselves “nonobservant.” Here, we call it “cultural.” No one likes to be “non” anything besides non-smoking (tobacco only of course). In fact, “cultural” is the single greatest category with which Jewish people I meet identify themselves. Now here’s a question. What’s cultural about what we do? In modern America, it’s hard to say anything we do is ‘culturally’ Jewish. After all, what makes up a culture. Food? Language? Clothes? We don’t speak Yiddish, we don’t really dress anymore “Jewish” than our non-Jewish neighbors (I see my neighbors also wear Lacoste), most of us don’t eat lox and bagels now because of the carbs, and I haven’t heard Chassidic music being blasted at the local parties…so what makes us even culturally Jewish?
When asked what it means to be a cultural Jew, people tell me, “well, I go to services on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.” Or “I support Israel.” I hear things like “I try to be honest,” “I try be a good person,” and “I take responsibility for my community (tikkun olam).” Some people define their cultural Judaism as going to Shabbat dinner (especially if they’ve eaten the food my wife makes). My dear friends, since when is this Jewish culture? I’ll let you in on a little secret. THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A JEWISH CULTURE!!! Our culture changes depending on where in the exile we go. Go ask a traditional Sephardic family to have gefilte fish. Try putting on Sephardic music for a group of Ashkenazi grandmothers. We’re talking about different “cultures” entirely!
However, if you’d sit down a group of Jews from across the world, from different social classes and age groups, and you tell them that the Torah teaches us to try to be better people, admit when we’re wrong, say we’re sorry, respect other people, and take responsibility for our world, no matter who they are or where they come from, they’ll relate. There’s nothing cultural about it because they aren’t from the same culture. It’s something deeper. It’s us, it’s who we are UNDERNEITH THE CULTURE that identifies us as Jews. Yes, once you get rid of the Drake, the bright colored fratty shorts, and boat shoes, the kindness you practice, the greatness to which you aspire is the same kindness and greatness that Abraham and Isaac and Jacob did. They’re recognize YOU!
Today, religion is a dirty word, for backwards people, who never studied science. Thank you, I’ve been there before too. Atheism and agnosticism is as cool now as it was 5,000 years ago. It’s freedom. So let’s not use the word “religious” because it makes you uncomfortable. But don’t fool yourself to think that you’re culturally Jewish, or even nonobservant Jewish, if there’s even a TINGE of guilt when you consider if you should be spending Yom Kippur in synagogue or at the ballpark. You’re Jewish! And you feel guilty. Take a number.
As my rabbi told me, “Call a spade a spade.” Yom Kippur isn’t a day that most of us look forward to with a tremendous amount of joy. There are no 40 course meals like there are on Shabbat, no crunchy matzah, no bar mitzvah presents. As one of my students said, “You go to synagogue for SIX HOURS AND YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND ANYTHING.” Maybe the rabbi will get up and makes a few jokes and some ‘words of inspiration.’ You’re so hungry. When can we eat? My feet hurt. What page are we on? If you sang less, the service would go faster. Wait, what? There’s more praying? I can’t read Hebrew! The English makes no sense—who will live and who will die???
Most of the so called “nonobservant Jews” that the author of the Washington Post article writes about see themselves as Isiah’s “suffering servant” on Yom Kippur (yes, it’s a Jewish concept). They might have to sacrifice baseball or football to attend services. Or go to the game with a heavy conscience. WHY ARE THEY CALLED NONOBSERVANT? An OBSERVANT Jew is one that deals with guilt, or sacrifice, when it comes to being who they are. That’s what makes us GREAT. Is it a SACRIFICE when we pass over making money if we’d have to be dishonest? Yes. Is it a sacrifice when we put the needs of our parents, and our friends, and our spouses over our own? Yes! Our collective family inheritance is the ability to sacrifice comfort to embrace our ideals.
I told my rabbi I was unhappy because I wasn’t as good as I could be. He said if I didn’t feel that way, I wouldn’t be Jewish. Being bothered. Feeling guilty. Wanting to be better. Knowing we can be better. Willing to sacrifice to be better. These are concepts that are universal Jewish yearnings long before our current culture, and they will go on long after our modern chapter closes. These are eternal concepts. They’ll be here when the skinny jeans are gone. And the bent iPhone6 pluses.
See, we’re just all Jews. And we have to deal with the fact that there will be things we want that we shouldn’t have. Or actions we do that we shouldn’t have done. And the really crazy thing is that deep down inside, we know when we’re wrong. We make a lot of noise though, and act very deliberately, so that the rest of the world doesn’t see us second guessing ourselves.
If we didn’t have to sacrifice, or worry about missing out, we’d never become excellent. See, FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) is the key to living an amazing life. You REALLY can’t do everything. Believe it or not, if you spend your life on your phone, you’ll miss the sunset. If you watch the sunset, you’ll miss your favorite show. If you eat the donut, you’ll miss seeing your toes. You can’t do it all. No one can. But learning to love making choices, and learning to love the FOMO, which FORCES you to choose, is the secret to becoming great.
When you know you can’t do everything, you pick doing what’s important. What you love, or what you need to do. And if you don’t make the right choices or have the right priorities, you get that gnawing feeling that you’re not becoming who you’re meant to become. You’ve gone off course. So you have to redirect. Or keep on your wrong course because it’s too scary to change (don’t do that please).
The most scary FOMO in the world is not being the best person you can be. Not becoming a champion. Its recognizing you did miss your “moment.” You made the wrong choice. But guess what? Judaism says a righteous person falls SEVEN times. That means if you don’t make mistakes, and get up and keep going, you’ll never be great. The secret is that failure is part of the process. Learn to love that you can mess up. If you can mess up, you can fix it. That’s Yom Kippur. It’s a chance to refocus on our goal to be great.
Deep down, cultural or not cultural Jews that we are, we all want to be great. That’s why we love sports. It’s like a religion to some. And for those that don’t worship sports, they worship something else that gives them a sense of greatness. We love winners, however we quantify them. We love idolizing those that made it in whatever way we define success.
There’s a pleasure out there even greater than your team winning the World Series or the Super Bowl. It’s YOU winning the Super Bowl or World Series. Problem is most of us don’t play professional ball. Your team winning is someone else doing the work, and you taking the win. Making a billion dollars yourself is better than working for the guy who made a billion dollars. Sure, proximity to success is fun, but it’s not AS fun as having it yourself.
But you have to believe you can do it. And you have to cut out things that hold you back from doing it. And it’s not easy to close doors. It’s not easy to not go do everything you want. The highway to greatness is strewn with the unfocused people looking to invest little of themselves, make it big quickly, and get out. Focus, and drive, and commitment, and believing in yourself gets you the greatness.
And at the finish line, when you played your heart out, you’ll be surprised to find the “Higher Power” saying “I knew you could make it all along.” The biggest favor the “Higher Power” gave us was Yom Kippur, where we could admit we’d messed up, get a little FOMO, and get back on the right path. That’s pretty important, and it might be hard to reflect on that when you’re watching a ball cross the plate or someone ELSE running into the end zone. Just a thought.
May we be sealed for a year of life, happiness, peace, and success.

Five Things I Would Tell My Kids Before They Went to College

freshman

Disclaimer:  I’m the father of two gorgeous daughters and one awesome son.  They’re all younger than six.  That being said, I’m an ardent feminist, grandson, and son of feminists, proud husband and father.  So I beg your patience with me when my thoughts might not parallel the current fads.

  1. Before you reinvent yourself, imagine how you want to be perceived when you graduate. 

Steven Covey calls it “Begin with the end in mind.”  As it says in the Jewish poem L’cha Dodi, Shabbat was the last action but the first thought.  In essence, everything in the beginning was created to facilitate the end.  Before you do something, figure out where you want to go.  As logical as this is, it is highly unpopular today for one reason: it requires you to be responsible and disciplined in achieving your long term goals at the expense of your short term ones and/or your immediate desires.

A personal antidote:  I spent my first year in college trying to be everything I wasn’t in high school.  In a word, “cool.”  Then, after some “soul searching,” I spent my senior year convincing my contemporaries that the wild frat man (or as close as one could get to that at UCSD) wasn’t really me at all.  So who was I?  Truth is, I’m still figuring it out.  But I wasted a lot of time trying to develop a persona that I knew I didn’t want to be.  What’s the proof that I knew I didn’t want to be the person I tried to be?  I remember one day in high school going with a friend of mine to deliver something now legal in Seattle to his older brother, a thirty year old entrepreneur.  All I could think to myself was, “Wow, I don’t want to be doing this stuff for fun when I’m older.”  I knew that the party man wasn’t where I wanted to be long-term.  I’d venture to say most of you know it’s not where you want to be as well.

So why do we do it?  Mostly to reject or reframe or fit in.  The problem is that when you live as someone you aren’t, it’s harder to shake people’s initial perception of you than you might think.  “Who cares what people think of you?” you might ask.  YOU do.  We’re very social animals, and how people perceive us matters to all but the most socially unconscious.  So imagine how you want to be when you graduate.  Do you want to be a leader?  Confident?  Set in a path towards greatness?  Above the “freshman nonsense” that so many upper classmen talk to me about?  So act like that now, and you’ll find yourself becoming what you want, instead of becoming what works just for now.

  1. You don’t need a boyfriend/girlfriend.

Well, this is uncomfortable.  Of course you think you don’t NEED one.  Do you really feel like you don’t need one?  Ok, so then how about getting into a relationship if one so-to-speak comes along?  Now imagine a relationship doesn’t come along, but everyone else seems to pair up.  Maybe you’re in the friend zone and want out.  Do you really not need a relationship?

The world tells us that college is the time for young men and women to meet.  Not to date per say, like we did in my day, because the youth are too cultured for that.  But maybe to “hang out.”  And be friends.  And beneficial friends.  And then have the talk.  Then have more benefits.    Soon the Facebook status changes from single to “discussing an exclusive contract.”  It could even go to full on “exclusive.”  And once the relationship is exclusive, then comes the drama.  Quickly it becomes too much for one, and not enough for the other.  She’s all over the place with her friends, and he’s too clingy.  Or vice versa.  And what about grad school?  Or a job in Texas?  What about that?  What’s more important, my girlfriend or my future trajectory?

This of course brings up another fundamental issue.  Who do you chose to date?  Does it matter where they are going long term?  Or who they are, what their background is, or their religious affiliations?  Since you don’t know where you’re going, can you date anyone as long as they are cute, funny, or will give you attention?  Do you settle or lower your expectations to what is available around you?

A few pointers here.  Relationships require a crucial ingredient called commitment.  If you aren’t ready to commit, you aren’t ready to date.  Not because you can’t, but because you can’t be in a successful relationship (for both people…that’s implied by ‘relationship’) until you’re all in.  The other person’s needs are more important than your own.  What he or she wants is your OBLIGATION to oblige.  It’s not about being happy or being comfortable in the short term.  Go ask any old (or not even old) happy couple how much of their lives they spent pursuing their own happiness or their own needs.  Most likely, if they’re happily dating/married, it won’t be too long.  Once you find that person that you want to commit to, you MUST make their needs more important than yours.  And yes, they have to do the same for you.  “BUT WHAT IF THEY DON’T???” people ask me.  Not your problem.

See, Judaism is based on obligations, America is based on rights.  Americans say “what is my right?”  In other words, “what is owed to me?”  Judaism is based on obligations, or “what is owed to the other.”  As much as I love this country, rights lead to wars.  And if my history serves me correctly, Judaism as a world view hasn’t facilitated any wars in the last two thousand or more years.  Sure we’ve had to fight, but we didn’t start it.  To avoid wars, or even drama, do what the other person wants happily.  You’ll be shocked how fast they will want to take care of you.

Once you find yourself obligated to another, you’ll love them more.  You’ll be happier.  Heartache and upset will be all but squashed.  BUT, it requires you to commit.  Which means you have to know what you want and be ok with what you have.  And also not settle.  For freshman that is SERIOUS business because everyone claims they aren’t ready for it.  Ok! So see rule number 2.  Boyfriend and girlfriend imply exclusivity and commitment.  Hooking up means offering what people used to pay for in commitment and nice dinners, for free.  It devalues you and what you’re offering.  EVEN if it’s fun for you for the moment.  Being in a relationship means locking yourself into putting their needs first.  For most people, that’s too much this early in life.

  1. There are no substitutes, even though it looks like there are. 

A body next to you doesn’t mean you’ll feel connected.  A room full of people doesn’t mean you’re having fun.  So-called “benefits” doesn’t mean you aren’t being used, and definitely doesn’t mean that you’re being respected.  A degree in your hand doesn’t mean you’ll be proud of it if you didn’t do the work.  An internship doesn’t mean you’ll have someone ready to hand you a job.  And a job doesn’t mean you’ll find meaning in life.  And even if you think you’ve found meaning in life, it might not be what life is all about.

Everyone knows these ideas are true.  But deep down inside, everyone hopes they are lies.  The brilliance of marketing and advertising is in creating and framing the reality in which the potential customer lives.  For all of his genius, Steve Jobs was a master marketer—that was how he changed the world.  The reason why Apple is what it is, or Coke, or Porsche, or Tory Burch, is because the company CREATED the image we have of it.  As Macklemore said (with our without the long nose and beard), “Fifty dollars for a t-shirt…I call that getting tricked by a business.”  Yes, I own more shirts with Alligators on them than I’d like to mention, and I convince myself they’re better than the ones Costco sells for $14.99.  But are they really?  Well, only because I delude myself to thinking an alligator on my shirt means I’m a trendy, successful gentleman.

College, and the lifestyle attached to it, is all about marketing.  Just try to keep it in mind.  I sat with someone who explained to me how cocaine makes you have a great time.  I was like, “what’s wrong with just having a great time without the cocaine?”  He told me you couldn’t party as hard.  I replied “who says a person is supposed to party that hard?”  He didn’t have a great response.  In one of my many walks late at night on Landfair Avenue trying to find someone to turn down the EDM or Drake or whatever the flavor of the month is so my children could sleep, I overheard a girl say to her friend-zoned male escort, “Ew, I always get groped when I go to parties at such-and-such a place!”  I think to myself, “if I would go somewhere and get groped, I’d never go back!”  I was sober though, so that made sense.  Why would people repeatedly do things that aren’t fun with the hope that one day they will have fun?

I’ll come out and say it.  Drinking gives the impression you’re having more fun than you are.  Hooking up makes you think you’re more valuable in someone’s eyes than you might be.  You feel like you have more worth than if you were to go home alone.  Understand that marketing frames reality for the buyer.  It doesn’t make it true.  Value, meaning, and happiness all has to come from inside.

  1. Invest in yourself now, not in your future.

If you’re always looking ahead, you’ll never take the steps you need for now.  As John Lennon said 800 years ago, “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.”  As Al Pacino said, “football and life is a game of inches.”  In college we train ourselves to throw for the end zone.  We think and focus on what CAREER we want, and which INTERNSHIP we need to get.  A dear student of mine laments, “everyone’s got it figured out but me.”  What does she mean?  She means everyone else seems to have their long term plans intact.

Looking too far ahead is dumb.  The Talmud says, “Don’t plan for tomorrow, because maybe you’re planning for someone else’s tomorrow.”  Certainly I’m not advocating we should all be James Dean and “Live like you’ll get rich and die trying” (I’m kidding-just seeing if you’re still reading).  James Dean said “Dream as if you’ll live forever, live as if you’ll die today.”

We need to live like we’ll live forever.  Living forever means there are consequences to what we do.  We need to live a life we’ll one day be proud to share with our kids.  There’s a secret to life.  You never reach an age where it is easy to do the right thing.  If you don’t make a habit of doing the right thing now, you won’t do it when you’re older.  Maturity is a decision, not an age.

Dreaming like you’ll die today means to dream big.  Too often, we dream wayyyyy too shallow.  We don’t have dreams.  And if we do, how big do we dream?  The greatest potential we have is right now.  Our future isn’t here yet, and our past is over.  We can do anything now—today.  We can make good choices or bad choices.  Dreaming like we’ll die today means that we should dream about being great now, making the right choices now, and not thinking that somewhere down the road we’ll become great.

Donald Trump is famous for saying if you’re going to dream, dream big.  Do we do that?  Do we tell ourselves that today is my big day?  I only have today, so I’m going to be happy and go for it?  That’s called investing in yourself, now.  Whatever things you aren’t great at, work on them today!  If you’re not happy, or don’t have good self-esteem, admit it today and figure out a way to get there.  If you’re not happy, or can’t make decisions, or don’t have clarity, even if you do get the dream job, house, or life, those parts of you that you don’t like about yourself won’t go away.  You have to work on them now.

In short, you don’t know where you want to be when you’re forty.  And even if you know how you want to make your money, there’s more to life than career.  To be successful in life, you have to work on YOU, not just your future income stream.  And that kind of work can and should be done today.

  1. Be proud of who you are, and where you come from.

College for many is a jump into a much broader world.  It is exciting and fun to broaden your horizons.  However, a lot of times we compare ourselves to others in this much larger pool of people.  We wonder why we aren’t as smart, fit, popular, well-adjusted, fearless, etc. as the next guy.  We look at our world as too small and compact, and that the broad world is so much more intelligent and cultured than ours.  The theme song I hear is “I want to broaden my horizons, Rabbi.”

There’s nothing wrong with that.  It’s good to broaden.  But broaden doesn’t mean dumping who you are or where you come from.  A fundamental teaching of Judaism is that you have all the tools you need, and the place where you find yourself in life, is exactly where you need to be.  R’ Nachman of Breslov says that the moment you were born was the moment that the entire cosmic structure would not be complete without you.  Little you, with all your imperfections.  There will never be another like you again.  You are rarer than the rarest diamond.  In all of human history there has never been you, and in the future there will never be another you.  You are important.

There’s an idea that G-d only gives us what we can handle.  That means that anything that happens to us in life is tailor-made for us, and we can handle it.  Maybe it seems more than we can handle, but the fact that it happened proves we can overcome the challenge.  We can solve all our problems.  And we’re unique.  And fantastic.  And who cares what other people have, or can do.  What matters is you, and who you are.

The Jewish people are very old, yet vibrant.  We’ve seen it all.  We’ve survived it all.  As Mark Twain writes, “the only thing immortal is the Jew.”  It’s a crazy idea, but we’ve been around for a long time. In that long time, we’ve learned and experimented with every other religion, philosophy, and social milieu that has popped up.  And we’ve been phenomenally successful in most of them.  But since said concepts and ideals aren’t immortal like us, they haven’t sustained us, and the Jewish purveyors of those philosophies have seen their own children and grandchildren looking for another way to find meaning.

Yet this year, come Rosh Hashanah, Jews will listen to the same sounds from the same instruments that they did 3,000 years ago.  And believe it or not, we’ll be listening to the same instrument on the same day for the next 3,000 years.  It’s a powerful idea.  So maybe there’s something to be said to looking in our own backyard before we look in someone else’s.  Be proud of who you are, and what nation you come from.  Without demeaning anyone else, the Bible calls us a nation of priests and royalty.  It says we are beloved to G-d.

To wax poetic but perhaps contemporary, I remember as a kid watching a rabbi telling a kid from the project that he was a prince.  I related to that.  Not because you can call my enclave of suburb a project.  The only projects I knew about were the ones I did in school.  But the idea of inspiring the youth to see their own inherent cultural greatness was something I loved.  I tried to do that a little in my own life for others, because people did that for me.

 

Then, of course, after the long rant, I’d tell my kids I love them, I am proud of them.  Because of both who they are now and who they will become.

Ignorance is an Opportunity, Not a Justification

When_Did_Ignorance_Become_A_Point_Of_View-_CoverPeople always want the inside scoop of my job as a campus rabbi.  Rarely am I asked the greatest benefit; it is known and assumed that what I do is important.  But everyone wants to know the dirt. “C’mon man, what bugs you most about the people?”  “Rabbi, do you get tired of hearing the same questions?”  “What really bothers you?”  While spending some time this past Shabbat with a friend of mine who is, as I call him, a “real rabbi,” I was candid with him about my greatest pet peeve.  I was surprised to find that after spending time with college students, he had the same experience.  And then, shockingly, I found this exact pet peeve discussed by the great rabbis in this past week’s Torah portion (Parshas Re’eh).

I didn’t get this far in my career by not shaking things up.  A mentor and coach of mine once referred to me being like a bull in a china shop when it came to how I dealt with people.  Now as strange as it sounds, I never like being the bad cop, or the “no” man, or that guy that spoils all the fun.  But then again, sometimes someone’s gotta do it.  So imagine the following typical scenario that repeats itself on campus or at my Shabbat table.  I’m speaking to someone.  So far, conversation is going great.  Then, it happens.  I am asked my opinion.  The person I am speaking with wants to know what I think, and I am aware it’s vastly different, perhaps even confrontational, to how he (or she) thinks.  I weigh options; smile, say something “pareve” (neither positive nor negative) and allow the person to walk away thinking ‘hey, he’s cool.”  Or maybe I open up a little, say something a little edgy, maybe offend them, maybe challenge them, and maybe show them they’re mistaken.  Ok, so I pick B (usually only if I like the person).

A debate ensues.  My discussion partner and I go back and forth, trading facts, logic, and figures.  Sometimes I win.  Usually.  Not because I’m smarter, it’s just that I’ve been doing this a bit longer.  And I’ve also been there, as a former Bay area raised collegiate.  It also helps that nearly all my discussions are about either religion, politics, or relationships.  I don’t debate math, don’t really know anything about sports (except weight lifting and who debates about that), and I am still learning about business…and nothing much else gets people riled up.  Anyway, I win the argument.  Or, if you’ve been to my Shabbat table, I’ll say “It’s time to bentsch” (the after blessing for the meal) and then use that authority to make my final point, and not allow time for a rebuttal.

Anyway, I feel like I’ve made the knockout punch of our intellectual boxing match.  Expecting that “a-ha I’ll change my life!” response that happens never, I instead get what has become my biggest pet peeve.  My friend sits, stumped.  And then he says the famous words, “Well Rabbi, you know, I’m not such an expert, but I bet you could find someone out there that could refute you.”  Implication being, you’re right but I’m not changing.   Whaaaaaat??  Since when did a discussion ever end with “after my argument has been refuted, I’ll keep my premise on the hope that other facts out there will support it, and I just haven’t yet found them.”

There’s nothing wrong with not knowing.  How can a person learn if they don’t start with a lack of knowledge?  In fact, it says that a person who doesn’t ask, won’t learn.  In a million years, we shouldn’t feel bad having a question.  In fact, as someone who has spent most of his life being in situations where I was the least knowledgeable person in the room, I know first-hand how important, and how hard it is to say “I don’t know.”  So this shouldn’t be construed as an assault on those lacking knowledge.

Rather, what drives me nuts is people act like they know.  They even think they know.  Their actions seem to be that they know.  And when you call them out and show them that they’re wrong, they still act like they know, except now they know that they don’t.  And instead of change, they retroactively claim ignorance.  So if you don’t know, be honest about that up front.  And if you’re going to take a position, so then allow your position to be proven false if that is the case.  And if it’s proven false, don’t rely on the tooth fairy coming to prove your point at a later date.  She might come, but until then, take my word for it!

I have had many discussions with a close friend and student of mine.  Once in a while he’ll conclude my answers make more sense.  “So,” I ask expectantly, “do you agree with me?”  He shrugs and says, “Well, there’s no way to know, but I’m going to keep acting as if my initial argument was correct.”  What is the genesis of such a stance?

And we all do it!  I’m no better than the next guy.  But why?

The Torah portion last week says emphatically, “See, I’m putting before you a blessing and a curse.”  The Sforno (Obadiah ben Jacob Sforno was an Italian rabbi, Biblical commentator, philosopher and physician. He was born at Cesena about 1475 and died at Bologna in 1550, thank you Wikipedia) says “See to it that your actions are not mediocre like the behavior of most people.   For I have placed before you today a blessing and curse which are the two extremes…both of these are available for you to choose.”  As one of my favorite rabbis would tell me “Don’t be a baby.”

The nature of people is to embrace mediocrity.  We don’t want to take positions because our egos don’t want to deal with the very real possibility that we could be wrong.  We like to be “pareve.”  As I said before, I very often like to shrink back and not say my mind because I don’t want to be seen as distant, removed, weird, or wrong.  Avraham Avinu (our father) questioned, or hesitated, performing the circumcision on himself because he was afraid he’d be perceived as ‘different’ and thereby not be able to have the same impact on people.

The Torah seems to emphasize that it is, at times, ok to be an extremist.  Have your beliefs.  Research them, know them, be able to argue them, and if you’re wrong, it’s ok, be wrong.  Be cursed.  Just don’t be in the middle.  We read about the disappearing middle class in America.  Everyone is either becoming uber rich or poor.  Perhaps it’s the same in the world of the mind.  The middle class is unstable; staying in this dubious state of moral uncertainty and intellectual lack of clarity for the sake of not having to take an opinion is the quickest path to intellectual poverty.

We can say it even more clearly.  To be in the middle is not even to be alive.  It’s like you’re breathing, and have a pulse, but no life.  There’s no passion.  Nothing motivates you.  You live your life purposeless, floating from one convenient stage to another.  As a great rabbi put it, you’re like tall grass blowing in the wind; you go wherever the wind blows you.

The Torah wants you alive.  Animated.  Anchored.  Be WRONG! See that you’re wrong.  Change it.  Be right.  Be really right.  Defend your position proudly.  Don’t be afraid of people challenging you.  People can survive not being liked by everyone.  Abraham was one man and the rest of the world stood opposite him.  Guess what?  He was the, or certainly one of the, greatest agents of change in human history.

Consider this:  Your actions are what you know (or think) to be true.  We do what we think is right.  If we’re going to act in a certain way, it’s because we chose to believe that that is the best thing to do (even if we don’t have a lot of evidence).  In the world of action, there’s no pareve.  Either you do or you don’t.  So since anyway your actions demand you take a stand and choose, why not back it up with knowing if what you’re doing is right??

Put it bluntly.  Say you act like there’s no higher authority.  You do whatever you want.  Now in your mind you aren’t sure.  You can’t be sure something doesn’t exist.  Say it’s 80/20, or 50/50.  Say someone (like me) comes and shows you arguments or evidence that push the scales 51/49 in favor of an intelligent higher authority that has the ability to tell you what to do.  Is it logical to act like there isn’t said authority?  Do you really have to wait until its 99/1? Or 100/0?  Does that make sense? Or is it all about comfort?

Judaism anticipated this problem long before us.  It values passion and conviction even over correctness.  Now, don’t think you can just do whatever you want just because you believe it.  We have a brain for a reason.  But be honest with yourself.  Learn enough, think enough to be certain in your beliefs, and then do.  (****See the bottom of this for an important point, but just not related to the topic of the blog.****)

There was a beautiful story that illustrates this concept.  A chassidic rebbe went to visit a non-practicing Jewish man from whom he needed help in a certain project.  The Rebbe (rabbi) came into the man’s home as the man was sitting down to a big clearly non-kosher feast (think Chipotle with the chipotle tabasco sauce…no bowl, an actual burrito).  The rabbi blessed the man to eat with his full desire.  The man was puzzled.  He said to the Rabbi, “but Rabbi, how could you tell me to eat with my full desire when you know it’s not kosher??”  The rabbi responded that when it comes to making a mistake, if you make a mistake because the temptation was simply too great to turn down, G-d so to speak understands.  We’re human, we all make mistakes.  But if we sin because we don’t care, because we’re indifferent, so that’s something really bad.  So the Rabbi was blessing the man that he should eat his non-kosher food not because he didn’t care about kosher, but because he wasn’t strong enough to overcome the urge to eat it, as it is delicious.

So in short, and in life, we’ll all make mistakes.  We can’t help it.  But don’t make the mistake of being pareve.  Live your life with passion.  If you’re going to do something wrong, live with the guilt that you screwed up.  Like it says in the parsha, “choose the curse!”  Being embarrassed is a gift.  Eventually, you’ll stop making the mistake if it makes you embarrassed.  The only time you can’t fix yourself is when you justify your mistakes, and make them into good deeds.  Living a life where you do what you want, and hope somewhere out there there’s a justification for what you’re doing, is living a life without purpose.  There’s no thought, nothing compelling to explain what you do, or why you’re doing it.  You’re being a sheep, mediocre, like everyone else.

The Torah in the same parsha says that the blessing that you choose is that you listen.  Listen to what?  A deep thought on that line says, “Listen to yourself.”  Blessing and curse comes from our ability to listen to our conscience.  There are some things in life we honestly don’t know.  But there are many more things in life that we might know, or have a sense of, and chose not to listen.  And that’s part of being human.  But when we don’t listen, or don’t want to listen to what we know deep down is right, don’t pretend that we don’t know.  Admit it.  Sometimes the greatest thing a person can do is admit they made a mistake.

That lesson is the entire concept of the incoming month of Elul, the month that immediately proceeds Rosh Hashana.  We have one month before G-d decides the fate of the world.  The Torah says it’s a terrifying time.  How can we know, how can we honestly say that we lived up to everything that was expected of us?  The answer is we can’t.  And that’s ok.  G-d is called a father.  Parents understand their kids make mistakes, and they forgive them, and they love them.  But the thing that makes parents happy is when the kids, on their own, see their mistakes and misgivings, and come to the parents and say “I’m sorry, I screwed up.”  To do that means taking a risk.  It means having a position.  It means seeing that the position you took wasn’t perfect, it was wrong and that’s ok.  But then if you do that, it means you have to change.  And sometimes that is the hardest thing of all.

 

 

****When it comes to passion over correctness, I was referring to life choices.  Jewish law does have a system to dictate what law is correct, and we don’t choose the correct law.  However, when it comes to our life choices that’s where we should be passionate instead of always correct****