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****


Stop Trying to Buy a New Life!

It was a familiar scene…my son was taking a bath in his morning oatmeal.  My baby had managed to get out of her high chair and was preparing to bungee jump without a cord off the side.  I was on bucket of coffee number two and was oblivious to everything around me because 1) I’m a male and can’t multitask and 2) my lap top had decided to stop working.

After talking to it, throwing it, hitting it, and resetting it eighteen times, I began my usual thought process: it’s broken, let’s get a new one.  Thankfully my wife stops me from half (well, less than that) of my emotional buys; at least the big ticket ones.  But seriously, who fixes computers?  Where would even take them?

This is a phenomenon that permeates our mindset much more than we might want to admit.  How often do we try to fix broken stuff?  Your blender breaks.  Your shaver breaks.  Get a new one.  What about important things?  Like ourselves, our computer, or our relationships?  Is there an app for that?  Could I order if from Costco.com or Google Shopping Express?  I might not be able to yet, but who wouldn’t want to if you could?

The need to have a near flawless product is an expectation in our society.  We want it new, and when it breaks, or gets old, we just get a new one.  There’s no need or desire to have something get old, get broken, and then get fixed.  You could say we live in a world of innovation, which is another way of saying we don’t like or don’t know what to do with someone once it doesn’t work like it used to.

Believe it or not, it’s easier to replace than to fix.  It’s easier to medicate or ignore a problem that comes up that might suggest that the smooth sailing we’ve come to demand and desire isn’t as smooth as we’d expect.  How many of us want to work through friendships or jobs when it gets tough, versus make a passive disconnect and “replace it” with something better?

The problem is that more often than not, the thing that needs fixing is us.  Superimposing a new job, boyfriend (girlfriend), career, college, social scene or cover photo won’t help when we get tired or need to repair ourselves.  That takes work.  And work is bad, because we live in an era where somehow no one expects to or wants to do it.  And app can do it without the work.  So I just have to find the app.

Shameless plug; between the two of us, Julie and I lost over 60 pounds this summer.  It was a great diet/lifestyle plan and I’m happy to tell anyone about it.  I can get you started on it.  EVERYONE wants to lose a few pounds.  And while many have been inspired and want to be able to fit into the yoga pants I wear otherwise known as my dress pants (just kidding, it’s just the smallest size pants I’ve worn since I was born), very few people are willing to actually do the work.  The excuses abound!  “Let’s see if you can maintain it before I try it.”  “I don’t think I’ll like the food.”  “I’ll try to exercise more (yea good luck with that).”  We want results, but we don’t want to work.  We want to just order the smaller us from Target.

The coaching industry is big business these days.  People claim they want a path.  If I just knew how to do something I’d do it.  College, for all of its merit, brilliantly plays of this basic human weakness to want to relegate the process to someone else.  If I work hard in college, I’ll get a good job.  If I get a good job, I’ll have a profound sense of meaning.  I’ll be happy.  So college = happy.  Move in the Panda Express and charge your parents thousands of dollars!  The proof that it’s such an effective marketing campaign is that people spend four years and thousands of dollars in college and then, once they graduate, realize that maybe life isn’t so figured out or people aren’t so thrilled to throw a six or seven figure job at you.  Time and time again, I hear people say they’d take experience over education in a nutshell.  Why is that?

Experience means that you cut your teeth.  It means you learned how to work.  You actually had to do something hard.  If you get a person who’s learned that nothing is coming to you in life that you don’t work for, he’s worth more.  You can work with a person who isn’t expecting anything on a silver platter. The highly successful people I speak to, and learn from, don’t have a straight path to success.  Our reliance on technology has brainwashed us to thinking everything is simple.  And we think that if it isn’t, we just haven’t discovered the right tools.  The dirty little secret is that the only tools that make you successful lie within you, and actually have to be activated by you.

I learned this summer that the way you deal with fear is do the things you’re afraid to do.  Fear is a mental condition which tries to stop us from doing what we really want and need to do.  So the solution to fear is to do what makes you scared.  Then you won’t be afraid, and you’ll own fear, and see it as an opportunity for greatness, not paralysis.  We fear/despair fixing things.  Like a fat person in a Chipotle that convinces himself it’s healthy because there’s protein in chicken, we attack and lavish the technological, materialistic culture we live in because everything is so quick to replace that we think that fixes and repairs are going to be a thing of the past.

Well, it’s not.  To survive life, we have to be able to repair.  It’s what makes us human, and the great news is that it means that we’ll never be replaced by robots or apps.  The Torah says “See I present before you today a blessing and curse.”  Two massive concepts come out from here that are relevant to the discussion at hand; “see” and “today.”

See.  So often in life, we accept mediocrity because we don’t want to see that we are choosing the lives we lead.  If we aren’t popular, successful, or happy, it’s because we’re making that choice to be that way.  I recently told a dear friend and confidant during the stressful moments before Shabbat was about to start, that no matter what happens, for the next half hour until I make Kiddush, I wouldn’t get upset.

Now this moment was the perfect storm for me to get upset.  People were over, so I had to look rabbinical and put together.  We were way behind; everything was a mess.  My daughter, who inherited all of my drama, had just collided with a door and was inconsolable.  My baby had decided to bond with me, and therefore would scream with indignity should I put her down.  My son had seized the moment, and decided to start eating all the dessert with his hands.   I was about to freak out.  But then I said, I can choose if I want to lose it or not.

And guess what?  I managed not to get upset.  I chose.  It had nothing to do with the fact everything around me was stressful.  You have to see for yourself that you can make the choice.

Secondly, Today.  The time to fix, heal, repair, or become great isn’t yesterday.  You can’t change what you did yesterday.  Tomorrow hasn’t happened yet so don’t bank on being successful then.  In my many years now as a college rabbi, the single biggest thing that disappoints me about most  people (get ready) is their reliance that somehow they’ll be better tomorrow or fix their problems down the road.  Maybe they will.  But most people who can’t be excellent today aren’t excellent tomorrow.  Today, this moment, is the time when you are obligated to become or try to become what you want to be.

The idea of “today” is fundamental in another way; change is in the small details.  It is such an important idea for success.  Rome wasn’t build in a day, so to speak.  Little changes, over time, compound to create greatness.  You can’t just drop the 90lbs I’ve lost over my life (trust me) in a moment, but day by day, hour by hour, eating or not eating is what creates the change.

A dear student of mine complained that while she wanted to embrace her Judaism and incorporate more spirituality into her life, her experience with Judaism thus far made her realize there is so much to learn and to do that it would take a long time before she felt proficient.  Other things in life are easier and take less time.  I pointed out that is a perfect indication that they are less valuable.  It takes a long time, there’s a lot to do, but so what? You couldn’t do the whole thing now if you wanted to—no one can become great in a day, but you could do a little right now.  It’s taking a bite-sized chunk now that over the long run will turn you into who you want to be.

So in short, the lesson is that you are not pre-programmed.  There’s no app for you.  There’s no path.  In life there is no way to just replace yourself when you’re broken.  You have to learn how to fix.  You have to become conscious that you choose your life, what you want, and how you will respond to the externalities.  You have to see your ability, your uniquely human ability, to choose.

And you have to see today as all that matters.  As Al Pachino screams in Any Given Sunday (Not kosher, just one lesson from there) “It’s the six inches in front of your face that’s the difference between living and dying.”  Life is determined by what we do now.  Act now.  Even if you wanted to, all you can do now is take a little step.  A little step is not scary because there’s not so much you can do now.  But it’s scary because you actually have something to do now.  Those that do something now become the exceptional and not the mediocre.  I don’t like mediocre.