Saturday, February 29, 2020

Work in the Helping Professions (Brachos 58)

The first Jewish president calls up his mother and invites her over for Passover.
"Oy, I'll need to book a flight and it's going to cost so much!"
Her son responds, "Mom! I'm the president! I'll send Air Force One for you!”
"Oy, I'll need to find a cab and schlep my bags. It's just too much!"
"Mom! I'm the president! I'll pick you up! Then my secret service agents will carry your luggage for you!"
"Oy, I'll need to book a hotel."
"Mom!  I'm the president! You can stay at the White House!"
Finally, she gives in.  "Okay," she says, almost begrudgingly. Two minutes later, her best friend Shprintza calls.
"Nu, Sarah’le, what's new?"
"Oy, I'm going to my son for Pesach."
"Who, the doctor?"
"No . . . the other one."

״לְכֹל לְרֹאשׁ״ — אָמַר רַב חָנָן בַּר רָבָא אָמַר רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן: אֲפִילּוּ רֵישׁ גַּרְגִּיתָא מִן שְׁמַיָּא מַנּוּ לֵיהּ
Rav Chanan bar Rava quoted Rabbi Yocḥanan: Even the chief waterhole digger is appointed by Heaven.

תָּנוּ רַבָּנַן: הָרוֹאֶה אוּכְלוּסֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, אוֹמֵר: ״בָּרוּךְ … חֲכַם הָרָזִים״ — שֶׁאֵין דַּעְתָּם דּוֹמָה זֶה לָזֶה, וְאֵין פַּרְצוּפֵיהֶן דּוֹמִים זֶה לָזֶה
The Sages taught: One who sees multitudes of Israel recites: Blessed…Who knows all secrets, for their minds are unlike each other and their faces are unlike each other.

As cliché as it sounds, every Jewish parent seems to want their child to become a doctor, lawyer, or accountant.  Rav Chanan’s teaching is important on so many levels.  First, we need to know that whichever fields our children choose, it’s not their decision.  If they’ve pursued their passion, then it was implanted in their soul by the Creator.  Hashem ensures that every position in this world, even the most mundane, is filled by willing individuals.

How is that possible?  It’s vital to recognize that the same way that no two people have the same face, no two people have the same minds and perspectives.  If there are a million different faces out there, there are just as many different mindsets.

Think about like this: Are there certain occupations that you would never engage in, even if they paid you a million bucks?  Maybe you can’t stand the sight of blood and so there’s no way you could imagine being a surgeon.  Maybe you hate numbers and the thought of looking at balance sheets and tax forms every day would keep you far away from accountancy.  Some people dream of become flight attendants on account of all the international travel perks that come with the job.  Other people couldn’t imagine the thought of spending hours and hours in a metal tube, waiting on passengers with unreasonable expectations.  Some people love driving, finding it relieves their stress.  They cherish the thought of spending days in a transport truck driving from one end of the country to the other.  Others find driving incredibly stressful and couldn’t imagine being on the road all day, every day.  That’s the blessing of a million different and unique mindsets.

Unfortunately, too many parents find it difficult to accept that their children are on a mission from Heaven that might be different to the mission they’ve chosen for their kids.  As parents, we certainly have a duty to direct and guide our children to make rational career decisions.  At the same time, however, we mustn’t box them in to certain choices, just because we hold particular views of the hierarchy of various occupations.  If they have certain inklings which are not entirely unreasonable, we need to encourage them to fulfil their appointed Divine mission.

The second reason that Rav Chanan’s teaching is of paramount importance pertains to the high regard we must have for all people, no matter their chosen trade or profession.  You might never have considered becoming a refuse loader (a.k.a. bin man), but you’d better be exceedingly grateful to the fellow who did.  Somehow, G-d placed into his heart the seed that it would be pretty neat to get up early each morning, get paid to do your daily workout consisting of cardio and weight training, and then be done for the day by early afternoon, with the rest of the day off. 

When you think about it like that, you realize how much respect you should have for every person, regardless of their occupation.  What would you do without the refuse loader? Imagine nobody wanted the job and you had to take your own rubbish down to the dump each week.  Now, that’s what we call the helping professions!  And the same is true for almost any occupation you could think of.  If there’s someone else doing it and saving you from engaging in it, you owe them a debt of gratitude. 

For every occupation on the planet, Hashem created a human being with a desire to engage in it.  They’re not just doing a job; they’re on a mission from G-d.  That’s the beauty of all the different mindsets that the Creator imbued each and every one of us with.  May you find your calling in life and fulfil your Divine mission and may you respect every member of every occupation, and always remember that without them, your life would be very different!

Friday, February 28, 2020

Maximizing Creativity

Brachos 57

Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah was only eighteen years old when he was approached by his colleagues to assume the mantle of Chief Rabbi.  In order to help him with his age insecurity, a miracle occurred and overnight, his beard went white.  As a result, we read in the Pesach Hagadah, “Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah says: Behold, I am like seventy years old.”

Upon receiving the request to appoint him to the position, he initially demurred.  “Let me ask my wife,” he told them.  Upon arriving home and discussing the matter with her, she concluded, “It’s probably not worth it.  It won’t be long before they forgive Rabban Gamliel and reappoint him to the position.”  Rabbi Elazar responded, “Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all . . .”   

As one would expect, Mrs. Elazar ended up proving to be correct, and they restored Rabban Gamliel to the position.  Nevertheless, in order to avoid demoting Rabbi Elazar, he continued to serve as the Chief Rabbi one week each month.

שְׁלֹשָׁה מְשִׁיבִין דַּעְתּוֹ שֶׁל אָדָם, אֵלּוּ הֵן: קוֹל, וּמַרְאֶה, וָרֵיחַ. שְׁלֹשָׁה מַרְחִיבִין דַּעְתּוֹ שֶׁל אָדָם, אֵלּוּ הֵן: דִּירָה נָאָה, וְאִשָּׁה נָאָה, וְכֵלִים נָאִים
Three things calm a person’s mind.  They are: Voice, Vision, and Vapor.  Three things broaden a person’s mind.  They are: A beautiful abode, a beautiful wife, and beautiful utensils.

We all have good days and bad days.  Sometimes our difficult days are based upon things that happen beyond our control.  Other times, we simply can’t explain why we’re feeling down.  According to kabbalistic thought, just like a flickering candle, the soul experiences an ebb and flow connection with its heavenly source.  When it’s further away, every step of the day can feel like you’re carrying a pile of bricks.  When it’s closer, every step of the day feels like you’re walking on air.  For those tough days, the Gemara offers advice on how to revive the soul: listening, seeing, and smelling. 

The Voice.  Listening to music has incredible soul-reviving power.  Chasidic thought teaches that music is more spiritual than words.  Music expresses what words alone cannot.  Music can touch a part of the soul that the words of the most experienced and gifted counsellor could never approach.  Of course, there’s music and there’s music.  Some contemporary music is not designed to settle the soul.  So you need to choose carefully.  Once you’ve established which genre of music calms your soul, the key is, not merely to listen to the music, but to experience it.  To feel it.  To connect with it.  To give it your all.  Ideally, we’re talking about traditional Jewish music, but the Gemara does not seem to specify the genre or source of the music.  Listening to the music doesn’t mean turning on the radio in the background, it means taking a serious piece of music and allowing it to transport you to an elevated plane of existence.  Allowing it to soothe your soul.

The Vision.  Seeing the Creator’s beauty likewise has an incredibly calming power.  Watching a beautiful sunrise or sunset, gazing at the stars, looking out upon the ocean, all have a soothing effect upon the soul.  Why do these moving visions touch the soul?  According to Kabbalah, all of G-d’s creations have a soul – a Divine life-force.  Every star, every mountain, every drop of ocean water is sustained by the Divine energy infused within it, its particular soul.  When you gaze at the Almighty’s creations, your soul connects with their soul, and the souls are uplifted together in a spiritual moment, that cannot be described in this-worldly terms.

The Vapor.  Smelling is a pleasure of a bygone era.  In centuries past, people would carry satchels of spices that would sniff periodically to soothe their minds and revive their souls.  The closest experience we have today is the feeling of driving out to the countryside and breathing in the fresh air.  Or taking in the powerful aroma of the sea.  The source for the connection between smell and the soul is the original creation of humankind.  When Hashem created Adam, “He blew into his nostrils the breath of life.”  The soul entered the body via the nose and so the nose is acutely sensitive to matters of the soul.

Of course, settling your mind, body, and soul is not sufficient in life.  After that, you need to let your psyche run wild with creativity.  That’s what makes humankind greater than all other species.  What’s the best way to ensure the highest productivity of your mind, body and soul?  What do you require to achieve maximum broadening of your mind?  The Gemara lists three factors: your abode, your spouse, and your utensils. 

What is the meaning of a beautiful abode?  To broaden your mind, first you need a good working (and thinking) environment.  Every individual has their optimal workspace, the place where their creativity is maximized.  Some companies have found that their employees are most productive in an open work environment, a space that allow maximal collaborative efforts.  Other companies find that their employees work best when sitting in separate offices.  Some individuals are most creative when sitting in a coffee shop.  Others are most creative sitting by the side of a pool.  Only you know your ideal creative space.  But it’s important to find it if you want to maximize the broadening of your mind.

The next factor is having a beautiful spouse, not in the physical sense, but in their capacity as your ‘ezer kenegdo’ – your helpmate.  Ezer means help and kenegdo means opposite.  Eve was created to challenge Adam, and thereby help him reach his full potential.  Your spouse is the person who knows you intimately.  Again, not in the physical sense, but in the psychological sense.  If you wish to broaden your mind and maximize your creativity, you need someone to bounce ideas off.  The best person to engage with is the person that understands you the most thoroughly.  As a creativity builder, your spouse is considerably more effective than a mentor or a teacher.  There’s no question or topic too mundane or out-of-the-box to broach with your spouse.  They will never judge you, they are in touch with your very soul.  We have countless stories of our greatest Sages and the conversations they had with their spouses, from Rachel, the wife of Rabbi Akiva, to Beruriah, the wife of Rabbi Meir, to Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, prior to becoming the Chief Rabbi! 

The third important factor is having the right tools to maximize your creative talent.  For a graphic artist, it means investing in a computer with the highest level of graphics card.  For a medical researcher, it means maintaining a top-of-the-line laboratory.   And even for a dayan (rabbinical court judge), it means purchasing the latest Bar-Ilan or Otzar HaHochma Torah USB, containing comprehensive collections of seforim (holy books) as they are uploaded periodically to digital format.  Whatever your passion or profession, having the best tools maximizes your creativity.  You may be seeking to broaden your mind, but there are tools to help you get there.

Your soul expresses its incredible power through the medium of the mind.  In order to maximize its productivity, it must be calm and provided with the right elements to unleash its creativity.  May you soothe your soul and maximize your creative power! 

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Positive Dreaming

Brachos 56

Ben Dama once inquired of his uncle, Rabbi Yishmael, “I just dreamed that both my jaws fell out.  What does it mean?”
 “Two Roman soldiers have conspired against you,” replied Rabbi Yishmael, “but before they had the chance to carry out their plot, their carriage veered off the edge of a cliff.”
Bar Kappara asked Rebbe, “I just dreamed that my nose (aff) fell off. What does it mean?”
“Fierce anger (charon aff) has been removed from you,” he replied.
He said to him, “I dreamed that both my hands were cut off.”
“It means that you will not require the labour of your hands,” he responded.
He said to him, “I dreamed that both my legs were cut off.”
“That means that you will ride on horseback,” came the reply.
“I dreamed that they said to me: You will die in Adar and not see Nisan.  Do you know what that might mean?” was Bar Kapara’s final query.
Rebbe replied, “You will pass from this world in complete honour (Adarusa), and not fall to temptation (Nisayon).”

שָׁאַל בֶּן דָּמָא בֶּן אֲחוֹתוֹ שֶׁל רַבִּי יִשְׁמָעֵאל אֶת רַבִּי יִשְׁמָעֵאל: רָאִיתִי שְׁנֵי לְחָיַי שֶׁנָּשְׁרוּ. אָמַר: שְׁנֵי גְּדוּדֵי רוֹמִי יָעֲצוּ עָלֶיךָ רָעָה, וּמֵתוּ. אֲמַר לֵיהּ בַּר קַפָּרָא לְרַבִּי: רָאִיתִי חוֹטְמִי שֶׁנָּשַׁר. אֲמַר לֵיהּ: חֲרוֹן אַף נִסְתַּלֵּק מִמְּךָ. אֲמַר לֵיהּ: רָאִיתִי שְׁנֵי יָדַי שֶׁנֶּחְתְּכוּ. אֲמַר לֵיהּ: לֹא תִּצְטָרֵךְ לְמַעֲשֵׂה יָדֶיךָ. אֲמַר לֵיהּ: רָאִיתִי שְׁתֵּי רַגְלַי שֶׁנִּקְטְעוּ. אֲמַר לֵיהּ: עַל סוּס אַתָּה רוֹכֵב. חֲזַאי דְּאָמְרִי לִי בַּאֲדָר מָיְתַתְּ וְנִיסָן לָא חָזֵית. אֲמַר לֵיהּ: בְּאַדְרוּתָא מָיְתַתְּ וְלָא אָתֵית לִידֵי נִסָּיוֹן
אֲמַר לֵיהּ קֵיסָר לְרַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בְּרַבִּי חֲנַנְיָא: אָמְרִיתוּ דְּחָכְמִיתוּ טוּבָא, אֵימָא לִי מַאי חָזֵינָא בְּחֶלְמַאי. אֲמַר לֵיהּ: חָזֵית דִּמְשַׁחֲרִי לָךְ פָּרְסָאֵי וְגָרְבִי בָּךְ, וְרָעֲיִי בָּךְ שִׁקְצֵי בְּחוּטְרָא דְּדַהֲבָא. הַרְהַר כּוּלֵּיהּ יוֹמָא, וּלְאוּרְתָּא חֲזָא. אֲמַר לֵיהּ שַׁבּוּר מַלְכָּא, לִשְׁמוּאֵל: אָמְרִיתוּ דְּחָכְמִיתוּ טוּבָא, אֵימָא לִי מַאי חָזֵינָא בְּחֶלְמַאי. אֲמַר לֵיהּ: חָזֵית דְּאָתוּ רוֹמָאֵי וְשָׁבוּ לָךְ, וְטָחֲנִי בָּךְ קַשְׁיָיתָא בְּרִחְיָיא דְּדַהֲבָא. הַרְהַר כּוּלֵּיהּ יוֹמָא, וּלְאוּרְתָּא חֲזָא

Caesar said to Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya, “You profess to be very clever. Tell me what I shall see in my dream.” He said to him, “You will see the Persians making you do forced labour, and despoiling you and making you feed unclean animals with a golden crook.”  He thought about it all day, and in the night he saw it in his dream.”  King Shapur once said to Shmuel, “You profess to be very clever. Tell me what I shall see in my dream.” He said to him, “You will see the Romans coming and taking you captive and making you grind date-stones in a golden mill.”  He thought about it the whole day and in the night saw it in a dream.

What happened to the Caesar and the king?  They started thinking a certain way.  And the more they pictured their thoughts, the more vivid they became.  And the more vivid and real they became in their minds, the more they couldn’t remove the thoughts from their minds.  Until they were so overcome by their thoughts that they materialized in their dreams.  That’s the power of the mind. 

This thought pattern is not only true of the world of our nocturnal states of consciousness, it happens in the real world too.  A popular chasidic adage advises, ‘Tracht gut, vet zayn gut’ – think positively, it will be positive.  The right attitude can bring positive results while negative thoughts may become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  

The process happens both over the short-term and the long-term.  Let’s talk about the short-term prospects of positive thinking.  Every day we face challenges in our lives.  They may be work-related, family-related, health-related.  While maintaining an optimistic attitude will not guarantee a positive outcome, it will definitely go a long way to improving the chances.

Maybe you’re dealing with a crisis at work.  A major customer has threatened to pull their account.  You could spend all day and night worrying about the income shortfall if they were to leave.  But the more you worry, the more you will convince yourself of the inevitability of the loss.  And once you’ve convinced yourself that it’s inevitable, you’ll start talking like that to your staff.  They, in turn, won’t respond quickly to the needs of the customer.  And voila, before you know it, the customer has indeed left. 

Now let’s consider the alternative scenario.  The customer calls to say they’re pulling their account.  You maintain an optimistic outlook, hoping and praying that they’re just having a bad day or that they’ll go to your competitor and realize that the service you offer is unparalleled.  ‘Why so cheerful today, Bob?’ your secretary asks.  ‘Because we’re about to keep a big customer,’ you reply.  And sure enough, company morale is maintained, the customer regrets their rash decision and you’ve reached a wonderful conclusion to the saga.

Or maybe you’ve received a terrifying medical prognosis.  You could spend your days worrying about what will happen to you.  And what will happen to your family.  But then the more you think about the gravity of the situation, the more anxious you become.  And the more anxious you become, the less your mind and body has the strength to face the illness.

There is another path.  True, the doctor told you that ninety percent of people don’t survive this terrible malady.  But why would you resign yourself to being one of the nine out of ten that don’t make it?  In every other aspect of your life, you pride yourself on being a top ten percent achiever.  Why should this situation be any different?  You are a winner and ten percent of people survive!  That positive perspective will not only improve the quality of your life today, it will increase your body’s ability to build the antibodies required to heal.

Let’s now turn to the benefits of long-term positive thinking.  Rabbi Yehoshua and Shmuel were able to manipulate the Caesar’ and the king’s dreams by convincing them to think a certain way.  We all have dreams, dreams of the future, dreams of how we see our lives playing out. 

But every dream is a mixture of reality and imagination.  Reality is based on what we know for certain.  Imagination is based on the possibilities.  On the one hand, if every time you start thinking about the future, you let reality get the better of you, your life will end up being pretty dull, uneventful, and path dependent.  On the other hand, if you let your imagination run wild, unfettered by the constraints of reality, you will not accomplish anything useful in life, because the possibilities and choices are endless.  The key to success in life is to strike the right balance between reality and imagination. 

Even though our dreams must be rooted in reality, the Gemara demonstrates that a lot of the reality depends on our attitude.  With the right perspective we can alter our reality.  Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya implanted a thought into the Caesar’s mind.  The more he thought about it, the more it weighed upon his mind.  Until eventually, it materialized in his dreams.  Thinking a certain way became so vivid and real that it became a self-fulfilling prophecy.  But if it works to produce a negative outcome, it most certainly works to produce a positive outcome.

If you keep telling yourself that things will turn out badly, then they probably will.  But if you keep telling yourself that your dreams will come true, then you increase the odds of success exponentially.  Based on these two contrasting approaches, every time a challenge comes your way, one of two things may happen.  The individual with the poor attitude will view the matter as a crisis, an insurmountable mountain.  The individual with the optimistic outlook will overcome the issue, because they know that it’s just a bump in the road. 

But, let’s be honest, how can we simply fool ourselves into believing everything’s going to be okay, when clearly it’s not?  When you see or hear things that suggest that things are not looking good, how is it even possible to maintain a positive outlook?   The answer lies in the visions that Ben Dama and Bar Kappara experienced.  They were awful.  There appeared to be no way to see those visions positively.  And yet Rabbi Yishmael and Rebbe managed to turn them around, reinterpret the stimuli, and plant positive thoughts in their friends’ minds.  There is hardly a situation in this world that cannot be viewed and examined from a different angle.  The key is to take a step back or seek advice from others who can size up the matter objectively, and find the alternative angle.

Much of the reality of our lives is created by our own thinking.  Positive thinking produces positive outcomes. And even when the end of the story isn’t quite the way we’d hoped for, with the right attitude, at least we get to spend the time in the interim with a love and zest for life, making the most of every minute.  May you always manage to see the positive in every situation and may all your dreams come true!