Category Archives: Ethics & Values

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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How to Live Better with Less

Nostalgia for simpler times is undoubtedly a part of aging. Yet the burgeoning minimalist movement, which seems to be most active among people younger than me, indicates that on some level life today is uncomfortably complex. Talking about this with my running partner stirred a few thoughts. So picture this: It seems two rabbis were jogging down the street when . . .

How to Live Better with Less

Two weeks ago I said goodbye to beautiful Point Loma and rejoined civilian life. Notable changes include having to decide what to wear each morning, driving my daughter to and from school, and viewing brown grass out my bedroom window instead of the Pacific Ocean. But perhaps the biggest and most difficult to accept is living in our new house in Los Angeles. When I left active duty last year we found a gorgeous 1920’s Spanish bungalow with a separate finished garage that I used for my office and library. Suffice it to say I spent an hour sweeping up rat dropping in the garage of our new house.

Fact is we were fortunate to find it. Supply is short in our neighborhood. And our landlord is terrific (I’d say so even if he didn’t read my blog!) So when my running partner asked how my new house was I felt guilty for complaining about what was essentially a matter of aesthetics. Laughing, he reflected on the idea of

How quickly comforts become necessities

Slap forehead with heel of hand.

For eight months I lived in a hotel room, albeit ten feet from the ocean. Somehow I did without most of the comforts of home: just my navy uniforms, exercise clothes, one set of civvies, about 20 books, and rarely ate hot food. Yet life was enjoyable. I had no expectation of luxury because I was living away from my family on a military base.

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Back home on the weekends and now for good, my life seems drab, enhanced by neither an ocean view nor elegant architecture. Yet I am blessed to have a home that is much more comfortable than navy bachelor housing and pretty much any place I lived in as a kid. More importantly, I have my wonderful wife and precocious daughter and the blessing of comforts that are necessities.

Previously I wrote that managing expectations is a key component to happiness. Surrounded by the affluence and consumerist culture we enjoy in America it is easy to accustom yourself to accepting nothing less than the ideal. Yet the ideal is that unachievable Utopia that keeps you striving.

Happiness = Knowing which comforts are truly necessities

So I will better habituate to counting my blessings, fortunately with the help of the men with whom I have prayed for over 10 years. I will live with my priceless family and without an exquisite house. I will not become accustomed to comforts that are not necessities. And the next time my running partner asks me how I am doing the canvas of my life will be brightly painted.

Hmmmm, I wonder what I’d be writing about if instead of jogging, two rabbis went into a bar . . .

Question – How do you prevent yourself from becoming too expectant of comfort?

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Could Envy Be Blocking Your Success?

Have you met someone who has an extraordinary quality? Perhaps he is dedicated to exercising and maintaining a healthy weight. Maybe she can sell ice cubes to Eskimos. Do people like that make you angry or envious? Me too, or at least they used to. Has jealousy gotten you anywhere?

Could Envy Be Blocking Your Success?

Many years ago my lawyer invited me to a Lakers game. He had senate seats so we got to see and feel Shaquille O’Neal as he loped onto the court for one of his first games in Los Angeles. His athleticism was phenomenal. Yet I felt neither jealous nor inspired. Having always played “left out” when it came to basketball, it was unfathomable to me that I could ever reach one-millionth of his level. That his brilliance did not inspire me to excel in an arena at which I could shine demonstrated my shortsightedness.

So here are your choices when you encounter someone with a rare talent:

  1. Be envious. No doubt a natural response, just the same consider that you are only hurting yourself. Jealousy saps your ability to strive for excellence.
  2. Indifference. Such a response will not impede your pursuit of accomplishment. But, like when I saw Shaquille O’Neal play, you are missing a tremendous opportunity.
  3. Be inspired. You have the seed of greatness within you. While you may never reach the pinnacle that others have attained with their unique mix of talents, surely they can be your catalyst to triumph.
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Living intentionally means making maximum use of the resources provided to you. Train yourself to be inspired by the great qualities of others.

  1. Think positively about them in relation to the values or talents at which they excel.
  2. Study what makes them preeminent. Even if you some of your values conflict, what parts of the things they do can you adopt while staying true to your moral code?
  3. Practice those attributes at which they reign supreme.

If you choose, these paragons you meet can motivate you to reach your peak.

Question – Why are you challenged to emulate someone who is an exemplar?

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4 Questions to Ask About Your Desires

Do you have everything you want? I bet the answer is no. Further, I bet you want some things that are not material possessions. While minimalists might excoriate me for saying so, I believe the desire for more can be very positive, even noble. Here is why.

4 Questions to Ask About Your Desires

For several years before I got married, I was quite content with my life. I had a lovely one-bedroom apartment, a cat, a few close friends, a nice car, and a fairly stress-free existence. My business was prosperous and my investments were growing. What more did I need? Then one day my rabbi asked me when I was going to get married. While friends had teased me about being single, I had to take my rabbi’s question seriously. I realized I had no good reason for not being married and within 18 months Melanie became my bride.

Life became much fuller, especially since she brought two dogs with her. We moved into a three-bedroom townhouse and got more involved with friends. My discontent with my work was not obvious to me but it was to Melanie. Three years later I was a navy chaplain and we were moving to Okinawa, Japan. In every way, Melanie’s and my desire for more: meaning, happiness, adventure, and much else has immeasurably improved our lives.

Since then I have given a lot of thought to the desire for more. There are four important questions to ask yourself about it:

  1. What do you want more of? Do you want more money, a bigger house, more friends, a larger collection of toys? None of these is inherently good or bad. From the beginning of our marriage, Melanie has wanted a house of our own. To me, at the time a real estate guy, it seemed silly to be saddled with a big mortgage when the after-tax cost of renting was lower. Having been a nomad for the last seven years, Melanie’s desire looks very good these days.
  2. Do you actually want greater quantity or quality? Like with the desire for more, neither one of these is innately better than the other. Having been raised by a mother who prized quality, I find it to be my default desire though for some things quantity is clearly superior. Also, I suspect when I was a kid my preferences were the reverse like my daughter’s. When choosing ice cream at the grocery store she will always take the less expensive half-gallon over the similarly priced but higher quality pint. Now if you are a Santa Barbarian like me a little McConnell’s is much better than a lot of Dreyer’s.
  3. Why do you want them? To what end do you want more money, a larger house, etc.? Is it to impress others or perhaps you wish to have the tools to be more hospitable. Or like Johnny Rocko in To Have and Have Not, do you just want more? Can you be honest enough with yourself to get to the crux of this issue?
  4. Most crucially, are your "whys" in accord with your values? If you feel guilty about what how much you have or that you have such nice things, perhaps your spirit is trying to tell you your behavior is contrary to your principles. A re-examination is in order.
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Whether you choose minimalism, acquisitiveness, or some middle ground, do so free from guilt. When you get your "whys" and values in accord, you need not regret your desires and you are living intentionally.

Question – What do you want more of and why?

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