Why History Matters – Shabbat Lekh Lecha, Friday, October 23, 2015

It was not the message they were expecting.

Many friends and colleagues of mine were in Jerusalem this week, as Reform Jewish delegates to the World Zionist Congress. It’s a meeting that takes place every five years, to reaffirm and advance the cause of modern Zionism. First held under the leadership of Theodor Herzl in 1897, the World Zionist Congress spends a lot of time, effort, and money on the ties that bind Jews throughout the world to the land of Israel and the State of Israel.

It’s a great honor to be selected as a World Zionist Delegate – but my friends arrived in Jerusalem this week at a very dangerous time. In recent weeks, scores of Israelis have been killed or injured by Arabs – many of them residents of East Jerusalem — who have set upon Jews randomly on the street with knives, guns, and even ramming them with cars.
Security cameras have captured Arab teenagers wandering the streets with knives in their hands, looking for unsuspecting targets. One camera captured the moment an Arab behind the wheel of a car sped up and took aim at a group of ultra-Orthodox men at a bus stop, ramming one so hard that he was thrown six feet in the air.

Israelis are afraid to take their kids to school, afraid to go shopping. One colleague shared her Israeli husband’s first-hand account of sipping coffee with a friend at an outdoor café when an Arab went running past them, others screaming behind him – get the terrorist, he just stabbed somebody! The friend, without a moment’s hesitation, put down his coffee and ran down the terrorist, hog-tying him with a belt till the police came.

Then he returned to the café, sat back down, and went back to his coffee and his conversation.

This is the new normal for Israelis that awaited my friends. This is why they were so anxious to hear the speech from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But it was not the message they were expecting.

Netanyahu claimed that the grand mufti of Jerusalem had given Hitler the idea for the Final Solution, for the extermination of Europe’s Jews. He said that Haj Amin al-Husseini, the man overseeing the Muslim holy sites of Jerusalem, told Hitler not to deport the Jews, but to burn them.

Bibi made jaws drop for a number of reasons. First, it’s simply not true. It’s factually, historically, incorrect.

Second, his assertion has distracted the world from the Jewish blood now being shed all across Israel. Third, it has emboldened Jew-haters and anti-Semites across the globe, who now turn to each other and say, “See, we told you. It’s the Jews’ fault. They hate Arabs so much that they’ll lie to get what they want.”

Instead of engendering world support for Israel and condemnation of Arab blood-lust against Jews, Bibi managed to do the opposite – at a time when we can least afford it.

Let’s face it – the world’s news media already have trouble getting the story right. From the BBC to the New York Times, the reports and photos out of Israel emphasize Arabs shot dead in the streets – all but ignoring the fact that those Arabs are terrorists who were shot in the act of attacking Jews with knives, guns, and cars.

What’s really aggravating is that Bibi didn’t have to stretch the truth. The fact is that the Grand Mufti was both an admirer and an ally of Hitler, who who pledged his support to the Nazi cause in a meeting with the Fuhrer in 1941. The fact is that Al-Husseini was angling for the creation of a united, independent Arab entity across the Middle East, playing Germany against the British and hedging his bets on who would win the war.

It was Hitler who said in that meeting that the extermination of the Jewish people was at the top of his must-do list. But the fact is that he agreed with the Mufti that Jews should not be allowed to rebuild their homeland in what was then British Mandate Palestine – something that Britain had supported as far back as 1917, in the wake of the First World War and the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire.

And here’s why Bibi’s mistake is so costly: Because it’s obscuring what’s really going on in Israel today. Which is that the Palestinian leadership is trying to rewrite the Jews out of the history of the Jewish homeland. The homeland for which Jews yearned during two thousand years of exile. The homeland promised to by God Abraham in this week’s Torah portion:

“I will establish my covenant between me and you and your seed after you in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God to you, and to your seed after you. And I will give to you, and to your seed after you, the land where you are a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.”

The current Palestinian leadership, including the so-called “moderate” Mahmoud Abbas, has resurrected a hundred-year-old canard to gather the masses in a bloody uprising against the Jews.

“Protect Al-Aqsa at all cost,” they declare – and the people listen and obey. It was indeed Mufti al-Husseini who, back in the early 1920s, first promoted the lie that the Jews were threatening the Al-Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount. Twenty-five years before Israel’s independence, forty-five years before the reunification of Jerusalem in the war of 1967, the Mufti first called out the people to “protect Al-Aqsa” at all cost and trained terror groups of Fedayeen to attack and murder Jews. From that time on, over and over again, he raised the false specter of a change in the status quo at the Temple Mount to goad Arabs into rioting. Over and over again, Arabs ran into the streets eager to spill Jewish blood.

This is the same lie – the same tactic – that has led to this month’s Arab riots across Israel and Arab attacks on Jews by knife, by gun, and by car.

There is no change in the status quo. Israel could have taken over the Temple Mount in 1967 when it captured the Old City of Jerusalem, declared it wholly Jewish, and destroyed the Muslim sacred spaces as the Romans did when they obliterated all trace of Herod’s Second Temple. But Moshe Dayan promised that Israel would not do that, and that promise has held.

Yes, the charge is as much of a murderous lie today as it was 100 years ago. But today, the use of social media – as well as the public speeches by Hamas and the PLO – have made the situation exponentially more explosive. And so has the presence of Arabs who work for the United Nations agency caring for displaced Palestinians.

According to a group called “U.N. Watch,” based in Geneva, a number of Arabs on the UN payroll have taken to Facebook with photos and even music videos. I’ve seen some of these postings. They glorify terrorists who have stabbed Israelis, and calling on others to “Stab Zionist Dogs” or “fight until you defeat the aggressor.” One even published a handy-dandy, easy-to-follow graphic of where to stab a Jew for maximum effect.

This is actually the second time in the past two months that UN relief workers have been caught posting terrorist messages on their Facebook accounts. UN Watch called on the relief agency to fire 10 employees for using the cover of their jobs to promote violence – and, as of yesterday, the UN said it had “disciplined” several agency employees including suspension and loss of pay. The UN purported to be shocked at their graphic incitement to violence. But I’m not shocked at all.

After all, this is the same agency that, for decades, has kept the Palestinian Arabs in a state of statelessness, teaching generations of children in Gaza to hate Jews, allowing Hamas to turn their schools into rocket-launchers.

But what happened at another UN agency this week was a surprise. And again, it goes to the heart of the real story: that the Palestinian leadership is getting help from the Arab world in trying to rewrite the Jews out of the history of the Jewish homeland.

This week, UNESCO, the UN body responsible for the preservation of historical sites, took up an Arab resolution that would declare the Kotel, the Western Wall, to be an integral part of the Haram al-Sharif, as the Temple Mount is known is Islam. That is, UNESCO was ready to declare the holiest site in Judaism not Jewish at all but culturally, historically, religious, and archaeologically exclusively Muslim.

The resolution also referred to Jerusalem as, quote, “the occupied capital of Palestine,” even though no such entity exists now or ever has existed.

Keep in mind, that this also is not a new tactic. For decades, the web site of the PLO specifically denied there were any Jewish historical or religious sites in Jerusalem, and Palestinian leaders across the board have continued – to this day – to peddle the lie. This, despite the clear archaeological evidence of a Second Temple and historical evidence of the House of David as well. This, even despite the guide to al-Haram al-Sharif published by the Wakif itself nearly a century ago, which ties the religious significance of the site for Muslims to its history for Jews.

“The site is one of the oldest in the world,” according to the guide, which was published in English in 1924 for the benefit of Muslim pilgrims to Jerusalem. “Its identity with the site of Solomon’s Temple is beyond dispute. This too, is the spot, according to the universal belief, on which ‘David built there an altar unto the Lord, and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings.’” Here, the guide quotes from Second Samuel, Chapter Six – citing Jewish scripture to reaffirm millennia of Jewish connection to this holy space.

Thank goodness, international outcry over the UNESCO proposal ensued. The United States bashed it as an incitement to violence. And so did UNESCO’s own Director-General, who said it potentially (quote) “could be seen to alter the status of the Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls, inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list.”

Let’s be clear: The head of UNESCO herself said it would be the Arabs, and not the Jews, who would be changing the status quo at the Temple Mount.

In the end, the resolution was changed. But it passed with a condemnation of Israel’s stewardship of the Holy Sites. And it declared Rachel’s Tomb and the Cave of the Patriarchs to be listed as Islamic sites – co-opting two Jewishly important places to which Jews have been making pilgrimage for hundreds of years. At both sites, as at the Temple Mount, mosques have been built over existing Jewish shrines – in an effort to de-Judaize sacred spaces whose importance traces back to the Bible itself.

Here’s the crux of the matter: Israel exists, Israel will continue to exist, and Jews will continue to come to Israel and live in Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people. Over and over again, the combined Arab armies of Egypt and Jordan and Syria have tried and failed to make the holy land Judenrein. And if their military might did not succeed in 1948, or in 1956, or in 1967, or in 1973, a relative handful of Arabs murdering Jews on the street in cold blood will not do the job either.

The PLO and Hamas and the others know this. Their vile rhetoric aside, they know they cannot wipe the Jewish state of Israel off the map. So they’ve taken another tactic. They’ve tried to wipe it out of history. They’ve tried to convince the world that Jews never had sovereignty in the land. That there was no Second Temple and certainly no First. That the modern state of Israel is in no way connected to the two thousand year-old dream of returning to Zion reflected in our Bible and our poetry and our music.

They’re now getting help from UNESCO, which has de-Judaized two important Jewish holy sites and tried to take away from us the most precious place on earth. They’re getting help from so-called scholars among the Palestinians, such as the Gaza university dean who proclaimed this week that it’s okay to murder Jewish women and children.

“The Jews of Palestine are fair game today,” declared Dr. Subhi al Yaziji – again invoking a non-existent entity to try to deny Jews our history, if not our present.

And they’re now getting help from the ignorance and antisemitism rampant in the so-called BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions), which deliberately rewrites Jews out of the history of the Middle East – notwithstanding the obvious fact that, if there was never a Jewish temple or a Jewish presence in Jerusalem, then there also was no Jesus and no basis for Christianity.

The Palestinian leadership banks on international ignorance of history, and hatred of Jews, to win the public-relations battle. It is not to the credit of the world that they have had some measure of success. The MSNBC news network had to issue an apology this week for using a series of maps put out by the BDS movement to try and explain the street violence of Arab against Jew. The maps are absolutely false. They completely distort the last century of Middle East history. But the fact that a reputable news network would accept them as fact is a pathetic reflection of what the world really understands about the Middle East and Israel – and how much the world really cares.

There’s always some reason given why Arabs murder Jews in cold blood. It’s the settlements. It’s the fence. It’s Jenin. It’s Gaza. But Arabs were murdering Jews in cold blood decades before there were any fences or any settlements, or any talk about Gaza or the West Bank.
Here’s the real reason, explained beautifully this week in an essay by Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the former head of the Union for Reform Judaism:

“What kind of a national movement unleashes 13-year-olds to do its dirty work? How does a child sacrifice, or at the very least an after-the-fact justification of child sacrifice, bring honor to the Palestinian cause? Once again, the leaders of Palestinian nationalism have led their people down the long, cruel path of violence, suffering, and death.” And Rabbi Yoffie repeated the words he spoke in 2001, after the Palestinian leadership walked away from a remarkably brave offer of peace from then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak: “The Palestinian national movement is one of the most stupid, murderous, and bloodthirsty national liberation movements in all of human history.”

It is sad, and pathetic, that these words are as true today as they were 14 years ago. It is unconscionable that the Palestinian leadership, which has plundered billions of dollars from international donors and robbed their people of a hopeful future, is not held accountable for its crimes against either Jews or its own people. It is unacceptable that Jews in Israel are afraid to send their children to school, that they themselves are afraid to go to the market.
Israel will protect her people, with all the power she has. And she will have the right to do so – as long as it takes, as much as it takes.

I am no fan of Benjamin Netanyahu, who through two terms as Prime Minister as far back as 1996, has yet to come up with a single strategy to resolve the Palestinian problem. It is to the discredit of the current Israeli government that it has no long-term plan in place – not even the kernel of a proposal – to separate Israel from the Palestinian territories once and for all, and thus remove any doubt as to the cause of the violence against Jews.

But, as Rabbi Yoffie writes, “all decisions regarding a long-term solution must wait until there is calm and quiet on the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Afula and Raanana. When terror reigns, thinking stops and fanaticism thrives. The terror must end, and Israel must do what is necessary to end it.”

It is with sadness that I end my remarks tonight on this note, but, tonight, there is no alternative.

Let the terror end and the talks begin soon, so that at a time will come when, as the prophet Micah wrote, “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, nor shall they learn war any more. But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken it.”

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.
©2015 Audrey R. Korotkin


“Oh, No: FOMO!” Yom Kippur Morning 2015

What a summer of drudgery it’s been: staring at a computer screen, books and journal articles strewn around my office, trying to put together a few sensible paragraphs to add to my doctoral dissertation, in hopes that my seminary will see enough progress that they won’t kick me out of the program.

If that wasn’t bad enough, I’ve had to juxtapose that, day after day, with the Facebook postings: colleagues reveling in a summer in Israel; friends taking their kids on extended tours of Italy or Spain or the British Isles; former students trekking through South America. And me, slogging through yet another anthropological study about the use of gesture and posture in interpersonal communications. And wanting to be anywhere but staring at a computer screen, books and journal articles strewn around my office.

There’s a name for this syndrome. It’s called FOMO – F-O-M-O, otherwise known as “Fear of Missing Out.” It’s even got its own entry in the Oxford Dictionaries, which defines FOMO as “anxiety that an exciting or interesting event may currently be happening elsewhere, often aroused by posts seen on a social media website.”

Facebook is bad enough. But my FOMO problem has been exacerbated by my TV watching in the evening, which is supposed to be relaxing. Here’s Andrew Zimmern eating bizarre foods around the world in a culinary voyage of discovery. There’s “36 Hours,” the New York Times international travel column that’s just made its way onto television, focused on whirlwind experiences of seeing, eating, drinking and playing in thrilling locales. As for me: Another cup of herbal tea? Yes, thank you very much.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t begrudge people exploring new worlds and new civilizations. Actually, I do. Well, at least I envy them. In the abstract, I could take those opportunities and would love to do so. In the real world, where do I find the time? In the real world, I get sick every time I travel, whether it’s to Memphis, Tennessee, or to Warsaw, Poland. You’ve never had the flu until you’ve had the Polish flu, straight from the source. Trust me on that.

Froma Harrop of the “Providence Journal” made me feel a little better about my FOMO anxiety. She asked in a recent essay: “Are we to believe that their travels are as fabulous as their Facebook posts suggest? Note the pictures showing them in some sublime Croatian village, never at overcrowded Gate 42B.” And “how about the quality of time spent traveling?” she wondered. How deep is the experience when you’re rushing to fit in every café, festival, and museum in southern Spain, where people who actually live there don’t go anywhere?

But it was David Brooks of the New York Times who talked me off the FOMO ledge when he wrote about what he called the “moral bucket list.” “There are two sets of virtues,” he wrote, “the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral – whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful.” When you look at it that way – which is exactly what we are supposed to be doing on this day, of all days – it seems to me that where we have been isn’t nearly as important as where we intend to go.

Brooks pointed out that, instinctively, we know that eulogy virtues are more important. But, he pointed out, “our culture and our educational systems spend more time teaching the skills and strategies that you need for career success than the qualities you need to radiate that sort of inner light. Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character.”

That’s really the task facing each of us on this Day of Atonement, isn’t it? Even if we know what we would really like to add to our eulogy virtues in the coming year, do we even know where to start?

This morning I’m going to pull out three suggestions from David Brooks’s essay to try and give us a start.

The first is what he calls “the humility shift.” Let’s face it, we live in a culture where we reign supreme. Social media encourage us to talk about ourselves, post about ourselves, take selfies at every possible opportunity. If we want to get ahead professionally, we have to be good self-promoters – emphasizing our strengths and hiding our weaknesses. Weakness is for losers, as anyone knows who’s watched a political debate lately.

But Brooks points out that the people he has most admired have achieved what he calls “a profound humility . . . an intense self-awareness from a position of other-centeredness” rather than self-centeredness.

That’s actually a very Jewish concept. It comes from the practice of Mussar, a Jewish path to consciousness and self-awareness. I actually went to a Mussar program this past spring and found it a really challenging experience. Mussar involves a series of contemplative practices that allow us to identify the middot, the character traits and weaknesses, that hold us back: things like anger, pride, envy, cruelty, and worry.

Mussar teaches that even the angriest person has a degree of calm within him; the stingiest person has a drop of generosity; people who are lazy or arrogant have the opposite somewhere inside them. We are encouraged, not to avoid these negative middot, but to face them, to engage them, to work through them to the other side: anger to peace, envy to respect, cruelty to kindness, worry to calmness. It can take a lifetime of steady work, within ourselves and with others who can help us identify where we are and how far we’ve come on the journey to teshuvah – to the place where we have turned our inner life around.

In Mussar, they call that letting the inner light shine through – the true essence of each of us, the neshama – the soul that we thank God for in our daily morning prayers: “Elohai n’shama shenatata bi t’hora hi: God, the soul that you have implanted within me is pure.” It may often be obscured by our habits and our egos and the imbalances we struggle with every day. But it’s there, if we give ourselves the time, and do the hard work, to bring it out. And as the rabbis teach: “If a house has no lower doorsill, it looks unfinished, left to fall apart. You, too, even if you are endowed with all other virtues but lack humility, are ‘unfinished.'” It’s the neshama that gives us hope; it’s the work to uncover the neshama that makes us humble.

The second way we come to a place of teshuvah in our lives is what Brooks calls “The Dependency Leap.” He writes that, for example, when we give the Dr. Seuss book, “Oh the Places You’ll Go” as a graduation gift, we’re sending the implicit message that, in his words, “life is an autonomous journey. We master certain skills and experience adventures and certain challenges on our way to individual success.” But Brooks points out that nobody can do it alone. “Individual will, reason, and compassion,” he writes, “are not strong enough to consistently defeat selfishness, pride, and self-deception. We all need redemptive assistance from outside.”

Actually that’s one of the reasons why Mussar is not just an individual journey. Much of the work happens in a group, where people check in on each other, identifying each other’s issues and challenges. But opening up like that is not easy, and it can be very scary. So can simply asking for help when you need it.

A lot of us learn this the hard way. I know I’m not the only person who’s been stumped by a challenge in my career and thought – hey, I’m a grown up. I can handle this myself. Dysfunctional workplace? micromanaging supervisors? People who challenge my professional skills and integrity, with no earthly idea what I really do? I’ll work it out. That’s my job.

Only it’s really not. Colleagues, mentors, therapists – they’re all available to help us work out the problems, or to help us walk away from them. To help us essentially identify those middot – be they pride or stubbornness or fear – that keep us from a resolution one way or the other. They help us understand that nobody navigates life alone, if you want more than another star on the chart or another bullet point on the résumé.

They also help us understand that we might be stuck in our own mind, in our own self-centered notions about how things should be, or should work out. They provide other-centered insight, encouragement, and love – and occasionally a kick in the tush. If we want our neshamot to shine through, we need that love in our lives, and we cannot be afraid to call upon on it.

A third avenue to teshuvah is one that Brooks identifies as “The Conscience Leap” – that moment when, he writes, “people strip away all the branding and status symbols, all the prestige that goes with having gone to a certain school or been born into a certain family.” Those may be virtues when it comes to the résumé – but not when it comes to the eulogy.

I’m guessing that very few of you recognize the name Flavia Pennetta. She’s 33-years-old. She’s from Italy. She plays tennis. She just happens to be this year’s US Open champion. She’s the one who defeated fellow Italian Roberta Vinci, who had beaten the great Serena Williams. Ah yes, that Flavia Pennetta!

Flavia Pennetta has some impressive credentials in her résumé, as listed in a recent Wall Street Journal article: She has won more than $10 million dollars in prize money. She is engaged to fellow tennis pro Fabio Fognini. She has had a top-ten ranking, a number-one ranking in doubles, and four Federation Cup team titles with her fellow Italians. So what did she do after she snagged her greatest prize of all, hoisting the US Open trophy on the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium? She walked away from tennis. She already had decided that this would be her last year playing professionally, and she’s still at peace with her decision.

Why? Here’s the way the Journal’s Tom Perotta explained it: “Pennetta didn’t mind that Serena Williams had won 21 Grand Slam singles titles. Or that Maria Sharapova had won five and earned more in endorsements in a year than Pennetta had earned on the court in her entire career. Pennetta enjoyed the little things, the stuff that stars like Williams and Sharapova couldn’t do. She could get a coffee alone. Paparazzi didn’t follow her when she shopped. She could ride a bike around Central Park without an entourage. She was what she called a ‘normal’ player, and life was good.”

“For me it’s a little bit easy, the life, because you can still have the normal things and sometimes that’s what they miss most of the time,” Pennetta herself said. For Flavia Pennetta, enjoying and appreciating everyday joys is simply more important than the all-consuming life of a tennis champion. Nobody – herself included – knows what the future holds. But she is leaving herself open to infinite possibilities, as career ambitions take a back seat to the peace and serenity that comes from finding balance in life. She has said ‘no’ to FOMO.

David Brooks wrote that “people on the road to inner light do not find their vocations by asking, ‘What do I want from life?’ They ask, ‘What is life asking of me? How can I match my intrinsic talent with one of the world’s deep needs?’” This, too, is fundamental to the path of Mussar, as we gain understanding of the traits that make us who we are, for better or for worse, and embrace the traits that make us better – traits like enthusiasm, loving-kindness, generosity, and responsibility.

Here’s how the rabbis described it in the Mishnah, in the section we know as Pirke Avot (2:9), the ethical sayings of the early sages”

“Rabba Yohanan ben Zakkai had five [distinguished] disciples, to whom he said: Go forth and discover what characteristic should be cultivated as a way of life. [When they came back], Rabbi Eliezer declared: A generous eye. Rabbi Joshua declared: Being a good friend. Rabbi Yossi said: Being a good neighbor. Rabbi Shimon said: The capacity to consider the consequences of one’s action. And Rabbi Eleazer ben Arakh declared: A joyous heart.
Rabba Yohanan said to them: I prefer what Eleazar ben Arakh has said to what you have said, because his definition — having a joyous heart as a way of life — includes all of yours.

“Then he said: Go forth and discover what characteristic should be shunned. [When they came back], Rabbi Eliezer declared: A grudging eye. Rabbi Joshua declared: Pretending to be a friend. Rabbi Yossi said: Being a bad neighbor. Rabbi Simeon said: Borrowing and not repaying—because doing that to a person is like doing that to God. Rabbi Eleazar ben Arakh declared: the characteristic that should be shunned is a despondent heart.

Rabbi Yohanan said to them: I prefer what Rabbi Eleazar ben Arakh has said to what you have said, because his definition includes all of yours.”

A joyous heart, then, is most fundamental to creating a life that is fulfilling and productive for ourselves, and enriching and supportive of others. It is, I think, the antithesis of FOMO anxiety. You can’t have ‘fear of missing out’ if, every day, your goal is – not to seek adventure – but to seek ways to bring out your inner light, your neshama, for all to see and share.

Or as David Brooks put it, “external ambitions are never satisfied because there’s always something more to achieve. But there’s an aesthetic joy we feel when we see morally good action, when we run across someone who is quiet and humble and good, when we see that however old we are, there’s lots to do ahead.”

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t travel, to take in the natural beauty of the earth, or to explore the manmade beauty of art or food or architecture or the relics of history. But, as Froma Harrop wrote, we shouldn’t be so fixated on “the labor of earning more badges to place on the ledger of life.”

Personally, I’d like to take the train through the Denali and see a whale up close. I’d love to walk along the rocky coast of Maine, eat real Italian food in Italy, take a river cruise up the Danube, and finally get my Hebrew up to par in Israel. I might or might not get to any or all of those things. And I have to learn to be okay with that, to keep my FOMO anxiety in check, and just work hard to find a serenity and a balance and an inner voice that tells me that life is okay and beautiful and meaningful either way.

If I can cultivate a generous eye, and being a good friend, and being a good neighbor, and understanding the consequences of what I do and say, and – most of all – unleash a joyous heart that treats every day as an adventure to be savored for all its worth and every encounter as potentially deep and important…if I can do that, then that’s the person I really want to be.
It may take a lifetime to get there. But that’s okay. Because, at the end of my life, it’s not the résumé virtues, but the eulogy virtues, that I want people to remember.

Ken Yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.
©2015 Audrey R. Korotkin


“It Started With A Whisper” – Kol Nidre / Erev Yom Kippur 2015

“Gail, I need to talk with you about something this afternoon. Can you come by my office at 3 p.m.?” Adam Galinsky, who was then an assistant professor, thought his request to a doctoral student in his department was innocuous enough. So he didn’t give it a second thought. Gail showed up right on time. Galinsky thought she seemed a little nervous but plunged right in with some minor changes he wanted to make to a joint research project. When they were finished, he was taken aback by her stern admonishment: “Never do that to me again!”

Do what? – he wondered?

“Scare the hell out of me by saying you needed to talk to me,” she said. “I spent the whole day obsessing about whether I was in trouble.”

“Initially, I thought that Gail must be particularly oversensitive,” Galinsky wrote in a recent New York Times essay. “But not long after that, the chairwoman of my department, a full professor who would one day vote on my tenure case, asked me to come and see her later in the day. For the next five hours, I was consumed with fear that I had done something wrong – until we met and I learned that the topic was also insignificant.”

These two situations got Galinsky to thinking about how we use language – and the power that words have, especially when spoken by a person with a lot of power to a person who has much less. He gives it the descriptive name, “the power amplification effect.” And on these Days of Awe, it’s a reminder that sometimes it’s not just about what we say, or how we say it – but to whom we address our words.

A few years ago, I stood on this bima and delivered a High Holy Day sermon on civility in public discourse. But it hardly pays to plead for that anymore. Especially not in a presidential election season, when candidates already have been tagging each other as jerk, jackass, or just plain stupid. The language used by politicians and celebrities of course trickles down to the blogosphere and Twitter, where name-calling and insults are almost a requirement, especially if what you’re looking for is validation of your own offensive, narrow-minded slurs.

So my new tactic is to appeal to one person at a time in the hopes that each of us might recognize that we, too, are people with power, which means that when we speak, people listen. And sometimes we may be oblivious to the impact of our words.

Galinsky wrote that there are three types of communication that become amplified by power: direct communication, silence, and ambiguity. Each of us might use – or misuse – our words in any of these situations.

Let’s start with direct communication. Simple. Straightforward. What could possibly go wrong? Galinsky relates that when he was a first-year doctoral student, he shared an idea in class on the very first day. The professor dismissed his comment by saying simply, “That is completely wrong,” violently shaking his head. Said Galinsky: “I was mortified.”

But a few weeks later, he passed the same professor in the hallway. “He stopped me with a smile and said he had enjoyed reading one of my papers,” wrote Galinsky. And then brightened his student’s day by adding: “You are a lovely writer.”

Now, I don’t know if the professor had second thoughts about shooting down Galinsky’s idea, thereby humiliating him on the first day in front of the whole class. But he certainly did not miss the chance to make up for it, making sure that Galinsky knew he did not consider him a lost cause. More than that, he took the opportunity to build up Galinsky’s self-esteem and his attitude toward the teacher and the class.

He understood the power that a professor has over a student, especially one who aspires to be a teacher himself, and who looks to his professors for validation. As Rabbi Yossi taught: “May my portion be with those who inspire pupils to enter and sit in the house of study, and not with those who inspire them to rise up and leave the house of study.” Inspiration and support worked for Galinsky, who’s now a professor at Columbia Business School.

We generally think of direct communication as a good thing. But, clearly, that’s not always the case. Not when it embarrasses or humiliates or debases. Not when it is said off-handedly, or carelessly, or is needlessly critical. Not when that criticism is amplified by the power you hold over somebody else.

And especially not when those words are intentionally meant to inflict pain or discomfort, or to reinforce the power of one individual over another.

This past year, an Orthodox rabbi in Washington DC, Barry Freundel, was sentenced to six and a half years in jail for “mikveh peeping” – using hidden cameras and recording devices to spy on naked young women in the ritual bath attached to his synagogue.

At least 100 women were victimized, 18 of whom testified against him. They were put into that situation largely through Rabbi Freundel’s emotional and verbal abuse, which he used to control them. They were young, vulnerable women who came to him for conversion to Judaism. He warned them constantly that their fate was in his hands, that he could do as he pleased with them, that he could hold up their futures and leave them in spiritual limbo indefinitely if they didn’t comply with his demands. With some, he kept up the threats for years. And they were so afraid and intimidated, most never said a thing until other victims brought his actions to light.

Just last week, the American Nurses’ Association declared it would no longer tolerate abuse of nurses in the workplace. That shouldn’t be necessary, should it? But among other things, 42 percent of RN’s who responded to a survey said they’d been bullied by people with authority over them. That included not only physical intimidation but hostile remarks, verbal threats, spreading gossip, and intimidation. And this is in health-care settings, where you’d think there would be a high priority on creating a work environment that is safe and nurturing.

Starting this year, all of us who work with religious school children are considered mandated reporters by the state when it comes to reporting suspected child abuse. We’ve had to take classes and receive clearances. Most of the time we think of physical or sexual abuse when it comes to kids. But emotional abuse also counts as child abuse, and it often plays out in verbal threats and criticism. Constantly belittling a child – telling him he is stupid or worthless, criticizing her, blaming her for somebody else’s mistakes, threatening abandonment.

It often goes hand in hand with physical or sexual abuse. You’d better not tell anyone or your mother will hate you. You’d better keep our secret because nobody else wants you.

All direct communication. The words of a person in power to a person with little power can be debilitating, and even deadly.

But silence can be devastating as well. My Grandmom Freda always said: If you can’t say something nice about somebody, don’t say anything at all. But sometimes silence carries with it implicit criticism. Sometimes withholding important information is a potent weapon that people in power use, often in inappropriate ways.

Before we moved here to Pennsylvania, Don served as the editorial director of a magazine in Lexington, Kentucky. It was part of a large publishing company based in California. For months, there were rumors that the company was in poor financial health, that staff would be let go, that projects would be shelved, that income was being diverted under the table from this publication to others in the company.

But the owner never said a thing. He continued to have staff and freelancers do their jobs – while the paychecks to contract employees like Don became more and more infrequent.
One day, each employee received a letter from the owner via Federal Express, informing them that he had folded the magazine and locked down the building. Nobody would even be able to go back to retrieve personal possessions. Freelancers got stiffed, some of them owed tens thousands of dollars.

After years of lawsuits, they all got about five cents on the dollar, after working in good faith for somebody who deceived them with silence. Had the owner – the person with the power over them – had he been honest with them about the company’s financial condition, they would have had the information they needed to make professional choices that were best for themselves and their families. They would have been sad, but they would not have been left emotionally drained and financially distressed.

And what about silence in situations involving physical danger? Adam Galinsky relates in that essay that his brother, Michael, was once on a flight from Colorado to Montana when, without warning, the plane dropped nearly a thousand feet in 12 seconds. It happened so quickly that a flight attendant hit her head on the ceiling and was knocked unconscious, and an infant flew up in the air and back two rows – thankfully uninjured. But the cabin crew maintained silence, never telling the passengers what was going on. Without information, Michael felt unsafe. Of course his mind went racing to the worst-case scenarios.

Some people do understand the devastating consequences of silence. Last week I mentioned the wonderful surgeon who excised the tumor from my breast. She personally took the time to call me late on a Friday afternoon to tell me that, contrary to her preliminary conclusion, I did indeed have cancer. She said she didn’t think she should be holding onto information through the weekend without giving it to me. She understood how terrifying it is to be in a state of limbo because of somebody else’s silence.

Between silence and direct communication there is the issue of ambiguity. And that’s where Adam Galinsky really got himself into trouble. The phrase “I need to talk to you later” may have seemed straightforward to him when he said it to a student. But when his supervisor said it to him, he realized that it really wasn’t. Why does she want to talk to me? – he wondered. Am I in trouble? Am I getting fired? What did I do wrong? Galinsky wrote: “Because the powerful have the capacity to punish others, seemingly straightforward requests can incite unchecked worry.”

The pilots could have provided at least a little information to reassure frantic passengers that their lives were not in danger. The owner of Don’s magazine company could have been open and honest with employees whose livelihoods depended on the paychecks that he signed. And, as Galinsky himself learned, when you’re the one in a position of power over another, it helps to add information to the mix. “I need to talk to you later” can become: “I need to see you later today, but don’t worry – it’s nothing bad.”

The “power amplification effect” takes place anywhere and any time one person has power over another. The inherent inequality in such a relationship gives more psychological force to the words of the powerful. That can apply to a doctor, a rabbi, a pilot, or an employer. But it also can apply to a bigger child, a more experienced colleague, even a friend with information to share or to withhold.

Sadly, Galinsky writes that, according to his research, the powerful express less gratitude and less praise than those with less power.

We must understand the power each of us has to change that dynamic, day by day, in situations big and small. As an example, the Talmud tells us of this dispute that raged for three years between the disciples of the two great sages Hillel and Shammai:

“The students at one school insisted, ‘Jewish law is in accord with our views,’ while the students in the other said, ‘No, Jewish law is in accord with our views.’ Eventually, a Bat Kol, a Divine Voice, came forth from heaven and declared: ‘The utterances of this group and the utterances of that group are both the words of the living God, but the law is according to the School of Hillel.’

“But since both are the words of the living God, by what merit did the School of Hillel have Jewish law affixed to their rulings? Because they were kindly and humble, and taught not only their own rulings but also those of the School of Shammai – even teaching Shammai’s rulings before their own. This teaches us that one who humbles himself will be exalted by God will be exalted; but the one who exalts himself will be humbled by God.”

The “power amplification effect” can be used to control another person, to get what you what from him, or simply to toy with him – to build yourself up by knocking somebody else down.
But it also can be a force for good. We can use it to build up somebody’s self-esteem. We can empower others to grow in their careers, or to make the best personal decisions for themselves. We can alleviate stress and anxiety in inherently stressful situations. We can show respect for others’ abilities. We can be disciples of Hillel.

All it takes is a word or two of praise, a sincere thank you for a job well done, an important piece of information shared. And an acknowledgement that how we use our power defines us as ethical human beings.

May we learn to use our power wisely and justly. Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.
©2015 Audrey R. Korotkin