Category Archives: Ethics & Values

Why You Should Care that Gene Wilder Died

2-½ minutes to read

Celebrities don’t interest me. I don’t aspire to live a life like theirs. Parties, jet-setting, and awards shows leave me cold. Most of the reporting about them falls into the category of gossip. Outwardly their lives appear glitzy. But the times I’ve seen the inside, they seem, like Thoreau’s “mass of men,” to “lead lives of quiet desperation.” That being the case, why should you care that Gene Wilder died? Let me tell you a brief story.

Why You Should Care that Gene Wilder Died

The Test of Character

On a November weekend in 1977, my friend Rose Anna and I decided to attend a preview screening of The World’s Greatest Lover. We went to the long since demolished Plitt Theatres in Century City. Rose Anna is Gene Wilder’s most ardent fan. She loved him so much she never begrudged his love for Gilda Radner.

We were sitting in the theater waiting for the movie to begin. All day I had teased Rose Anna about Gene Wilder showing up for the screening. She pooh-poohed the idea. While waiting for the lights to dim, I sat facing the back of the theatre so I could watch people enter. (Note: 30 years ago movie theaters were like regular auditoriums. You could see the whole house.) About 10 minutes before show time I shocked her when I let her know he had just walked in.

Not one to miss an opportunity, I told Rose Anna we had to go and introduce ourselves. She declined. I pressed her. She absolutely refused. Undaunted, I made my way to where he was sitting, begged his pardon for intruding, and said hello. Mr. Wilder could not have been more gracious. He stood up, shook my hand, thanked me for coming to see him. I told him about my friend and asked if it would be all right for me to bring her by after the movie. He said he’d wait for us.

After the lights came up and most of the crowd had left, there he was, still in his seat, waiting, just like he promised.

I brought Rose Anna over to him. Again he stood, gently took her hand, and thanked her for coming by. She was literally speechless. Then he looked her right in the eye, smiled, and told her, I love your tailor. Rose Anna was wearing a shirt she had made that said, “I'd Rather Be Watching a Gene Wilder Movie.” That broke the ice. We all laughed. And Rose Anna hugged him. Throughout, Mr. Wilder was kind, gentle, and warm.

Gene Wilder was a Mensch

If you’re unfamiliar with Yiddish, a mensch is an honorable person. The term can apply to Jews and non-Jews alike, so my assessment has nothing to do with Mr. Wilder being of my faith. Rather, despite his fame and success, it appears he lived his public and private lives with integrity and decency. His longtime collaborator, Mel Brooks, often said so in spite of their creative differences.

Gene Wilder was lucky to play beloved characters like Willy Wonka and Dr. Frankenstein. He was fortunate to find an epic love with his wife Gilda Radner. But he was challenged by the whirl of Hollywood and his wife’s painful death at a young age. Can you claim a less equitable mix of blessings and curses?

In the sweep of his life, Rose Anna and I were nothing. Two fans among millions. But Gene Wilder treated us as if we mattered a great deal. In this, he displayed the essence of what it means to be human. Every individual is significant. And we must treat each of our fellow human beings so as to acknowledge that significance.

Throughout it all, Gene Wilder remembered this central reality. In his last act of service, he imparts to you his example. There are no “little people” in your life. Until you can treat the most annoying person you know with respect, remember how Gene Wilder treated Rose Anna and me. I will.

How do you stop yourself from being irritated by bothersome people? Please comment below.

Think Sundae When Using Your Values

2-½ minutes to read

Parsha [Passage of Scripture] Nugget [Precious Idea] Eikev – Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25

Yes, the ice cream variety. It’s not a typo in the headline. Remember, Jews celebrate the Sabbath on Saturday. What does making an ice cream concoction have to do with making moral decisions? Ah, Parshas Eikev will show you:

…G-d will safeguard for you the covenant and the kindness that He swore to you…” (Deuteronomy/Devarim 7:12)

Think Sundae When Using Your Values

In this Sabbath’s parsha, Moses talks about the reward the Children of Israel will receive for keeping the mitzvahs (usually translated commandments). He warns against letting prosperity seduce them and reminds them of their history.

Absolute Morality Versus Moral Relativism

Knowing the long list of ordinances they have to follow to earn their reward, can you imagine the Israelites might be a little scared? From the great patriarch Abraham, they learned the Almighty does righteousness and justice. With so many dos and don’ts, some must have thought, “Wow, I’ll never remember, let alone be able to follow, them all.” Despair could set in.

So G-d reminded the Israelites He would balance justice with kindness. The resulting blend, compassion, would be the standard.

No one value stands absolutely. We revere life. But when required to murder someone to save our own life we have to die. We honor truth. But when a killer asks where his victim is we should lie as convincingly as possible. In both cases, a sacred value must be balanced against the destruction that would be caused by upholding it.

Not there is no moral relativism in these cases. Nor is there an absolute moral principle. Rather, you must combine hallowed precepts to find the ethical, virtuous solution.

Finding Balance in Your Values

When you have to navigate your way through a difficult ethical issue, do it like you’re making a sundae.

  1. First, comes the foundation, the ice cream. It’s tempting to choose your favorite. But with so many good choices, make sure you pick the best one for the moment. What core principle is at issue? It forms the base from which you’ll build your response.
  2. Second, comes the sauce. Choose the right flavor to counterpoint and enhance the ice cream. Ladle it with care. Laid on too thick or thin, it overwhelms or gets lost in the ice cream. What value contrasts with the core principle you’ve chosen? Apply it to your solution in just the right amount to balance and deepen your solution.
  3. Third is the whipped cream. It takes a deft hand to bring it to a peak. What aspect of the person involved have you overlooked? Does he have a sensitivity that if taken into account will make your resolution more powerful? What value will connect him to your plan?
  4. Fourth are the nuts. Sprinkle them so they dot the whipped cream adding a pleasing crunch amidst all the softness. Most of us have a difficult time facing the hard realities of life. We can swallow them more easily when they’re enveloped by a more palatable presentation. Carefully communicate your response so it goes down smoothly.
  5. Last comes the cherry, tasting tart and sweet. Perched at the pinnacle of the sundae, it embodies the totality of your ice cream creation. When crafting a solution to a moral quandary, make sure to unify all the crucial values and emotions.

Five steps may seem a lot. But consider the stakes: a relationship, your reputation, your connection to G-d. Taking the time to see all sides of an issue and fashioning a balanced, principled response will save you and others from a longer period of agony.

A well-built sundae is to be savored. Think how much more satisfying it will taste to use your values well.

How do you decide your response to an ethical challenge? Please comment below.


Every year beginning on Simchas Torah, the cycle of reading the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, ends and begins again. Each Sabbath a portion known as a sedra or parsha is read. It is named after the first significant word or two with which this weekly reading begins.

What verse in the Old Testament would you like to know more about? Ask a question and I will answer it in a future Parsha Nugget!

Do You Really Want to Be the Sovereign?

2-½ minutes to read

Parsha [Passage of Scripture] Nugget [Precious Idea] Pinchas Mattos-Masei – Numbers 30:2-36:13

“It’s good to be king” is a line from Mel Brooks’s movie History of the World, Part 1. It’s also a lyric and song title from Tom Petty’s 1994 Wildflowers album. Both rhapsodize about the joys of holding sovereign power. A king’s life seems idyllic. He answers to no one, except the Almighty. But parshas Mattos-Masei points out the downside of supreme authority:

“For in the City of Refuge he will dwell until the death of the Kohen Gadol (High Priest)…” (Numbers/Bamidbar 35:28)

Do You Really Want to Be the Sovereign-

This Sabbath’s double parsha begins with Mattos. It discusses how to take a vow. Next the Israelites go to war against Midian. In the aftermath they learn how to make utensils kosher. Then the tribes of Rueben, Gad, and half of Manasheh ask to have their portion of the land on the eastern side of the Jordan River.

The second parsha, Masei, reviews the journey taken by the Israelites from Egypt through the wilderness, ending at the border of the land of Israel. Then it gives instructions on how to divide the land and designate cities for the Levites and Cities of Refuge. It ends by designating who is eligible to seek safe harbor in them.

The Drawback of Being the High Priest

Few people have ever received the adulation of Aaron, the first High Priest. The Israelites loved him, especially for his ability to make peace between them. They esteemed the High Priests from Elazar, Aaron’s son, to Shimon HaTzadik. Aside from the arduousness of their duties, it seems being the High Priest was a pleasant job.

But if someone unintentionally killed another person, the High Priest’s life lost some of its luster. The killer could avoid being killed in revenge by the redeemer of the blood. He had to seek sanctuary in a City of Refuge. Once confirmed by the court, he lived there until the High Priest died.

What did the High Priest have to do with an unintended death? A person killed unintentionally reflected a lack of morality on the part of the Israelites. As the supreme moral authority, the High Priest bore responsibility. If he had been setting the proper example the death would not have happened. So he had to live knowing the killer was praying for his death so he could leave the City of Refuge.

Imagine more than one killer living out his days in sanctuary. This was not the discomfort you may experience knowing Islamofacists want to murder Westerners. It was directed specifically at him. How must he have felt knowing specific individuals and their family members prayed constantly that he would die?

How Do You Handle Being a Sovereign?

You may not realize it, but if you’re an American citizen you’re a sovereign. Not an absolute monarch like a king or queen, but part of the corporate body that holds ultimate power in the United States. The Constitution delegates authority to act on our behalf to the president, congress, and the Supreme Court. But they are agents. They do not remove sovereignty from us.

Over the years I’ve heard various people say, “He’s not my president.” They’re wrong. Like it or not, the people elected to exercise the power of their offices act on behalf of all citizens.

You may be among the many people disturbed by the choices for president. You may have pledged not to vote for one or both candidates. Certainly you have the free will to do so. Though it is the duty of a citizen to vote you can refuse.

But you still bear your responsibility as a sovereign.

You need not die to escape it. But you’ll have to terminate your citizenship to avoid it.

At times the High Priest led a burdensome life. Such is the nature of supreme authority. In some ways the load is as heavy for an American citizen.

How will you deal with being the sovereign? Please comment below.


Every year beginning on Simchas Torah, the cycle of reading the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, ends and begins again. Each Sabbath a portion known as a sedra or parsha is read. It is named after the first significant word or two with which this weekly reading begins.

What verse in the Old Testament would you like to know more about? Ask a question and I will answer it in a future Parsha Nugget!

Have You Accomplished Your Foremost Duty?

2 minutes to read

Parsha [Passage of Scripture] Nugget [Precious Idea] Pinchas – Numbers 25:10-30:1

My wife and I struggle about how to encourage our daughter’s independence.  My parents prodded me toward self-reliance from an early age.  I’m doing the same for Madeleine.  But Melanie gets a lot of satisfaction from taking care of her needs.  And who doesn’t like to be cared for?  At times we confuse Madeleine.  Watching the approach of her ninth year, my influence has become unmistakable. Perhaps our foremost duty, described in Parshas Pinchas, will be fulfilled:

…appoint a man over the assembly. (Numbers/Bamidbar 27:16)

Have You Accomplished Your Foremost Duty-

This Sabbath’s parsha begins with G-d rewarding Pinchas for his zealousness. Then censuses are taken prior to the Israelites entering the Land. Zelophehad’s daughters petition to receive their father’s inheritance.   The laws of inheritance are detailed.   Joshua is appointed as Moses’s successor. Finally the Almighty establishes the offerings brought daily, on the Sabbath, and on holidays.

A Flock Needs a Shepherd

The generation G-d took out of slavery died off. But the younger one still needed guidance. The Children of Israel won’t wander through the wilderness any longer. They must conquer the land. Then they must adjust to a settled, agrarian life.

Such a major transition is difficult. Many new questions will arise. Moses knew he would not be there to answer them. No longer could he delay his foremost duty. He had to find a successor to continue guiding the Israelites.

Moses taught Joshua the son of Nun for years. Having served the great man for so long, Joshua proved his character by not falling prey to the negativity of the spies. He could shoulder spiritual responsibility for the Children of Israel.

Your Foremost Duty in Life

You may not be responsible for the souls of hundreds of thousands of people. But you have a family. You’re responsible for your loved ones spiritual wellbeing even after you’re gone.

It’s easy to pass along material wealth. A will or trust will distribute your physical property according to your wishes. What about your accumulated knowledge and wisdom? What will happen to it?

Children no longer spend decades serving their parents and learning at their feet the way Joshua did Moses. But that does not relieve you from making every effort at seeing they benefit from what you have learned in your life. Presumably during their childhood and teen years you passed on many lessons. Hopefully they took them to heart.

Imagine the impact on Joshua of Moses learning he not would be leading the Israelites into the land. His trusted mentor would die soon. At that moment, Joshua received the legacy. He would fulfill the Almighty’s directive to bring the people to the land.

You can have a similar effect on your children. Show them spiritual matters are at least as important as monetary ones. Whether they’re adults or still young, double down now on what you’ve done in the past. Consistently reach out to them. Demonstrate how to pursue a well-lived life. Write an ethical will. Give it equal importance to your property division. Nothing less than their future depends on it.

What have you planned to ensure your foremost duty is fulfilled? Please comment below.


Every year beginning on Simchas Torah, the cycle of reading the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, ends and begins again. Each Sabbath a portion known as a sedra or parsha is read. It is named after the first significant word or two with which this weekly reading begins.

What verse in the Old Testament would you like to know more about? Ask a question and I will answer it in a future Parsha Nugget!

How to Gain Influence with More People

2 minutes to read

While running earlier today, up ahead two women were exercising. One was dressed in what can only be described as practically nothing. So they couldn’t accuse me of leering I looked away as I ran past them. To my chagrin, the other made a disparaging remark about me. Evidently they wanted to be ogled. How’s a guy to know?

How to Gain Influence with More People

Immodesty Makes Cordiality Impossible

I believe modesty is a virtue. It applies to dress, language, and behavior. Having said this, I recognize many Americans don’t share this value. Case in point, I rendered military honors at four funerals last week. At all of them young women wore short sleeveless black dresses. I don’t make the club scene these days. So the last time I saw such dresses was at a navy Christmas party. There’s a difference between the festivity of a celebration and the solemnity of a funeral that necessitates different standards of dress. But such a distinction doesn’t exist today.

Nor do they for speech and public behavior. Those of us who embrace modesty have to accept many of our fellow citizens don’t. So be it.

But simple justice demands we not be denigrated for prizing modesty. How is a man to know when a scantily clad woman wants to be checked out? Why is someone who doesn’t use profanity a prude? What is gained by condemning someone who refuses to turn a discussion into a verbal brawl?

To Gain Influence Create a Relationship

Differing attitudes toward modesty have resulted in greater friction between people. And that makes maintaining relationships more difficult.

Recently I read a story about a pastor. Young women were coming to church services in thigh high stockings and short skirts. He felt they looked like prostitutes. He considered speaking against such behavior from the pulpit. Wisely he realized doing so would be counterproductive. The women would have rejected the label. And he would have destroyed any chance of creating relationships through which he could influence them.

Differences in values can be tolerated. But couple them with arrogance and the situation becomes intolerable.

There are three steps to gain influence with more people:

  1. Be clear about your values. That doesn’t mean flouting your beliefs in other people’s faces. Clarity comes from within.
  2. Live your values. If what you believe is worthwhile, make it evident from your behavior.
  3. Cherish relationships over self-righteousness. Until people know you care about them as individuals they won’t trust your opinions.

One of the most influential men I know prizes modesty. He never even shakes hands with women. The hundreds of people who attend his lectures do not share his value of modesty. But rather than avoiding him like the plague they seek him out. How has he built such a large and loyal following? He followed the three steps.

Whatever you want to accomplish will come from convincing people to help you. In your work, with your family, among your friends, build strong ties. Having set the foundation, you’ll be able to influence them. They will know you’ve invested in understanding them. Seeing the quality of your life will encourage them to seek out its roots. And you’ll be there to help them.

Where are you action turning good advice bad? Please comment below.

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