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.

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.

Put Your Money Where Your Self Is

What does your apparel oft proclaim?

“It’s not the $1000 suit, it’s the $1000 car,” a rabbinic leader recently explained to a group of yeshiva students. He was gently exhorting the young men to limit excessive spending in their future lives as young Torah scholars. His approach is partially rooted in traditional Jewish ethical works. It is also often communicated in contemporary Orthodox society. It its current presentation, it stems from an emphasis on spirituality, and an effort to counter the influence of greater society’s material excesses. It also grows out of the financial realism that one is likely going to need to be spendthrifty when he dedicates a period of his life to Talmudic study and Jewish spirituality.

In seeming contrast, the grandiosity of the Tabernacle in the wilderness was stunning. The structure and its basic fixtures were made of pure gold, silver, and rare animal skins. The lavishness of the Tabernacle’s construction bespoke its lofty use. Similarly, the clothing of the kohanim, and specifically the kohein gadol, were beautiful and extravagantly designed. The Torah expresses that they were “for honor and glory” of those in the Divine service.

There appears to be a friction between two opposing ideals, one focusing on spirituality and curbing personal material involvement, and the other embracing liberal financial expenditure for a spiritual goal. The tension might be highlighted by two contradictory rules that exist regarding spending for the Temple and its service. Firstly, the Talmud states that “there is no poverty [in financial behavior] in a place of wealth.” When one is focusing on religious grandiosity, it is inappropriate to be thrifty. Rather, one should buy the best and not restrict himself in any way. Conversely, the Talmud also declares that “the Torah is concerned about wasting money” in ritual spending. How do these two contradictory forces coexist? Rav Moshe ibn Chabib (17th century, often known eponymously as the Kapos Temarim, Rosh Hashana 27b s.v. Gemara Mai Shna) suggests that both approaches are true and necessary. There are two strains of thought, and it became the duty of the sages of the Talmud to wisely determine and resolve when it is appropriate to emphasize one of those rules, and when the other is more apropos. Sometimes the grandiosity and sense of magnificence that is created by constructing the Tabernacle or Temple of the finest materials is a worthwhile usage of funds. On the other hand, sometimes it is significant to hold back on spending and count one’s pennies.

A similar conflict can manifest itself throughout one’s own life. If one is dedicated to a life of spirituality, intellectualism, or religious value, where does material expenditure fit into that framework? It is a global issue and it is hard to make unilateral declarations or decisive statements. The decision which is right might require wisdom and prudence, similar to that advanced by the sages of old.

Specifically regarding one’s clothing, there might be room to think about emphasizing spending resources to make sure that one’s clothing is of good quality. This was impressively phrased by Shakespeare as the father Polonius gives timeless advice to his son Laertes in Hamlet (Act I, Scene 3. Polonius uses the word “habit” to refer to clothing):

Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,

But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy;

For the apparel oft proclaims the man.

Shakespeare wisely declares that the type of clothing that one wears has ramifications beyond indulgence. It conveys a message regarding who the person is.

“Apparel oft[en] proclaims the man” perhaps most importantly to himself. When one puts effort into his appearance and dress, it can convey a sense of self, or helps create one. One who disregards his clothing might be making a statement that he does not fully exist. Conversely, one who struggles with his own sense of self might take steps to ameliorate that by dressing better than he does presently.

Alternatively, external accoutrements can be a superficial defense mechanism where one deludes himself into believing that he feels good about himself. In reality, he feels good only about his clothing and how others see him as he wears them. It might take an honest conversation with himself to understand if appropriately good clothing create a medium to give him the message that he is a wonderful, respectable human being, or allow him to be a mere mannequin touting name brands for a popular designer, without an internal feeling of self.

One of the most well known and formative social psychologists is Dr. Phillip Zimbardo, professor emeritus of Stanford. Zimbardo extensively researched time and how individual perspectives on time extensively affect decision making processes. He autobiographically expressed that for many years, he focused on the future and succeeding, sacrificing todays for tomorrows. Later in life, he realized that he needed to add a focus on himself and enjoyment of life. It helped him become more productive and happier. One might see it as him also increasing his sense of self:

And it resonated for me. I grew up as a poor kid in the South Bronx ghetto, a Sicilian family — everyone lived in the past and present. I’m here as a future-oriented person who went over the top, who did all these sacrifices because teachers intervened, and made me future oriented. Told me don’t eat that marshmallow, because if you wait you’re going to get two of them, until I learned to balance out. I’ve added present-hedonism…so, at 76 years old, I am more energetic than ever, more productive, and I’m happier than I have ever been.

How and on what one spends money might is a large discussion that it is sometimes easier to close than to open. There are many factors involved, including sociocultural religious ideals. It might be worthwhile to give specific thought as to how you spend money on clothing. Perhaps yours will not only “proclaim the man,” but appropriately and tastefully serve “as honor and glory” for a formidable and glorious self that is within.

O Say Can You Sea?

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

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.