Counseling Inappropriate Technological Behavior? Consider One Cigarette!

One small step for man…one giant leap for man!

Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky, a renowned rabbi, teacher, and scholar, spent some of his last winters in Miami. One day, during a stroll, he was accosted by a distinguished looking man, dressed in a black fedora and a long black frock. “Shalom Aleichem, my master and teacher!” the man said energetically. Rav Yaakov was not a stranger to such receptions. His trademark congenial nature combined with his sagacity made him adored and revered by Jews the world over. Yet, something about this man’s greeting led Rav Yaakov to believe that he was supposed to recognize the man. Uncharacteristically, Rav Yaakov could not place his face. He apologized and asked him if they had ever met. The man smiled and told Rav Yaakov that they had met many years ago, in Canada.

When Rav Yaakov first came to North America from Europe, his first position was in an Orthodox shul in Toronto. Orthodoxy in those days was not as defined as today, and many of the congregants did not implement the work restrictions mandated on Shabbos. On Rav Yaakov’s first Shabbos Shuva, he gave a moving and emotional drasha (sermon) where he spoke about the charm and beauty of Shabbos. With his trademark warmth, Rav Yaakov spoke from his heart to the congregation. “My dear people,” he began. “I understand that you are not prepared to keep Shabbos. You might work and carry out business as usual. At the same time, you know that Shabbos is a unique and special day. Perhaps you can do something small in honor of Shabbos. Maybe consider smoking one less cigarette in honor of the specialness and sanctity of the day.”

The man in Miami Beach explained that he was one of those congregants who did not keep religious restrictions on Shabbos. When Rav Yaakov said those remarks on Shabbos Shuva, the man went home and discussed it with his family. “The rabbi is so warm, with such an encouraging and engaging smile. Let’s try it. I’ll smoke one less cigarette on Shabbos.” The man continued to explain that after a while he thought, “If I am having one less cigarette, I bet I can avoid having any cigarettes on Shabbos.” After a few weeks of abstaining, he gathered his family together and they decided that if the father made such a life change, they could really start having Shabbos meals too. Sometime later, the man remarked again, “if I am not smoking and we are having Shabbos meals, I bet I can manage not working on Shabbos either.” Eventually the man and his family became completely Shabbos observant, and then became scrupulous about all the commandments. The children grew up observant, and dedicated themselves to many years of intense Torah study. Their children continued on that path. The man himself now dressed the part of some of his coreligionists, with a long coat and black hat, and conducted his religious life with sharp contrast from the more cavalier approach of his youth.

The man said, “Rabi U’Mori (my master and teacher) might not remember me, but how could I ever forget him and the indelible impact he made on my family for generations…from one cigarette!”

This man’s interaction with Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky can make a halachic statement regarding counseling clients that manifest halachically discordant behaviors. An increasingly common example is Orthodox individuals that compulsively use the internet for pornographic purposes. This socioculturally and religiously dissonant internet use can cause sharp divides in marital relationships, social interaction, and religious practice and affiliation, and result in deep feelings of guilt and negativity about the self. In addition, it can be both indicative of and create emotional or psychological pain that the user is experiencing and is attempting to cover over or forget.  Most users are aware that their religious beliefs and culture sharply censures their behavior. At the same time, it can be habit forming and addictive and challenging to cease.

If a rabbi or psychotherapist suggests immediate termination of inappropriate behavior, the behavior might or might not cease, and the intense guilt and other presenting issues will usually linger and fester. On the other hand, a benevolent dialectic of acceptance of oneself, one’s current behavior, and one’s relationship with G-d, combined with analysis of factors that increase internet use and exploration of psychodynamic experiences that might have created it and foster it can be much more successful for the client. This approach does not usually demand cessation of the unwanted behavior. Therefore, a halachic risk with dialectic models is that they might allow one to be supported and persist with behavior that is halachically frowned upon, with termination as perhaps an eventual target, but not an immediate goal.

When I discussed the benefits of a broader dialectic of self-acceptance with Rav Mordechai Willig and queried about halachic support for it, he included that story of Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky in an affirmative response supporting dialectic interventions.

I have observed obfuscation in the Orthodox world, among rabbis, educators, and psychotherapists, as to how to target pornographic internet use in accordance with halacha. It is such an important dialogue that it is often not discussed, like many of life’s most important conversations.

To that end, I created a symposium, taking place in less than two weeks, in Passaic, NJ. On Sunday, May 7/ 11 Iyar, rabbis, rebbetzins, educators, and psychotherapists will come together for a symposium entitled: Practical Counseling of Inappropriate Technological Behavior: Halachic, Hashkafic, and Mental Health Perspectives. The speakers include Rav Mordechai Willig, as well as rabbinic and mental health practitioners. You can find the detailed schedule here. It is the first symposium that I know of to tackle illicit internet use in the Orthodox community with a synergy of the rabbinate and psychotherapy. I am eager for rabbis, educators, and therapists to join together to begin the discussion on this issue, which is becoming an increasingly common phenomenon in the Orthodox community.

Most of us can have similarities to that man in Miami Beach. We can be involved in emotional, religious, psychological, or physical behaviors that others might warmly encourage us to slowly terminate. When we accept ourselves and continue on that journey, we might end up making significant progress beyond what we had imagined, all because of one cigarette!

Please come and join the symposium! Exclusively for blog readers, there is an early registration discount until April 29, by clicking on this link after registration. (Do not use the standard link on the website. It is not discounted!)

That’s Very Personal

The pinnacle of the Exodus might help one exit personal predicaments.

This post is a repost from two months ago, when I entitled it, “O Say Can You See.” I am reposting it in honor of the Seventh Day of Pesach, when the splitting of the Red Sea occurred. Chag Sameach!

A people in bondage for over two centuries was majestically and miraculously led out of enslavement to its national destiny. The capstone of that magnificent exodus was the splitting of the mighty waters just as their persecutors hounded them. The Jewish people paraded through the Red Sea. The Egyptians, following them in hot in pursuit, drowned soon after. Exhilaration filled the air as the nation witnessed the miracle of G-d parting the Sea and flooding the forces of Egypt. The Jews were filled with gratitude and emotion, and erupted unanimously in resplendent poetry and song to G-d.

The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Shemos 15, pointed out to me by my friend Rabbi Ari Chechik) highlights a powerful aspect of the Jewish experience at the Red Sea. After the Egyptians drowned, the Sea ejected them onto the shore. The Jews walked along the banks and found the Egyptians that had wronged them. They pointed to the hands that brutally enslaved them and the arms that were merciless to them lying lifeless. They remarked to G-d “You did all these miracles for us, we will not be ingrates. Let us sing praises and song!”

The Midrash is highlighting a paradigm shift in the Israelite mindset. The Jews had experienced their miraculous salvation from Egypt as a people. G-d took His nation out of bondage and redeemed them from slavery. The salvation was on a national scale and the people on the whole were ecstatic. The Jewish people were profoundly thankful and might have expressed their national thanks for communal salvation.

Yet, when each Jew exited the Red Sea, he encountered a new experience of personal emancipation. Each former slave walked along the Sea and saw the specific Egyptian that was so callous and malicious to him lying lifeless. Among the thousands of corpses, each newly free man was able to sense his individuality. When each Jew realized that G-d had meted out retribution on his personal persecutor, the exodus had moved from being a solely national event to an intimate, personal one. Each Jew felt his own, special connection to G-d, and erupted in a personal song of euphoria.

The monologue in the Midrash describes each Jew’s mindset. He was formerly going to thank G-d as part of His nation. When he experienced his newly found intimate religious experience, he declared to himself that he will not lose that realization. He affirmed to notice the personal experience in addition to the national miracle and began to express his exultation as an individual among his compatriots. The Song of the Sea was composed in singular phraseology rather than using plurals. Even though millions of Jews sang it contemporaneously, each one felt his own uniqueness, individuality, and relationship with G-d.

In the United States, two mottos are often used, “In G-d We Trust” or “E Pluribus Unum (out of many – one).” When the Jews emerged from the Red Sea, they seamlessly integrated both ideas. Their trust in G-d was not only national, it was personal. Out of the pluribus of their fellow Jews, each felt unum, an intimate and special encounter with the Divine.

Modern society sometimes emphasizes community belonging and identity, both explicitly and implicitly. Religiously and culturally, we see value in creating a cohesive society of somewhat likeminded individuals. Does that come at the expense of individuality? Can we model our social organization to encourage individual religious feeling and expression like the Jews did after the splitting of the Red Sea? Perhaps greater attention to the beauty of individuality will foster a contemporary euphoric symphony similar to the exquisite Song of the Sea.

The Shot Glass Heard ‘Round the World

The amazing 2.81

How big is the goblet you use for the seder? Chances are that it is much larger than it has to be. The size requirement for each of the cups is shockingly less than three ounces – tiny!

This determination comes from a fascinating discussion in the Gemara and the poskim. The size of a cup needed for the four cups is called a reviis – which means “a quarter.” In our currency we use the term quarter as a shortened form of “a quarter of a dollar” and we refer to a quart which is a condensed form of “a quarter of a gallon.” Similarly, halacha uses the term reviis, a quarter, for volume. It means a quarter of a larger volume called a lug. A lug is the volume of six eggs.  That means that a reviis or quarter lug is the volume of 1 ½ eggs. (¼ of 6 is 1 ½.)

How much is the volume of an egg? Rabbi Yisroel Pinchos Bodner, author of Halachos of K’zayis, describes that he investigated the size of eggs with the United States Department of Agriculture. An average egg has the volume of 1.87 fluid ounces. If so, 1 ½ eggs is approximately 2.81 fluid ounces. That means that a reviis is just that – 2.81 fluid ounces.  Accordingly, the amount of wine you need to drink for each of the four cups is virtually negligible – less than 3 ounces. It is such a small amount that even people concerned with getting headaches or stomachaches can usually manage to drink such little wine. Furthermore, the halacha is that you ideally should drink the whole cup, but strictly speaking it is only necessary to drink more than half. That means that a person can get away with drinking less than an ounce and a half of wine for each of the four cups. That’s like drinking a shot glass worth of wine!

There is a catch. Halacha demands that you drink the whole or most of the cup that you are using, regardless of its size. If you use a standard sized Kiddush cup that hold around 6 or 7 ounces, you need to drink a lot more than if you use a smaller cup. You can only take advantage of this very small volume requirement if your cup is around that size. If your cup is bigger, you need to drink more.

Consequently, it might be worthwhile to get smaller cups for you to use at the seder. Some special silver Kiddush cups are pretty small. If you can’t find those, perhaps consider using demitasse espresso cups. They are usually approximately 3 ounces (demi=half, tasse=cup).

Exploring how big the cups for the seder need to be can be representative of the true meaning of cheirus – the freedom we celebrate on Pesach. Halacha mandates that the seder table demonstrate grandeur and magnificence. Yet, that is exceedingly more meaningful if the external splendor of the Pesach experience penetrates one’s mind, enriches his own existence and fosters a deeper connection to Hashem. Sometimes it is easy to delegate one’s own feeling of freedom and personal majesty to the mere performance of ritual and use of grandiose objects. It can be easier to procure a larger cup for the seder than to internalize the words of redemption that each cup represents.

As we approach Pesach, may we be privileged to  savor the liberating complexity of freedom and allow ourselves to be who we dream to be, regardless of the size of our seder cups.

Chag Kasher V’Sameach!

Adam and…Steve

Life’s biggest struggles can be in the courtroom of your own mind.

When you grow up you tend to get told the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money.

That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: And that is…everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you, and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.

Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.

  • Steve Jobs, 1995

You might enjoy reading that quote again and again. You might marvel at the elementary, yet deeply empowering words.  You will be struck with a feeling that you can do anything! Perhaps you will like the quote so much that you will find it on YouTube and watch it several times, progressively feeling your confidence build as you prepare to do whatever you set your mind to.

And then…you might return to the same exact life you had before. You may go from “once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again,” to…being the same, again.

Why? What secret lies in those powerful words that touch you but might not succeed in emancipating you from the shackles of your current existence?

Jobs is describing part of his own experience taming the self-critical part of his psyche that is sometimes termed the superego. Recognizing and learning to cultivate this powerful aspect of your brain can be a lifelong challenge. (Although Jobs might seem to portray it as a quick recognition, it was likely a process for him.)

Many of your earliest experiences can foster a strong belief that you are the Little Engine That Couldn’t. Early criticism and parental interactions can mold part of your mind into a critical, self-denying naysayer that repetitively tells you that many things you might want are beyond your reach. As you mature, you become accustomed to seeing that deeply judicious part of your mind as your trusted advisor and protector. It allows you to navigate life, society, and decision making. Yet its deeply critical bend often serves to distort and refract your perspective instead of clarifying it.

Part of your superego’s sharply disapproving nature is to create a mirage that others are better than you. They are more intelligent, wealthy, or beautiful. They are more knowledgeable about the world and understand life greater than you do. They are gifted, and they can accomplish more than you ever could. Sometimes that is technically true, but the superego capitalizes on and exaggerates the facts. It also creates a corollary: If others have those talents or gifts, then you are deficient.

A strong superego can also create an arena phenomenon. Life can seem like a circular stadium, with everyone else positioned around, and higher than you. Your mind can be so sensitive to noticing ways in which others are better that it utilizes the perceived advantages that others have to paint that morose portrait.

Often, a superego is a resilient force to wrestle with. It can take many years of insight and self-understanding to be in touch with the power it can hold over you and your happiness, success, and fulfillment.

Is there a way to jumpstart the process? There are two points that might be meaningful for you to keep in mind when you are struggling with the tight grip your superego has over you.

Firstly, acknowledging its existence and power and then talking about it might be very helpful. Monsters that are named and discussed can lose some of their strength. As Elihu ben Berachel said while contemplating the deep suffering of his friend Iyov, (Iyov 32, 20), “I speak that I might find relief.”

Secondly, it might be helpful to see yourself in a partial vacuum. If you meet a threshold for skills, insight, or wisdom to accomplish certain tasks, then you might do well if you permit yourself to pursue them. Even if others might be more suited or have better skills, it does not lessen your own abilities or efficacy. Steve Jobs intimates that when he says that others “are no smarter than you.” There is no way of knowing that empirically. For most people, probably including Jobs, it isn’t true either. But it is largely irrelevant. What they are does not say anything about who you are.

The Torah seems to hint to this perspective in the beginning of Sefer Vayikra. The Chumash opens describing the process of bringing a sacrifice and uses the term “Adam” to describe a person. There are several Hebrew terms throughout Scripture to mean “person,” and one of them is Adam, since we all originate from him. Yet, the Sages were sensitive to that word selection here. Some commentators (Kli Yakar) explain the intent of the Torah is to highlight that the ideal way for a person to bring a sacrifice is to follow the example of Adam. On the first day of creation, Adam brought a korban. Adam acted unilaterally and of his own aspiration. He did not compare himself to others.

According to Jewish law, the world was created in the beginning of this month, Nisan. (See Talmud Rosh Hashanah 27a and Tos. d.h. Kman.) Consequently, Adam brought the first sacrifice 5777 years ago this past Tuesday. Rationally, other humans did not exist. But the Torah is encouraging us to incorporate that perspective even when we are surrounded by other people. Rather than adopt the pernicious superego-motivated approach of comparison and criticism, the Torah advises each person to allow himself the freedom to capitalize on his own existence and intrinsic capabilities.

Steve Jobs was not necessarily the most talented, brightest or most insightful individual. Yet, he noticed his capabilities and reported that he was able to subdue his critical, self-effacing superego. The Apple did not fall far from the Steve.

You might encounter and struggle with your superego’s critical eye, during Nisan or throughout the year. Perhaps you will begin to tame it with a simple realization, like Steve Jobs reports he did. Perhaps it will be a long journey with growth and setbacks along the path. Maybe it will even be both – an aha! moment followed by a long trek. It might be a discussion worth having with yourself, following in the footsteps of your earliest ancestor, Adam.

Whose Calling?

Is there a sense that navigates your professional destiny?

Do you feel like you are supposed to be working where you are?

Wait! Before you answer, think about the question. Is the word “supposed to” an appropriate way to think about your job? It implies that there is a right answer and a wrong answer. Is that the way to examine your choice of career or place of employment?

In contemporary society, it is prevalent to approach one’s vocational choices with an air of supposition. There are several paths, and some – or one – are more correct for an individual to follow. This is sometimes termed a sense of calling. One can see himself as possessing talents and abilities that can be viewed as a road map to follow toward professional selection and development. For a religious individual, this calling can take on a spiritual directive. If someone observes capabilities that he has, it might be a Divine indication that they are to be developed and manifested in his profession.

Often this is most highlighted for those that select a career focused on developing the spiritual, emotional, or psychological health of others. Rabbis, educators, and mental health professionals might have felt a sense of calling that motivated them to make their vocational choice and a similar feeling that propels their daily profession. Their occupation is a way of fulfilling the mission that they see within themselves and their lives. Religious professionals can feel that they were chosen to pursue a path of Divine service of facilitating the growth of others. Their dedication to a vocation of that directly helps people might be seen as a fulfillment of a surmised Divine injunction.

Paying attention to an internal or G-dly calling to a professional mission can engender clarity and fulfillment. If the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” is difficult, a helpful solution might be: “What Hashem helps me see I should be.” Also, a calling to pursue a specific profession can fill one’s life with purpose that transcends the nitty gritty of one’s job. If the curse to Adam was that by the sweat of his brow he eat his bread, the blessing that might seem to counteract it is a vocation this is spiritually fulfilling.

Conversely, a rigorous philosophy of calling and mission can sometimes be coopted, by constituents, employers, or oneself. Professionals might remain in their posts even if they are underpaid, undervalued, or treated unsuitably. Sometimes the shout of a religious calling drowns out pragmatic, personal, and professional protests. Rabbis, educators, and therapists can freeze in their employment situation and weather a long storm because they intuit that their Divine mission demands it.

General career advisers might suggest that one’s vocation develop a talent or interest he has. It is prevalent for religious people to rephrase that as, “Hashem wants me to choose a vocation that draws on talents that I see within myself.”

Since a sense of calling and mission might be both positive and negative, it is significant to explore more about this powerful force. An intriguing source regarding this powerful sense is found in a comment by Rav Moshe Feinstein (Darash Moshe, Parshas Vayakhel), one of the leading halachic decisors of contemporary Orthodoxy. At first glance, Rav Moshe seems to state that a Divine calling is a significant method to determine or evaluate one’s professional choices and goals. Further examination might indicate that his words do not necessarily support that and give you pause to think about if a sense of calling is a valid way to determine a vocation altogether.

The Torah terms Betzalel as the one who G-d had already chosen by name as the architect of the tabernacle. Yet, Rav Moshe Feinstein observes that there is no earlier verse that details that G-d appointed Betzalel to be the architect. It appears curious that the Torah describes Betzalel as the one who G-d had selected earlier, when no prior verse describes that process. Rav Moshe suggests that G-d did not directly designate Betzalel as the foreman. Rather, Betzalel noticed the unique capability he had as an architect par excellence, and realized that his Divine gift was for a purpose. He saw his talents as a gift from G-d and intuited that he was to be the one to spearhead the building of the tabernacle. Rav Moshe elaborates and expounds that if a person notices that he is gifted with an outstanding trait or blessing, it is important for him to acknowledge that as Divinely granted, and use it in the service of Hashem. For example, if one sees that he is exceedingly financially successful, he should intuit that as a Divine injunction to spread his largesse with needy individuals and institutions. If one notices that he is a talented teacher, he should use that endowment to teach Torah.

Rav Moshe’s comments seemingly fall in line with a philosophy of mission and calling to determine a profession. Yet, if you examine his perspective more carefully, Rav Moshe’s directive seems to be limited. Rav Moshe does not mean that one should necessarily use a sense of calling to determine his vocation. There are at least four distinctions between Rav Moshe’s discussion of heeding a Divine message about one’s talents and using that as a contemporary determinant for one’s profession.

  • Rav Moshe’s comments merely mean that one who sees that he has the potential to make a positive impact on the world should not leave those capabilities latent. Rav Moshe does not state that that one who notices particular talents should necessarily use those to indicate his choice of vocation or profession. One might bifurcate his calling and his daily occupation. Perhaps he should avail himself of non-vocational opportunities to maximize and utilize his abilities.
  • A sense of calling can be perceived as a Divine hint for what one should do professionally. Are unsavory work situations, such as overly taxing congregants or disagreeable conditions in a workplace a Divine calling the other way? When internal talents and external situations do not align, on which promenade does one stroll?
  • A sense of calling might mean that a person should not shy away from opportunities that encounter him squarely in the face. If one is blessed financially, he should not turn away those that reach out to him. If one is granted the ability to teach, he should fill a need that arises. Rav Moshe comments center on a clear injunction that Betzalel heard. He saw the need for the tabernacle to be constructed, and he saw that he had the credentials to fulfill that task. There was an unequivocal need and an overwhelming talented individual – the perfect shidduch. Betzalel did not need to create his niche in order to fill it. Does a philosophy of calling demand one to proactively search out opportunities that utilize the talents he has?
  • Some contemporary social scientists differentiate between two groups of people, specialists and multipotentialites. Specialists notice abilities that they have and they can excel at and develop them through life. Multipotentialites can shine in several different areas and have multiple potentials. Although it is can be a blessing, sometimes their life and professional goals can be harder to determine. It can be helpful to see these two categories as extremes, with most of humanity falling between the two. The majority of people have different areas at which they can succeed, fulfill themselves, and be very gainfully employed. If most of us rate somewhat high on the multipotentialite scale, which of those talents is a Divine calling pointing to?

 

A feeling that a sense of calling exists might assist one’s occupational choice and foster a feeling of fulfillment in a job. One might see his profession as being Divinely selected and ordained. This sense can be especially true for those that are in the spiritual or emotional helping professions. Yet, it might be helpful to think about if there is an audible calling that designates which occupation you should have. If you aren’t Betzalel, it might be a hard call to make.

I Am So Different Than You…and Let’s Keep It That Way

Interacting with people can be so hard! Find out why…and how you can think different.

I hate socializing.

Awk- waard!

I have nothing to say at the table.

Everyone else is so different than I am.

They sooo don’t get me.

A chief complaint that we can feel when we are in a group of people is that we are markedly different than the others. Sometimes we might feel inferior – not as knowledgeable, less “with it,” or not too sociable. On other occasions we might feel that we are “better” – more intelligent, further refined, or superior conversationalists. These thoughts can leave us feeling that we have little to talk to everyone else about. We might feel “out of it” or not too energetic as the conversation buzzes around us. Then, the ideas that we had about the group become even more true as our prophesies of difference fulfill themselves.

There is a fascinating background story to this experience. A tension exists deep within us. On the one hand, we deeply desire to feel unique. That yearning was with us since our earliest days, and perhaps before then. We wanted our parents to take care of us, protect us, and show us their love and how we were special to them. As we matured physically and emotionally, we remained with that perpetual desire to feel unique. In addition, each of us really is unique. We are each different from one another physically, and that reflects the exclusive nature of each of our thoughts and feelings. We might know that, but we want to feel it more potently. Each person is distinctive from a religious standpoint, too. The soul that each person has is individual, and represents his connection with the Divine.

At the same time, the perpetual desire to feel and express our uniqueness can backfire. It can cause us to focus on it too much when we are with a group of others. Instead of connecting with the other individuals in a group, we hone in on our uniqueness. This is self-preserving. When we are with a group of people, our uniqueness can feel threatened. Paying disproportionate attention to our uniqueness feeds it and preserves it for us. In our efforts to keep our uniqueness, we create an I – You barrier.

In addition, when we focus unduly on our uniqueness, we often make a judgement about it. We can see ourselves as different and see the others as better than us. Although it might seem strange that we criticize ourselves, it actually works to our advantage. Our tale of woe as being less than everyone else highlights that we are different – and unique. We create a reality that the others shine and we fall short. It might be true that the other in a group have some attributes that we do not. Yet, we can be so desperate for a unique point of differentiation that these thoughts often feel truer than they are. This way of thinking is often painful and distances us from others, and from ourselves.

On other occasions, we might make a judgement of superiority of self. We might feel that the group that we are with is below what is fitting to us. We are smarter, more complicated, or better conversationalists than the other people there. In truth, the delusion of feeling superior also stems from a feeling of inferiority. We are so desperate to feel unique that we hone in on some positive traits or characteristics and favorably compare ourselves to others. This allows us to preserve our uniqueness that we perceive as so fragile.

Social situations can acutely bring out our deep desire to perpetuate our uniqueness. Ironically, true uniqueness is tautological. It is the very defining trait of who we are. One is unique. One is not unique because of something. “Unique” is not the middle of a sentence. It is followed by a period.

An apocryphal story tells of a man who walked into a restaurant in the South and ordered sausage and eggs for breakfast. When the waitress brought him his order, he noticed a white mound on the plate, too. He asked the waitress what they were. “Grits, sir,” she replied. “But I didn’t order grits,” he responded. “Sir, you don’t order grits, they just come,” she exclaimed. Similarly, our uniqueness is not something we need to rationalize or explain. At its core, it just is – it’s who we are and who we will be.

This was the eternal paradigm provided by the Machatzis Hashekel, the half-shekel that was required to be collected yearly, and is described in the beginning of Parshas Ki Sisa. The Torah highlights that each person was required to donate a half shekel coin for the needs of the Temple in the coming year. The Torah emphatically states that an affluent person may not increase his donation, and an indigent one may not decrease it. The lesson, highlighted by many commentaries, is that each person is central and important in maintaining the Temple. Those with deeper pockets do not have more gravitas than those with shallower ones. By extension, more or less intellectual ability, personality, or capability does not make a person more unique. Uniqueness just is.

When we think about our uniqueness as being an integral and immutable part of ourselves, it can allow us the freedom to foster it and still connect with others. We might even allow ourselves to see value in being in a group because others will enjoy our uniqueness. The more we are in touch with uniqueness as an integral part of who we are, the more it can begin deep conversations within ourselves and with the others that we associate with.

From Coup D’état to Coup de Grace: The Importance of Thinking About What You Are Thinking About

Haman thought himself into oblivion. Can we do better?

What do you think about?

How you answer that might depend on how comfortable and trusting you are of the person asking. Even so, you might not know what to answer. The human mind is so wonderfully complex that you might be thinking many thoughts at the same time. Some can be easy for you to access, and others more difficult. Sometimes, when you try to answer that question honestly, you can gain insight into who you are, and some things that make you happy, sad, or confused.

If you are not in touch with your thoughts, you can sometimes be hiding keys to who you are from yourself. That doesn’t mean that the thoughts aren’t there, it simply means that you are not allowing yourself to focus on them. Since they are still present in your mind, they might come out at inopportune moments or through your behavior, even if you are not aware of it. That is what happened at one of the critical junctures of the Purim story.

The Midrash (Koheles Rabbah 5:2) illuminates the background of a pivotal story in the Megillah. Mordechai, the Jewish sage and leader, was supposed to be terminated on Passover. Instead, he was paraded victoriously around the city on that day, led by his archenemy and planned assassin, Haman.

Acheshverosh, supreme ruler of the Persian Empire, had had a troubling dream the night before. He envisioned his second in command, Haman, standing above him with a drawn sword, disrobing him from his royal attire, removing his crown, and attempting to kill him. Achashverosh tried to shake the dream but it recurred throughout the night. It was almost morning, and Acheshverosh still struggled with his nightmare.

Haman then entered the royal chamber. He intended to discuss the immediate execution of Mordechai with Achashverosh. Achashverosh sensed that Haman might have had ulterior motives in coming, too. To test Haman’s thinking, Achashverosh asked him to recommend a procedure for honoring a loyal subject. Haman responded that the honoree should wear royal robes. Achashverosh inquired as to which ones. Haman explained that his intent was Achashverosh’s coronation robes. Haman further recommended that the man ride on one of the king’s horses. Achashverosh asked which horse Haman meant. He again responded that he referred to the horse used during coronation.  Haman added that the honoree should wear the royal crown. When Achashverosh heard that, his visage turned angry. He silently decided that the time for Haman’s own end had come. Achashverosh had received proof positive that his sixth sense was correct. Haman was obviously planning a coup.

This narrative is as a powerful declaration as to the role of thought and its interplay with actions. The Midrash comments that wicked people, such as Haman, are governed by their thoughts. In contrast, righteous people have the ability to manage their thinking. The commentaries (see Eitz Yosef ibid.) explain that all people can harbor negative thoughts or feelings. The difference between a person who leads a morally correct life and one who does not is the ability to work through those thoughts productively. Wonderful people can have not-so-wonderful thoughts. A person who wants to meet with success acknowledges those thoughts and addresses them. Perhaps he will decide to be simply cognizant of them and not let them lead him to incorrect actions. Perhaps he will try to change his cognitions. Maybe he will be more conscious of situations that trigger those thoughts. Perhaps he will embrace all of these, or address the thoughts in a different way. The only way to decide how to navigate and address thoughts is to first notice that they are there.

In contrast, Haman was filled with thoughts of aggression, and his persona seemed to have exuded them. Unconsciously, his aura expressed that he was planning to usurp the throne. Achashverosh unknowingly sensed this, and his concerns materialized in his dream. Haman was not clever enough to disguise his negative thoughts and plans. Haman might even have been able to successfully plan his coup if he paid attention to what he was thinking and bifurcated his thoughts from his actions. Instead, he let his thoughts and desires influence his speech and behavior, and gave himself away to the King.

Sometimes, the difference between people that thrive and people that dive is not the thoughts that they have, but how they deal with them. The more you are in touch with the layers of thoughts in your mind, the more you might be able to discover and understand yourself. This can lead to a more fulfilling and successful life, which is something to celebrate, not just on Purim, but throughout the year!