Tuesday, September 27, 2005

It's Not That Easy Being Green

"Did you read the story about your neighbor in yesterday's Post?" a friend asked.

I hadn't.

As it turns out, this neighbor—a man whom I knew was in real estate because I hear him on his cellphone in the back of the shul sometimes—had sold all of his real estate holdings, and made some money. Okay, not some money, a lot of money. How much?

How does five hundred million dollars sound?

It was all right there in the paper. And I daven with the guy. While I had always assumed he was wealthy, I never imagined he was that wealthy. So how do I react to the news? I’m jealous, of course.

And it's not the first time either. Every time I hear about someone who made a fortune—through investments, an invention, a top-40 song on the radio—my initial reaction is a pang of jealousy. Why not me? I’m smart enough. I’m talented enough. Where’s my fortune?

My second response, coming quickly on the heels of the first, is to disparage the wealthy. They’re corrupt. They made their money dishonestly. Sure, anyone can make a bundle—if they lie, cheat and steal. But since I don't do any of those things—because I am a prince among men—it’s not a level playing field. If I need to be poor in order to prove my virtue, then so be it!

But what if I know the person in question, and I know that he’s not corrupt. What if I’m pretty sure that he’s actually a good guy, who makes an honest living and shares his wealth with the schools, the shuls, the community organizations? What then?

Third response: Money isn't everything! I then proceed to recollect all of the terrible things that happened to wealthy people who I know. The kids who ended up on drugs. The ones who died when their private jet crashed. The money ruined them, or at least it didn’t save them.

If that doesn’t do the trick, I think of all the reasons why I’m a better person. Yes, they may be richer—but I'm better looking. I have more friends. I'm more religious. I'm more learned. I’m more talented. I have more to offer the world.

Petty, petty, petty.

Why can’t I simply say: G-d bless.

G-d bless them and their wealth. I'm sure they were given it for a reason, and I hope they makes the most of it. I'm confident that if and when G-d decides that there is a good reason for me tobecome rich, He will rain millions down my chimney, posthaste.

But until then, I ought to remain as content as if I actually had the money.

Admittedly, it's hard. No, not hard, near impossible. With bills to pay. With work to go to. With tuition bills coming due. With the holidays, and their concomitant expenses, upon us. There are financial reasons to worry. How is that fair?

How is it fair that I should struggle while they don't, that I should wonder if I can afford a new tie while their biggest concern is which of their six new thousand-dollar suits to wear on the first evening of Yom Tov?

Their problems are not my problems, because—to my mind—they have no real problems.

And yet.

Aren't all these thoughts a challenge to G-d's Infinite Wisdom? Aren't they a rebellion against His Supreme Authority? Am I not simply indicating my displeasure at how He runs His world?

Should I not be ashamed?

But here's a better question:

I’m walking down a street in Lakewood or Monsey or Baltimore and I see a man walking toward me. His jacket is rumpled, his hat dusty, his shoes scuffed. Scurrying to or from the beis medrash, the look on his face shows that he’s a bit oblivious to the world around him. Assuming this person has a tremendous wealth of Torah knowledge, do I feel the same instant pang of envy that I do when I see the wealthy guy in shul?

Do I start to think the same disparaging things?

Do I start to make the same comparisons to myself?

Do I actually feel jealous of the guy?

Why is it that I am immediately jealous of another man's money but not of another man's Torah? Particularly when I know that the money will eventually leave his hand, but the Torah will never leave his soul.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Making It Personal

As life moves along its merry path, I’ve begun to notice a paunch developing around my midsection. As someone who used to run six miles a day since high school and who’d always been thin, this was nothing short of a debacle. I never imagined the day would come when I might need to lose weight. But more than the issue of pounds is the issue of health. Quite frankly, I’m out of shape.

So I joined a gym.

Along with my new membership came a complimentary (as in free, not flattering) session with a personal trainer. I’d never worked with a personal trainer before, because I’m what you might call the self-starting type. Even with a free session waved in my face, I was reluctant to turn my body over to a professional. I kept pushing it off, preferring to begin on my own—some bike work, weights, swimming. But eventually, I relented, and got around to booking an appointment.

What a world of difference.

The level of workout you get with a trainer far surpasses that which you would achieve alone. A trainer motivates you, pushes you, and simply witnesses your workout. Sure you could probably put together for yourself an exercise regimen from a fitness book, but when you have someone else telling you what to do, showing you how to do it, coaxing and goading you to do those last two or three reps, and then calming you down when you think you’ve seriously injured yourself—the quality of your workout, and thus your overall health—improves dramatically.

The trainer also makes working out easier. First, even if you want to skip the gym, you can’t because (a) he’s expecting you and (b) you’ve already paid him for the session. Moreover, the psychological aspect of the workout is less stressful, in the sense that all you have to do is show up, shut up, and do as you’re told. No more worrying about the quality of your workout.

I don’t know about you, but, I’m always concerned with my workouts. With weights for example, am I lifting too little and not building muscle, or too much and risking injury? Is that extra rep the one that’s going to give me the chiseled torso I covet, or send me to the hospital with a herniated disc? Are ten more minutes on the treadmill going to enhance my cardiovascular health or give me a stress fracture? Is this workout going to motivate me to come again tomorrow or make me so sore that I’ll never step foot in a gym again?

Am I pushing myself too much or too little?

With the right trainer, these questions disappear. I know if I surrender myself to his regimen that in three months I’ll be a dramatically different person.

So I got to thinking: What if I had a personal trainer for my whole life—work, learning, writing, family?

It's not such a wild notion. The Mishnah advises us, “Kenei lecha chaver—Acquire for yourself a friend.” This friend, explains Rabbeinu Yonah, has a three-fold purpose: Someone to study Torah with, someone to look after your religious observance, and someone to consult with and advise you on all matters of life. Rabbi Efraim Epstein once suggested getting a personal mashgiach—a paid professional, to follow you around during your day and motivate you, encourage you, steer you, rebuke you. Whatever the situation calls for.

Imagine someone who wakes you up in the morning, hauls you out of bed and drives you to the synagogue. After services, he studies with you, then serves you a nutritious breakfast. He escorts you on the subway ride to work, elbowing you when an elderly woman gets on—a subtle nudge to give up your seat. At the office, he listens in on your phone calls, lifting a finger as the conversation begins to veer off into loshon hara and slapping your wrist when you accidentally let slip a profanity. He scrutinizes your interaction with your colleagues—making sure you don't stare at the woman whose blouse is a bit too low cut, even by Corporate America's declining standards—all the while scribbling notes in his mashgiach notebook.

Wouldn’t your life—spiritual and otherwise—improve dramatically?

We need partners in every area of life. A spouse, a chavrusah, a best friend. It's one of G-d’s ways of saying He doesn’t want us to be alone. We should always have someone to keep an eye on us, someone to lift us up when we’re down, someone to set us straight when we're on a bender, someone to bounce ideas off of. And we must also assume that same role for our friends and colleagues. It may not take a village, but that certainly doesn’t mean that we can go at it alone.

If you need me, I’ll be at the gym.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

My Basketball Diaries

I am not one of the world’s better athletes. In fact I’m part of the reason why people picture Jews as accountants and lawyers, not hockey players and NASCAR drivers. Nonetheless, despite—or perhaps in celebration of—my mediocrity, I enjoy a game of basketball here and there. I can jump, pass, and run around. Everything except shoot. I can’t shoot for beans.

But one thing I’ve noticed: when I’m going all out on the court, my whole team plays better. Even if I’m the weakest player and not making any statistically significant contributions, we seem to win (or come closer to winning) when I push myself. I may not be scoring any points or stealing the ball from the opponent, but still somehow my hustle is making an impact on the court.

I take this as a message from On High that, even on the basketball court, the good L-rd wants me to move my tuches.

When I try harder, I succeed more often. Even when my efforts are not yielding direct results, results are nonetheless filtering through, seemingly on their own and out of the blue. Somehow the effort finds its reward.

The Talmud states, “Don’t believe one who says, ‘I tried but did not succeed’; nor believe one who says, ‘I did not try, yet I succeeded’; only believe the one who says, ‘I tried and I succeeded.’” Though the Talmud is referring to Torah study, I find those words apply to much of life.

Let me give you another example.

At work, I’ll sit down to make phone calls to clients and prospects. I pick up the phone, begin dialing—and good things start to happen. Sometimes, those results are direct. I dial, my prospect is home, he picks up the phone, we speak, he’s interested. An account is opened.

Other times, it doesn’t happen that way at all. I call a few people. They’re not home. I leave messages. I get a hold of a few of them who can’t talk just now. I get frustrated.

And then the phone rings.

It’s a client calling to ask me how to wire money into his account. Or it’s a banker calling to introduce me to a high-net worth prospect. These productive calls coming in have nothing to do with those fruitless calls going out. They could have just as easily come in while I was twiddling my thumbs.

But when I’m twiddling my thumbs, they usually don’t.

Don’t get me wrong: the reciprocity isn’t perfect. Not even close. Believe me, I’ve known much failure and frustration in my life—even when I’ve expended myself. I could tell you about the NCSY chapter that never panned out, the yeshiva in Israel that I had to leave, the aborted attempt at a writing career. But I have generally viewed those failures as a sign to move on, pocketing the “learning experience” for whatever it may be worth.

When I’m onto something that’s working, however, it always works better when I’m pushing myself.

G-d certainly wants us to work. We recite the Kiddush each Friday night declaring that G-d created the world “la’asos—to do.” Often people answer the question, “What do you do?” by stating what they are: “I’m a doctor/lawyer/florist.” That may be their job, their title, their degree, but it really doesn’t answer the question—it doesn’t describe what they do. Or even if they do.

Working for a large firm, I know plenty of people whose job description is “don’t lose your job.” They aren’t really contributing anything. But they show up, keep their heads down and their noses clean. I’m not offended by them; I simply feel bad for them. They’re not really doing.

Even those of us who are doing, may not be doing it to the best of our abilities. Are teachers constantly looking for ways to reach the kids who don’t seem to be learning? Are parents unfailingly searching to improve how they raise their children? Are financial advisors steadfastly seeking to safely grow their clients’ portfolios?

Are we moving our tucheses?

It’s up to us not simply “to do,” but to do so aggressively—to utilize our talents, skills, and energies to help create a better society, both Jewishly and generally.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Truth and Consequences

I’m not the biggest fan of what my family likes to call “Hanoch Teller” stories—those feel-good tales that always end happily ever after. My aunt, in a moment of levity, once wondered aloud about the man who, after missing his flight in order to daven Minchah with a minyan, catches the next plane—which promptly crashes. Where’s his story?

Keeping that caveat in mind, what follows is a bona fide Hanoch Teller story.

A couple I know was having difficulty getting pregnant. Over the course of their eight-year marriage, they tried every fertility therapy imaginable, they sought the counsel and blessings of great rabbis and scholars—but to no avail. They were on the verge of resigning themselves to being childless, accepting that perhaps parenting was a blessing that G-d, in His infinite wisdom, was not going to bestow upon them.

Then one day, my friend’s brother had a brainstorm. He thought of somebody whom he was confident could help. He approached this person and asked him to pray for his brother and sister-in-law. The person accepted the brother’s plea and pray he did. One month later, she was pregnant.

Who was this great rabbi who blessed the couple?, you ask. What was the name of this holy mystic whose prayers pierced the Heavenly gates? You probably never heard of him. Because, actually, he isn’t a great rabbi or a holy mystic. He’s just a regular person like you and me. Well, almost regular. You see, he had once been engaged to the woman for whom he prayed.

In the immortal words of Dave Barry: I am not making this up.

When my friend’s brother tracked him down, he found this young man married with children of his own. No, he said, he bore no anger toward his former fiancé. He harbored no ill will toward her.

But that didn’t satisfy the brother. He reiterated the importance of his mission. The life of a family was at stake, children were being withheld from this couple. Could he, the former fiancé, acknowledge that perhaps deep down there remained some lingering disappointment, traces of anger, resentment, pain? Could he concede these subconscious emotions and release them? Could he wholeheartedly forgive the person who caused them? Could he then pray for her?

He could. He did. He forgave. He prayed.

All our actions have consequences. In the physical world, if you drop an egg, it will fall, break, and leave a mess—regardless of your intention. Every day the paper has a story about a traffic “accident.” Someone got hurt or killed by someone else who wasn’t paying attention. Did the driver intend for the accident to happen? It doesn’t matter. In the physical world, actions—whether done maliciously or absentmindedly—have reactions.

So, too, the “physics” of interpersonal relationships dictate that our behavior will always leave an impression.

The Talmud tells the story of a Sage named Rebbe Yochanan, whose eyebrows were so long that they covered his eyes. He once met up with another Sage, Rav Kahana, whose lip was split in such a way that he looked like he was smirking. Rebbe Yochanan thought that Rav Kahana was smirking at his eyebrows, and became dispirited. Immediately, Rav Kahana died.

It goes without saying that Rav Kahana was not trying to hurt Rebbe Yochanan’s feelings. Nevertheless, the pain he felt, however inadvertent, was real. And Rebbe Yochanan was a Torah giant of such stature that his pain produced punishment. Even Rav Kahana’s similar stature as a giant of Torah was not enough to mitigate the consequences. If anything it amplified them, for the greater a person is, the more he is held liable.
But wait. There’s more.

Sometimes even doing the right thing and having a positive effect, causes negative fallout. The final verse in the Book of Esther describes the prophet Mordechai, who had just saved the Jewish people from annihilation, as “liked by most of his bretheren.” Most? Not all? Rashi explains that some of his colleagues distanced themselves from him because his involvement in politics had interfered with his Torah scholarship.

Even a man as great as Mordechai, who saved the Jewish nation, whose name lives on to this day, was, in some respects, demoted for his heroic behavior. Does that mean that he shouldn’t have acted as he did? Of course not. But the fact remained: while he was busy rescuing the Jews, he wasn’t keeping up with his studies.

Actions—even necessary ones—have consequences, too.

Where do we go from here? Well, for one thing, we must be ever vigilant about the negative effects—miniscule though they may be—that our behavior causes. Whether it’s cutting someone off in traffic or forgetting to wish a neighbor good morning. But even when we do a good thing, a necessary thing, which requires a little pain—disciplining children, rebuking a friend—we must realize that unintended consequences lurk.

After the “Kol Nidrei” service on Yom Kippur eve, there is a prayer that follows called “Tefillah Zakah.” In it, we forgive everyone who caused us harm, however slight, however unintentional, and even with good intentions in mind. Let’s get a head start on the upcoming Days of Awe and begin pardoning today.