Category Archives: Ethics & Values

Don’t Confuse Wisdom and Goodness

“From Asher, rich is his bread, and he will provide kingly delicacies.” (Bereshis/Genesis 49:20). Can you hear Asher’s thoughts? “Gee, thanks dad, I guess I get to be the king’s chef.” What kind of blessing is this from the soon to die Jacob?

Don’t Confuse Wisdom and Goodness

The parsha for this Sabbath is the last of the book of Bereishis, Vayechi. It begins with Jacob becoming ill. Realizing his death is imminent, Jacob blesses Joseph’s sons Manassah and Ephraim, elevating them to the status of his sons. Then he blesses his sons, though some of the blessings sound more like rebukes. Jacob’s final request is that he not be buried in Egypt, but that he be taken back to Canaan and buried with Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, and Leah in the cave of Machpelah.

All of Egypt mourns him, a testament to his greatness. His burial procession was so large it impressed and scared the Canaanites. After his father’s death, Joseph assures his brothers that all is forgiven. He lives to see his great-grandchildren. Before he dies, Joseph appeals to his brothers to bring his bones with them when G-d brings them out of Egypt.

The stage is now set for the enslavement of the Children of Israel and its redemption.

There is an interesting parallel between the blessings that Jacob gives and those that Moses gives to the Twelve Tribes at the end of the Torah.

Rashi, commenting on the Asher’s blessing that he will provide kingly delicacies, says that his land will be so rich in olive groves that olive oil will flow as if from a fountain. When Moses blesses Asher he says, “. . . he will dip his feet in oil.” Clearly, olive oil, especially an abundance of it, is something wonderful to have. Why?

Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, points out from a spiritual perspective olive oil symbolizes wisdom. Thus both Jacob and Moses were blessing the tribe of Asher with abundant wisdom, keen development of the intellect.

But Moses adds another dimension to his blessing: the feet. The parts of the body that connect us to the ground have their own spiritual significance: feet represent the direction we take in life, and perhaps more importantly our commitment to strive toward that direction.

Many people believe that a life committed to obtaining wisdom means one is automatically headed in a good direction and that the accumulation of knowledge will make a person ipso facto righteous. But among the lessons of the Holocaust is that intelligence, even wisdom, do not necessarily lead to goodness. Many Nazis were highly intelligent and yet irredeemably evil.

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Less dramatically, Judaism holds that one of the highest values is humility. Yet you have probably met someone who is very intelligent and wise but is equally conceited. Surely a person whose wisdom leads to the abrogation of such an important value cannot be said to be going in a good direction.

The prayer recited on awakening is: “the beginning of wisdom is fear of G-d,” meaning that your direction must be clear before you strive for wisdom.

Remembering the Chanukah lamps that so recently burned brightly, may you have the blessing of abundant olive oil, preceded by a deep, abiding commitment to learn G-d’s values, striving to embed them ever deeper in yourself.

Please take just a minute to share a blessing for our community…

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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. 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!


Riding the Submarine Rescue Chamber: On a Trapeze Without a Net

Did you ever play the game where you had to trust someone by falling backwards, counting on the person to catch you? Then you know a little about what it is like to journey to the ocean floor aboard the Submarine Rescue Chamber, know as the SRC.

Learn about Trust while Riding the Submarine Rescue Chamber:

Qualifications are the lifeblood of the navy. From the moment a sailor comes aboard a command he is under pressure to get checked out on his various duties so he can work on his own and train others. The submarine service has one of the original qualification awards, the Submarine Warfare Insignia. My father, zt"l, who was an anti-submarine warfare officer in the mid 1950s, had tremendous admiration for sailors who wore the “Dolphins.”

But chaplains are not allowed to earn warfare qualifications including the coveted submariners’ “Fish.” (I know, dolphins are not fish. But are you going to argue with a guy who runs a nuclear reactor?) The Marine Corps made special arrangements for chaplains to earn the Fleet Marine Force pin. The only other one I can get is the Parachute Badge. But do I really want to jump out of a perfectly good airplane just to win a fancy brass pin for my uniform?

Then I learned Submarine Squadron 11 staff members are eligible for the Deep Submergence Insignia rescue pin. It is not dolphins, but it has Neptune’s cool trident and a couple of fish too. What is more, I would be the first chaplain earn it.

Like most quals, it involves demonstrating an understanding of the history and purpose of this particular navy activity and getting signed off on a practicum. The deep submergence program was created to rescue submariners trapped in a disabled submarine. The most famous is the rescue of 33 sailors off the USS SQUALUS on the eve of World War II. Peter Maas’s book The Terrible Hours is a great recounting.

Fast-forward, you may recall my October 1 Facebook post of the SRC. Entering the chamber is like going through a time warp. If life were in black and white I would have expected John Wayne or maybe Cary Grant to welcome me aboard.

Do you like elevators? Me either, even when they have a glass wall. Imagine one that has really uncomfortable seats, lots of incomprehensible gauges and valves, and requires you to sit shoulder to shoulder with your shipmates. Oh, and it is very warm inside, even before the hatch is closed. We have been sitting inside for about 45 minutes when we are told via the umbilical cord that the oxygen supply system is not working quite right. Standby!

Fixing the ventilation consumes an hour. Now surface personnel release the safety and clear us to start our descent. Down we go. Twenty minutes later we are at the bottom of San Diego Bay. But the apparatus we had to link with is covered with silt. Divers scramble from the surface to clear it. After a while we call for a status report but the topside operator does not answer. We are vaguely disturbed.

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More than two hours into what I was told would be an hour and a half evolution, sitting in semi-darkness, completely useless, I am thinking, “What is a perfectly sane #NavyRabbi doing here?!” Oh, nature is calling and there are no facilities in this thing.

But hallelujah, we marry up with our link. We call the surface to advise them of our success and begin our ascent. After four hours in the pretzel position climbing out is a challenge. But the sun welcomes us to land. Knowing we would be hungry since the mission lasted almost three times longer than it should, our shipmates have ordered pizza. Too bad it was not kosher.

Saying thanks, my qual card signed, I head back to Point Loma to learn my orders have been cancelled. The government shut down while I sat on the sludge of the bay.

Reflecting on my latest adventure I was struck by how absolutely helpless we were. Aside from the discomfort, we were completely reliant on our shipmates on the surface for air, communications, and troubleshooting. The only thing we could do on our own was move up and down. I had not experienced this level of dependency in almost half a decade.

You know what? I trust anyone of my shipmates to catch me as I fall backwards. And I am going to build the same level of trust here in civilian life. Would you like to help?

How do you establish trust with friends and colleagues?

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You Can Sleep Better – Because They’re on Patrol

I miss being with the submarine squadron. Almost every sailor there pulsed with purpose. They were bright, hardworking, and committed. While I have written a couple of times about riding a submarine, I think you will find this story different.

You Can Sleep Better – Because They’re on Patrol

One of our boats was tasked with performing a burial at sea. Seven submariners were going on eternal patrol.

True to their calling, the boat’s leadership committed to doing an exemplary job. So I got a call, “Rabs, what do you know about burials at sea? Can you meet with us tomorrow?” They planned it out step-by-step in writing. We rehearsed it dockside. Special equipment was bought or borrowed. Rifles were cleaned and the bugle shined. Uniforms prepared. The captain sharpened up his video directing and editing skills so the next of kin would have a poignant memento.

Like my other adventures, it started on a Friday. The ocean is never so busy as when boaters see a submarine on the surface. But we could not perform the ceremony until they were a suitable distance away since rifles would be fired and shell casings retained to give to loved ones. The crew was not amused by my suggestion to launch a torpedo in the general direction of the intruders.

As I stood on the deck I noticed most of the hands were wearing their black work boots with their Service Dress Blues rather than the prescribed black oxfords. This puzzled me until the captain pointed out the sea state. Moments later a wave too big for the boat’s deck dampeners hit, filling my shoes with water. Challenged to maintain proper dignity with wet, squishy feet, the ceremony began.

The captain spoke movingly. Rifle shots sounded sharply as late afternoon drew on. Ashes were committed to the deep and blessedly the wind did not change direction. Decorously the flag was lowered and folded. To my surprise, I had a lump in my throat and felt tears begin to well.

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What a profound demonstration of excellence. Though witnessed only by G-d and a few sea birds, these sailors treated their deceased colleagues with magnificent stateliness. No wonder they are charged with handling among the most delicate aspects of our national security.

Question – How do you maintain peak performance when no one is keeping track?

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How to Defeat Your Worst Enemy

“The first one emerged red, all of him was like a hairy mantle.” (Bereshis/Genesis 25:24). Rebecca bears Esau and Jacob, the latter grasping at the heel of his brother. Can you hear the theme song to Jaws portending a grim outcome?

How to Defeat Your Worst Enemy

The parsha for this Sabbath is Toldos. Jacob and Esau are born. Then Esau sells his birthright to Jacob for a pot of lentil stew and a famine forces Isaac to move to Gerar where he disputes with the Philistines and makes a treaty with Abimelech. Esau marries two wives. Next as Isaac lays dying he blesses his sons precipitating Esau’s hatred for his brother that causes Jacob to flee to Bethuel’s house. Jacob is admonished not marry a Canaanite and Esau marries a third wife. Who needs Dynasty?

Jacob and Esau provide the arch-type of the battle between good and evil.

Contrary to the popular belief that children are born good, the Jewish view is that each person is born with a yetzer hatov, the urge to do good, and a yetzer hara, the urge to do evil. Undoubtedly you have felt pulled in two directions when faced with a moral dilemma. This is the struggle between your yetzer hatov and yetzer hara and you must decide which you are going to follow, the essence of free will.

Both Jacob and Esau faced this same struggle and represent the two sides. Although they were twins each followed a very different path.

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The Torah notes that Esau was born with a mantel of red hair. Although Rashi remarks that this was a sign that he would become a murderer, such was not inevitable.

King David was described as ruddy. The prophet Samuel was concerned that he would be a murderer like Esau. But G-d assured Samuel that David would only take a life at the behest of the Sanhedrin. G-d did not prevent David from killing wantonly, rather David learned to restrain his yetzer hara and turned it to productive purposes. Esau did not.

Your task is clear. Pursue Jacob’s path and avoid that of Esau. Examine your character traits and figure out how each of them can be used to support your yetzer hatov and defeat your worst enemy, your yetzer hara.

Question – What steps have you taken to habituate your yetzer hara to positive pursuits?

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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. It is named after the first significant word or two with which this weekly reading begins.

How Grenade Training Taught Me When to Bend the Rules

This is the first of an occasional series of posts about my experiences on active duty.

Thirty-six hours later I was still hearing BOOMS!

Military chaplains do not get weapons training. But I did not find this out until the Officer Training School chief petty officers, in charge of “sailorization,” told me not only was I barred from qualifying to fire the standard issue 9mm pistol, I was not even allowed to sit in a class explaining how it was used. So about nine months later when a colleague of mine asked me if I wanted to visit Marines practicing throwing grenades I naturally answered - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - YES!

How Grenade Training Taught Me When to Bend the RulesThe following Friday morning found me bundled up in body armor and a Kevlar helmet, sitting in the back of a Humvee with four chaplains and RPs (Religious Program Specialists – enlisted personnel assistants and bodyguards for chaplains) headed to the training area. Our mission: to walk among the Marines not in training and chat with them.

Jumping down from our vehicle, we were greeted by the Chief Warrant Officer in charge who asked if any of us wanted to get trained. As my chaplain colleagues hemmed and hawed I concluded this was a moment of truth. YES! I shouted, followed quickly by my RP. After all, when would I ever get another opportunity?

Remember all the war movies you have seen where they throw grenades? Yeah, well it does not work that way. It is much more difficult than it looks, and much more dangerous. First, we practiced with dummy grenades, habituating to the multi-step procedure that endeavors to ensure safe, accurate use of this weapon.

Then we went to the bunker where the real ones were used. In my section, I met a Staff Sergeant whose job was to make sure I followed the range officer's commands and stayed safe, which included falling on a live grenade if I dropped it so I would not get killed. Yeah, I know. It is what makes them great.

I got to throw three grenades and that I am writing this attests to my having made no mistakes. Even though I threw them into a huge pit surrounded by a tall mound of earth the BOOM of detonation shook the ground. In the moment I was so excited I didn't really notice.

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Training completed we talked with the Marines who encouraged us to do more training so they could continue to relax. Jokers, all of them!

Our mission accomplished we loaded back into the Humvee and headed home. When I got to my house my wife looked at me and asked, “what happened?!” I had not realized it but I was soaking wet from sweat and looked haggard. A short time later when I went to clean up so I could lead Sabbath evening services I started to shiver. Four hours of being in a ground shaking, booming environment had frazzled my nerves far beyond anything I have experienced before or after. Any loud noise made me jump.

As I walked back from the chapel that night, I reflected on what it must be like in combat with no respite from the booming. Maybe you get used to it, though I cannot fathom how.

By Sunday morning I had calmed down, but as I am writing this, my hands are shaking a little at the memory. I am equally fortunate to have gotten a small taste of what those whom I am charged to care for go through and to have never had to use a grenade. But I am glad I could if it meant protecting one of the fine young people I work with. Saving their life would be worth losing my career. Thanks to a gusty CWO I can.

Question – When do you think it is appropriate to bend the rules for a greater good?

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