Category Archives: Ethics & Values

Want to Be Free? Be Disciplined!

Parsha [Passage of Scripture] Nugget [Precious Idea] Shemos – Bo 10:1-13:16

One of the most common questions people ask me is how I can live such a restrictive life. During the Sabbath, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, I don't drive or ride in a car, watch television or listen to the radio. I cook meals before it begins and do not adjust any lights or electrical appliances during this time. Parshas Bo explains why:

“So Moses and Aaron came to Pharaoh and said to him, “So said the Lord, G-d of the Hebrews . . . Send out My people and they will serve Me.” (Shemos/Exodus 10:3).

Want to Be Free? Be Disciplined!

This Sabbath’s parsha begins with the final three plagues that eventually convince Pharaoh to let the Israelites leave Egypt. Nissan is made the first month of the year and the mitzvah of the Passover Offering, the Pesach, is given.

Then, G-d brings the Exodus.

The parsha ends with the mitzvahs of consecrating first-born animals, redeeming a first-born son, and tefilin.

After more than two centuries of bondage, the Children of Israel go free from slavery so they can serve G-d. Many people would say, “What kind of freedom is that? To go from enslavement to Pharaoh to having to do whatever G-d commands!”

It’s one of the most common complaints against religion: too many Thou Shalts and Thou Shalt Nots. Wouldn’t it be better to be truly free and do our own thing as long as we don’t hurt anyone else?

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Rarely, if ever, would such critics apply this principle to other areas of life. The pianist, who immerses in study and deeply understands how to wring every last essence of music out of a piano is revered. The novice whose greatest accomplishment is plunking out chopsticks with two fingers, not so much.

The golfer who has watched every DVD about how to be a great player, practices virtually every day, and understands all the do’s and don’ts of stance and swing is admired. The Sunday duffer is dismissed.

I suspect you would agree the virtuoso pianist and the dedicated golfer have much greater freedom in pursuing their music and sport respectively. One of the great ironies of life is:

The same is true of your spiritual life. In order to be able to experience and express deep spirituality, you must study, practice, and submit to the do’s and don’ts of religion.

According to Malcolm Muggeridge, if you want to be a great sailor you must be a slave to the compass. He maintains there is no freedom on the high seas until you submit to this tyranny because of the likelihood you will get lost, perhaps founder, even be killed. Only by becoming a slave to the compass is a sailor really free.

The Torah is the compass for life. When you surrender to its dictates you prevent yourself from wandering aimlessly through the world. Through its discipline, you become ever more focused on reaching spiritually deep, fulfilling relationships with loved ones and G-d.

What do you use to guide your life, in particular, your spiritual life?

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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. Its name comes from the first significant word or two with which this weekly reading begins.
Do you have a question about the Old Testament? Ask it here and I will answer it in a future Parsha Nugget!

Why Merry Christmas is the Proper Seasonal Greeting

Do you walk around with the strains of “It’s the MOST wonderful time of the year” and Jingle Bell Rock playing in your head? Between Thanksgiving and New Years Day snippets of Christmas carols seem to accompany my activities, despite living a robustly Jewish life. Lively and nostalgic, they enhance the celebratory atmosphere.

Why Merry Christmas is the Proper Seasonal Greeting

Last week my unit had its annual holiday party. If you are thinking which holiday we are right in tune. When the party committee was formed, I suggested it be called the Christmas party. But the prevailing attitude was doing so would be exclusionary. I disagree.

No holiday that happens in December is more important to those who observe it than Christmas is to Christians. The meaning of the day is central to Christianity.

By contrast, Chanukah is a minor Jewish festival. True, its celebration has become more elaborate over the decades. But this is due to its proximity to Christmas. It is not a major festival on the level of Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, or even the weekly Sabbath.

Other December holidays include:

Bodhi Day - Recognizing the date the Buddha experienced enlightenment. It is not among the sacred or most important celebrations for Buddhists.

Yule – What some believe to be the historical predecessor to Christmas, it is one of the lesser Sabbats for Wiccans. The traditional greeting is Merry Yule.

Zarathosht Diso - An ancient festival not celebrated today, it is marked by special prayers. Some Zoroastrians visit fire temples to pray.

According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, over 78% of Americans are Christians. This compares to 1.7% who are Jewish, and 0.7% who are Buddhist. Wiccans and Zoroastrians were not broken out but would fall into a category of 0.4% or less.

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While about 4% of Christian do not recognize the day, this does not diminish its significance among those who do. As well, 81% of non-Christians in the United States celebrate it. Thus, over 90% of Americans celebrate Christmas.

So, you have a 9 out of 10 chance that when you wish someone a Merry Christmas you are acknowledging his preeminent observance.

By substituting happy holidays, a false equivalence is created. This unjustly diminishes Christmas’s importance while giving the appearance that other celebrations have to be elevated to compete.

The result for Jews has been a vast increase in the expense of Chanukah with the advent of giving expensive presents instead of the traditional gifts of chocolate gelt (foil wrapped coins) and other small tokens of love. As well, the purpose of Chanukah, commemorating the triumph of religious freedom over Syrian-Greek tyranny, has been largely forgotten.

Better to let each celebration have its rightful place within the faith of its observers. Recognizing the importance of Christmas does not detract from your freedom of expression any more than congratulating someone for his success reduces your chance for similar achievement. Rather, in both cases by recognizing what is important for others, you create more solid bridges between people and exhibit tolerance.

For such universal good, perhaps the majority can be given their due. Merry Christmas!

What is the downside to wishing Merry Christmas to someone who does not celebrate it?

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If You’re Wise You’ll Be Inconsistent

Recently I read Stephen Asma’s book Against Fairness. Intrigued by the title, I hoped to get some ideas for explaining to my seven-year-old why life is not fair. While this need went unsatisfied, it caused me ponder the nature of fairness and how it relates to wisdom.

If You’re Wise You’ll Be Inconsistent

Fairness seems to be part of the American character. But as Asma points out, other cultures, in particular, many in Asia, favor family ties above all. Abandoning nepotism in favor of a stranger is shameful.

But if we dig below the surface, fairness flies in the face of another cherished American societal value: individualism.

The rabbi of my community is admired by all as a wise, humane man. Beset by requests for guidance, he could spend 25 hours a day dispensing advice. While under his tutelage, one day I questioned him about a particular issue in the Jewish dietary laws. His answer astounded me. He told me it depended on several factors:

  1. Who is asking the question? Specifically, where on life’s journey was the person? How extensive were her knowledge and expertise?
  2. To what spiritual level is the person aspiring? Is the person seeking to stretch herself and increase her level of observance?
  3. What day of the week and time of day was it? Was it late on a Friday close to the start of the Sabbath?

There were others but you get the idea.

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This seemed consummately unfair. Essentially, as an aspiring rabbi, I would get a strict answer but someone less knowledgeable would be treated more leniently. The rules should be the rules. Of course, if everyone got the same answer, why do you need to speak to a human? A computer would be much more efficient and fair.

Therein lies the crux of the matter. Each person is unique. So any question requires the context of that person’s specific situation in order to come up with the right answer. Similar to doing an act of kindness, insight into a person’s character and circumstances are necessary to find the proper solution to his challenges.

Such is the nature of wisdom. It requires knowledge and experience, but most importantly good judgment.

Inevitably, from the outside, it will appear inconsistent since when two people have the same issue, the solutions will in all likelihood be different.

I suspect you want to be dealt with in the context of your own life challenges, not those of society or other people. Not only is such a desire reasonable, it is the only way to support a realistic path of personal growth.

Would you rather be treated by a societal standard of fairness or as an individual

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How a Collision Boosted My Dad’s Navy Career

In honor of the 4th yartzheit of my father, Gerald Bemel, may he be remembered for blessing, I am sharing a story from his navy days.

Vivid stories of my father’s navy service help me keep his memory alive. One of my favorites is particularly appropriate to the topics of personal development and entrepreneurship.

How a Collision Boosted My Dad’s Navy Career

Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps afforded my father the opportunity to go to college. So in 1954, his degree complete and newly married, off my dad went to his first ship ported in Charleston, South Carolina. Soon thereafter he headed to the Mediterranean Sea on his first cruise.

Growing up in Wisconsin and Minnesota, the Land of 10,000 Lakes, my father swam, sailed, and lifeguarded his summers away. Comfortable in and on the water, he was at home on the ocean. One day, while off duty, he was lounging on deck when he noticed the ship in imminent danger of running down a buoy.

In those days, France was particular about her buoys (not to mention her gulls, wouldn’t you be?) and knowing this my father sprang into action. Grabbing a couple of sailors they launched one of the ship’s boats intending to remedy the crisis. Motor churning the sea at top speed, boat hook at the ready to move the buoy out of the ship’s course, Ensign Bemel had the situation well in hand.

And then it happened.

Misjudging the distance, dad slammed into the buoy before the boat slowed sufficiently. But the French had little about which to complain. The buoy was undamaged. The boat was not so fortunate. The term my father used was stove in, meaning a gaping hole in its side.

Ignominiously, dad, crew, and disabled boat were rescued. Word was passed. The captain wanted to see Ensign Bemel.

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Standing at attention in the passageway outside the captain’s cabin, me father contemplated his fate. His commanding officer was a mustang, an enlisted sailor who became an officer, in this case for meritorious action during combat operations of World War II. Old salt did not begin to describe his captain. He was harder than 19th century ship’s biscuit, the kind that broke teeth.

The door opened. The Executive Officer ordered my father in, then left, closing the door behind him.

Standing at rigid attention in front of his CO’s deck, my dad presented himself: “Ensign Bemel reporting as ordered, SIR!”

Captain: “Very good Mr. Bemel, have a seat.”

Dad, flummoxed: “Have a seat sir??”

Captain: “Yes Mr. Bemel, there in that chair.”

Tentatively, my father sat down.

Captain: “Now Mr. Bemel, tell me what happened.”

My father recounted the incident. Then he and the Captain discussed how he might handle a similar situation in the future.

About 30 minutes later the Captain told my father he thought that about covered it and to carry on with his duties.

Flabbergasted, my dad could not refrain from asking: “That’s all Captain??”

Captain: “Yes Mr. Bemel, carry on.”

Dad: “But Captain, I stove in a boat, damaged navy property, embarrassed the ship. What is my punishment?”

Captain: “Mr. Bemel, I’ve just spent a considerable sum training you. I need you to put that training to work right away. Besides, you have demonstrated the one thing I cannot teach. Initiative. You saw a problem and you acted. You could have done so more effectively, but you acted. I need that quality in my officers.”

Only You Can Take Action that Will Change Your Life

No one breaks a habit through inaction. No business ever started spontaneously. You might stave in your boat, but you will learn valuable lessons. As important, you will show yourself and others, you have what it takes to succeed.

What keeps you from taking the first step

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How to Rectify an Insult

There once was a man who felt sorry for insulting his friend.  Not knowing how to assuage his guilt, he decided to speak with the local rabbi.

How to Rectify an Insult

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After listening carefully to the man’s story the rabbi told him he would help. But only if the man did exactly what the rabbi told him to do without question.  The man readily agreed.

So the rabbi told the man to go to a housewares store and buy a feather pillow.  The man started to ask why but the rabbi quickly reminded him not to ask questions.  Off the man went to buy the pillow.  Not knowing what the pillow was for, the man bought the most expensive one he could find.

Hurriedly he returned to the rabbi and showed him the pillow.  He pointed out the high thread count, the durability of the ticking, and the density of the goose down and feathers that made up the stuffing.  He even invited the rabbi to rest his head on the pillow to test out it softness and comfort.

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Convinced, the rabbi agreed with his assessment of the supreme quality of the pillow. So he could barely contain his surprise and anger when the rabbi told him to go to the bluffs above the ocean and tear open the pillow.  Protesting the crime of destroying such a fine piece of workmanship, the rabbi again reminded him not to ask questions.

Resigned, the man did as he was told.  He struggled to tear the ticking, having to use a knife to make a hole.  Finally he was able to get a hand on each side of the slit and just as he pulled with all his strength a huge gust of wind blew all of the feathers over the cliff, dispersing them across a vast area.  Satisfied he had done as bidden, he went back to see the rabbi.

“All right,” the man said confronting the rabbi, “I have done as you asked.  My beautiful pillow is just a piece of torn fabric now.  All its feathers have been blown to the four corners of the globe.  And I don’t feel the least bit better about having insulted my friend.”  Calmly, the rabbi replied, “you will, as soon as you collect up every feather.”

You Can Control Only Two Things in Life: What You Say and What You Do.

No matter how young he is, you cannot control another person.  Though you can develop proficiency in altering your thoughts, your brain is too complex and outside stimulus too unpredictable to gain complete mastery over every thought that comes to mind.

Recovery from an ill-considered word or deed can be virtually unattainable, especially in these days of ubiquitous video and social media.  Next time you are tempted to lash out, do you really think the person will benefit?  Or will you have given up yet another piece of your mind to no purpose?

When did exercising restraint worsen a situation? 

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