Friday, September 25, 2009

A New Year's Resolution

These are the most important 10 days of the Jewish calendar—the time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur when we negotiate with God—making the case that we are worthy to be inscribed in the Book of Life for yet another year.

The biggest part of that process involves t’shuvah—repentance. We try to be honest about things we have done wrong and need to do better during the coming year.

That is obviously a very personal negotiation and each of us has very different issues to consider as part our heshbon ha nefesh—the examination of our soul.

But as a people, I would suggest that this is a time when all Jews need to look not just at what we do during the coming year but at what we say and how we say it.

The Jewish tradition has always been obsessed with the destructive potential of speech. Of the 43 sins enumerated in the Al Chait confession we recite on Yom Kippur, 11 of them are related to speech. The Talmud tells that the tongue is an instrument so dangerous that God designed us in a way so it is hidden from view and behind two protective walls (the mouth and teeth) to prevent its misuse.

In the book of Leviticus, there is a specific prohibition against rechilut—being a tale-bearer. The Hebrew word rechil refers to a trader or a merchant. A tale-bearer—a biblical reference to a blogger or talk show host—is someone who deals in information instead of other goods. Long before there was talk radio, cable news, and the internet the Torah--the Hebrew Bible understood that information is not idle chatter. It is a product. It is real.

The gravest type of rechilut is lashon hara which literally means “the evil tongue.” It is the practice of discrediting or saying negative things about a person even if those things are true. A person who spreads slander or untrue negative information about a person is considered the lowest of the low—a motzi shem ra--one who delivers a bad name. Many commentators rank these people on the same scale as murderers and far worse than thieves since the money or property stolen by a thief can be replaced but a person’s good reputation never recovers from slander.

There is a well-known story about a rabbi who was asked how one could repent for spreading vicious slander. He replied that it was like trying to put the feathers back in a pillow that has been ripped open during a windstorm. It simply can't be done.

The great Chasidic rabbi the Chofetz Chayim was preoccupied with the evils of lashon hara—so much so that it is said he would stay inside his house for weeks at a time because he found it impossible to go out in public without being exposed to evil gossip. Today, he wouldn’t be safe even in his home. He’d have to turn off his TV, throw away his radio, and shut down his email and the internet as well.

Throughout history, no people has suffered more from sinat chinam—baseless hatred—than the Jews. That hatred has come both from within and outside our community. Many of our sages say that the First Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed due to our sins against God but the Second Temple was destroyed due to sinat chinam—baseless hatred shown toward each other by differing groups of Jews.

Over the years, anti-Semitism grew and thrived based on lies that were spread by those who hated Jews more than they loved the truth. These bigots justified their prejudice by claiming that Jews were financial pariahs, murdered Jesus, used the blood of gentile children to make their Passover matzahs and a variety of other hateful slurs. Without these lies and those who willingly spread them, history might look very different.

American Jews have always taken pride in knowing that in the area of politics and public affairs we have been the most sophisticated, influential, and intellectually honest minority group in our country’s history.

But on this Yom Kippur there is reason for concern. The politics of rumor, innuendo, and lies—sinat chinam—is on the rise in our community and it hurts us all.

Former President Bush was a victim of this type of treatment. After Bush visited Yad Vashem, a prominent Jewish blogger wrote that "the President cares about dead Jews. Live Jews--not so much."

During last year's presidential campaign, nine leaders of non-partisan Jewish organizations signed a letter condemning the smear campaigns aimed at Jewish voters that had been launched against President Obama. They took this action not because they supported Obama politically but because they understood the danger of these lies.

What started as fallacious emails claiming that Mr. Obama is a secret Muslim who cavorts with Jew haters has actually ramped up since his election as our president. It has now made its way to semi-respectable websites and the pages of the Jerusalem Post. In several pieces by Jewish authors our president is associated with Islam, Jew hatred, and anti-Israel sentiment ignoring his voting record, statements on Israel, and commitment to fighting anti-Semitism.

Sinat Chinam spills into our community’s internal discourse as well. Hatespeech and uncivil conversation are on the rise. A good friend of mine just quit her job in our Congressman's office in part because she couldn’t take the daily barrage of obscene and hateful phone calls she was fielding on a daily basis.

Jewish Democratic leader Ira N. Forman wrote an insightful article about the rise of hatespeech within the Jewish community. He reported that he had received calls from fellow Jews accusing him of being "a liar and a stooge for the Hitlerite appeasement of Islamofascism."

Jewish Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson cites ominious comparisons between the tactics of today's promoters of hatred and the brilliant propaganda breakthoughs that enabled Hitler to promote his evil agenda.

Speaking of blast emails and the internet in general, Gerson says "the least responsible contributors see their darkest tendencies legitimated and reinforced, while serious voices are driven away by the general ugliness."

Being Jewish has always involved rising above the trends taking place in the broader community and holding ourselves to a higher standard—the standard that has caused us to survive as a people committed to civil discourse and Tikkun Olam--repairing the world.

This year, it is important to our country and also to our biblical commandment to be or l’goyim—a light unto the nations—for us to commit ourselves to focus on what we say and how we say it during the coming year.

It’s not about being politically correct—it’s about doing God’s work and fulfilling our most important Jewish traditions.

May you and your families have a happy, healthy, and rewarding new year.


Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Back to the Future -- The Tension Over Tense

Have you ever noticed that most things people say they are worried might happen in the future are things that have already happened? Once the dreaded event has taken place, they start speaking in the future tense about it as though it hadn't happened yet--but they're worried that it might.

That was this year's Rosh Hashanah insight that got me through the day as we Chosen folks ushered in 5770 the other day.

As a financial advisor I have seen it repeatedly over the years. Investors and the business news media always seem to consider the market to be risky after it has already been crushed. It is only near market tops that people tend to be comfortable owning stocks and are losing sleep because they don't own enough hot issues.

We saw panic at the bottom after the stock market crash in 1987 and again last March when people were so worried about how risky the market had become that they wanted to sell every stock they owned--including companies that were trading at valuations that were less than the cash they had in the bank. That, of course, was AFTER their accounts had been crushed and the people sold their stocks without regard to price just so they could sleep at night.

We saw the mirror image of that behavior during the late 1990's during the tech bubble. "Conservative" investors fired their money managers for not owning enough high-flying stocks that had already gone up by 1000 percent or more. Then they turned around and sued their new managers in the early 2000's because they owned too many of the internet companies that the investors themselves ordered them to buy.

It's easy to poke fun but in fact human nature tends to lead us astray under a variety of circumstances. With investments, mob psychology takes over. People get greedy at the top and afraid at the bottom. At the end of the day, the almost always default in favor of sleeping at night.

What is harder to understand is why people speak in the future tense about their worries months after the worst has already happened and the risk would seem to be gone.

The same phenomenon seems to apply to the criticism and concerns expressed about President Obama. The very issues that many detractors say they are most worried about seem to be events that already happened long before Obama even took office.

For example, critics say they are worried that Obamanomics will create huge federal deficits and destroy the economy. But during the eight years of George W. Bush's presidency, what had been a budget surplus turned into $5 trillion in deficits and that doesn't include the cost of the Iraq war and other expenses that were made off budget.

To save the economy, Obama will certainly run $1 trillion-plus deficits in coming years, but Bush already did that in 2008. John McCain has admitted that had he been elected the deficit numbers would have looked pretty much the same.

As far as destroying the economy is concerned, that was pretty much a done deal at this time a year ago--months before Obama was even elected.

There is also a lot of hand-wringing and fear that Obama wants to redistribute wealth and take all the money from the rich and give it to the poor. But wasn't it Bush who pushed through a $170 billion stimulus bill more than a year ago where checks of up to $1,200 were sent to the poorest Americans in a failed effort to avert a recession? Where were the cries of "socialism" and the teabagging parties back then? And wasn't it Bush who redistributed billions of in the opposite direction with his tax cuts for the wealthy?

The same is true regarding many concerns about health care reform--not the phony ones which are just based on lies. Outrage is routinely expressed about having a government-financed health care system in which the care itself would be rationed.

But isn't that what we already have with Medicare, Medicaid, and the V.A.? And isn't health care already being rationed by our current system?

I am covered by a "gold-plated" health plan but my premiums and co-pays go up every year and the procedures that are covered by my insurance keep going down. In recent years, I have been told more and more often that "your insurance doesn't cover that procedure" and have seen an increasing number of doctors refuse to accept patients covered by certain insurers because their reimbursement levels have dropped so dramatically.

Perhaps the most ironic line of this whole debate comes from the millions of Republicans who have cautioned Obama and the Democrats to "keep the government away from my Medicare."

There are many reasons to be concerned about the future of health care in our country and how we're going to pay for it. But those who are most concerned about the government controlling coverage or about care being rationed in the future are waiting for a train that left the station years ago.

My guess is that 95 percent of the things most people worry about either have already happened or will never happen. Having said that, there is no doubt that fear about the future can be a useful tool. But only if it is used to keep us out of trouble or to spur us on to imagine and work to create better outcomes and a better world.

Today, however, fears and worries seem to mainly just whip up anger, hate, and demonization of our leaders and institutions.

Hopefully during the coming year we will funnel more of our energy to finding constructive solutions to the many problems that confront us and waste less worrying about things that have already happened or never will.

Steering the Ship of State and our personal lives is tough enough under the best of circumstances. It becomes impossible if we spend all our time looking in the rear view mirror.

Friday, September 4, 2009

The State of Denial Has Zero Electoral Votes--But It Seems to Be Winning

The Right Wing purveyors of hatred, fear, and anger have adopted a new strategy. Unfortunately, it seems to be working as well as their old one.

Until now, they have focused on spreading lies and distortions about President Obama. He is a socialist and a Nazi (an interesting combination) wants to kill granny. He wants to ruin our wonderful health care system--which is working well for virtually no one under the age of 65. He wants to run up trillions in debt--but Bush already did that. He wants to take away all our freedoms and liberties--but Bush already did that. He wants to take away our guns--but he let patriots bring assault weapons to a meeting where he spoke.

You know the drill and the litany. I thought it had gone about as far as it could go. But, as we've all learned, never underestimate the power of racism and hate.

Today we broke new ground. The haters on the Right are now basically saying that the election never happened. Obama didn't really win and he's not really our president. If he was really president, there would be nothing new or controversial about his desire to do a video address to school children regarding how important it is to study hard and stay in school.

George H.W. Bush did the same thing almost 20 years ago. He addressed school children and asked them to help him be a better president and no one complained or even batted an eye. That's because Poppy Bush was a real president and once someone is actually our commander in chief, there's nothing partisan or controversial about him asking anyone and everyone to help him do a better job.

But when Obama asked students to write him letters with advice regarding to how he could do a better job, he received a torrent of abuse from the Right calling it a blatantly partisan act. They are successfully demanding the schools not carry the speech and instructing parents to keep their kids home from school on Tuesday so their young ones will not be damaged by hearing directly from their president.

Ronald Reagan also addressed students before that and actually did try to promote his agenda. He lectured our kids regarding the merits of tax cuts. But you see Reagan was a real president, not a Black guy born in Kenya who never should have been allowed to run in the first place and therefore never really won.

Today, in perfect harmony almost as if they were singing in a choir, Right wing media superheroes Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Michelle Malkin blasted Obama for his blatantly partisan effort to "indoctrinate" the minds of our children by talking to them about the importance of education. In unison, they called on all responsible true American parents to keep their kids home from school on Tuesday.

The rest of us Liberal fools are operating under the illusion that we had open and honest election where we were free to work hard for the candidate we preferred. But when elections are over, then the winner is the president of ALL of us for the next four years. The campaigning is over, the negativity is over, the mudslinging is over. We're all on the same team--particularly in times of war and financial crisis.

But due to his impostor status, Obama's policies are vigorously opposed regardless of his positions. When he alters his stimulus package to include Republican proposals for tax cuts, it's still "Obamanomics" and therefore it's bad. When the stock market goes up 50 percent and is higher six months in a row and three times as many Americans are optimistic about the future compared to a year ago--that is in spite of Obama, not because of him.

When he adopts 82 Republican amendments to his health care reform plan and waffles on the public option, it's still "Obamacare" and therefore it's bad. Just put his name on it and oppose it. That way the facts don't matter. It's all about discrediting and bringing down the man.

Every president before Obama has had what they call a honeymoon period. It's a time when everyone gives the new guy a chance, pulls in the same direction, and prays that he will succeed. But every president before Obama was not Black.

We should have seen this coming. A year ago when the presidential campaign was nearing its end, issues like Obama's friendship with terrorists and racist ministers were being emphasized by some Republicans. Questions about his place of birth were also being stirred up by the same crowd.

After November it stopped for an instant. He was approved and sworn in as president without dissent. Even the most ardent Conservatives admitted that he was born in Hawaii. We stopped hearing about Bill Ayers and Rashid Khalidi and Reverend Wright. We had a new president and it was time to move on.

But a lot of folks just couldn't seem to shift gears. A few months ago, the Birthers (championed by "newsman" Lou Dobbs) reappeared with no new information but with more energy than ever--more than a year after they first raised the issue and dropped it due to lack of facts or proof.

This week, Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer resurrected the names of Ayers, Wright, and Khalidi--calling them the friends that Obama has learned from--as he went on to explain (citing no facts of course) why his presidency is already a complete failure.

But this kerfuffle over the speech to students takes things to a new level. Some of us actually believe that Obama is the President of United States. When he asks adults or children to help him be a better president, it is not a partisan act unless you reject the notion that whether you voted for him or not, Obama is the president of all of us and will be for at least 3 1/2 more years.

But apparently in addition to being a socialist, a terrorist, a Kenyan, a Nazi, a granny killer, and like Hitler--Obama is not even really our president. The whole thing was just a big liberal lie--a huge mistake. He's just a pseudo-president or someone who wants to be president some day. Otherwise all these charges and concerns are bogus on their face.

Meanwhile, dozens of school districts around the country have succumbed to pressure from Right wing parents and decided that a speech to all American students will not be carried in their schools on Tuesday. If you really believe that Obama is the President of the United States, how do you make that call?

I guess that Rush, Sean, Glenn, and Michelle are the true leaders of our country. Or at least they are able to call the shots in an environment where anger and fear reign and truth, justice, and the American way have become empty words.

The State of Denial (population--millions and growing) has zero electoral votes but it seems to have won the election. Unless, of course, the rest of us demand a recount.