Majesty of Calmness – A Must-Read during the High Holidays

Calm - Ocean

I recommend highly a little book first published in 1898 called “The Majesty of Calmness” by William George Jordan, an American editor, lecturer and essayist of the late 19th and early 20th century.

This 62-page treasure-trove of common-sense wisdom reminds me of the Biblical Book of Proverbs and the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible. It was written in an elegant prose that exists in classical works.

This series of seven short essays is particularly appropriate reading during the coming ten days of Repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: “The Majesty of Calmness;” “Hurry, the Scourge of America;” “The Power of Personal Influence;” “The Dignity of Self-Reliance;” “Failure of Success;” “Doing our Best at All Times;” “The Royal Road to Happiness.”

I offer a few short passages from each of the essays that offer a taste of what you will find in this remarkable series of essays:

“Calmness is the rarest quality in human life. It is the poise of a great nature, in harmony with itself and its ideals. It is the moral atmosphere of a life self-centered, self-reliant, and self-controlled.” (p. 1)

“Nature is very un-American. Nature never hurries. Every phase of her working shows plan, calmness, reliability, and the absence of hurry…Hurry has ruined more Americans than has any other word in the vocabulary of life….In the race for wealth, people often sacrifice time, energy, health, home, happiness, and honor, –everything that money cannot buy, the very things that money can never bring back.” (pps. 8, 9, 10)

“Self-confidence, without self-reliance, is as useless as a cooking recipe, –without food. Self-confidence sees the possibilities of the individual; self-reliance realizes them. Self-confidence sees the angel in the unhewn block of marble; self-reliance carves it out for himself.” (p. 23)

“Many of our failures sweep us to greater heights of success than we ever hoped for in our wildest dreams. Life is a successive unfolding of success from failure…Failure is often the turning-point, the pivot of circumstance that swings us to higher levels…Failure is one of God’s educators.” (pp. 33, 35, 36)

“Living at one’s best is constant preparation for instant use. It can never make one over precise, self-conscious, affected, or priggish. Education, in its highest sense, is conscious training of mind or body to act unconsciously. It is conscious formation of mental habits, not mere acquisition of information.” (p. 46)

“Happiness is the greatest paradox in Nature. It can grow in any soil, live under any conditions. It defies environment. It comes from within: it is the revelation of the depths of the inner life as light and heat proclaim the sun from which they radiate. Happiness consists not of having, but of being; not of possessing, but of enjoying. It is the warm glow of a heart at peace with itself.” (p. 53)

Majesty of Calmness” can be purchased on Amazon for $4.95. Do yourself a huge favor. Read it once, and then read it again.




This is the midnight hour

At the midnight hour after Shabbat that precedes Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish community gathers as the Gates of Heaven begin to open to receive the petitions of forgiveness of the community.

Each year we change our Torah mantles to white symbolically revealing the deepest purpose of these High Holidays, to do Teshuvah, to turn away from an alienated life and to return to our loved ones, community, Torah, one’s own soul, and to God.

The moment is pregnant with possibility, as these verses suggest:

This is the midnight hour. / The Psalmist said: “At midnight I rose to acclaim you” (116:62). / We, who are his descendants, would follow this tradition. / For midnight belongs neither to today nor to tomorrow.

It is a moment alone in time. / It is an interval with a magic all its own. / As we grow weary with the weight of the late hour, / We become introspective, / Concerned with the nature of life; / Especially our own.

Time is fleeting. / Midnight becomes tomorrow. / A day is behind us / And the New Year beckons. / How shall we use our days? / What is the meaning of our lives, our goodness, our power? / Shall we use them only for ourselves / Or for the good of others? / This midnight service summons us / to the true purpose of life.  

Summer is passing. / The days grow shorter. / The sounds and colors of nature, / The stirring of the wind, / Speak to us of changes in the world, in life, / And in a human being’s course on earth.

Now is the time for turning. / The leaves are beginning to turn / From green to red and orange. 

The birds are beginning to turn / And are heading once more towards the south. / The animals are beginning to turn / To storing their food for the winter.

For leaves, birds, and animals / Turning comes instinctively. / But for us turning does not come so easily. 

It takes an act of will for us to make a turn. / It means breaking with old habits. / It means admitting that we have been wrong; / And this is never easy.

It means losing face; / It means starting all over again; / And this is always painful.

It means saying: I am sorry. / It means recognizing that we have the ability to change. / These things are terribly difficult to do.

But unless we turn, / We will be trapped forever in yesterday’s ways.

Author of above poem unknown.




Photographs by Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh

Orthodox, Unlike Defiant Liberal Groups, Will Join Trump’s Conference Call, Forward

Nothing has changed in the last month with Trump’s extraordinary refusal to condemn all those on the side of the KKK and Neo-Nazis at Charlottesville.

People say Trump isn’t a racist or an anti-Semite. I say that if it walks like a duck, looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck.

Read this article in the Forward about the American Jewish community decision concerning a pre-High Holiday call scheduled for this morning with Trump.

Our Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist movement’s moral decision to boycott this meeting because of Trump’s promotion of the outrageous moral equivalence argument of the haters and those who came to protest the haters.

Read the entire article, but note below the historically low level of support in the Jewish community for Trump and his presidency. Only 11% of Reform Jews support Trump.

“…. While the Orthodox community is fully on board with Trump’s call, other elements of the Jewish community are strongly opposed to participation. This split reflects the broader political divide within the Jewish community, as seen in this week’s American Jewish Committee public opinion survey. The poll found that 71% of Orthodox Jews approve of Trump’s performance as president, compared with 25% of Conservatives, 11% of Reform, 8% of Reconstructionists and 14% of those identifying as “just Jewish.” Orthodox Jews make up an estimated 10% of the American Jewish community.

A Yemenite Jew who doesn’t want to get out of bed

At this season we Jews ask ourselves the most basic of questions:
Where am I? What’s the state of my inner life, my relationships with the people I love, with Judaism and tradition, and with God? How through habit and a lack of will have I strayed from a healthy, integrated, loving, and generous life?
The Torah this week (Parashat Nitzavim) reminds us that “This mitzvah that I command you this day is not too hard for you, nor too remote…” (Deuteronomy 30:11)
A wonderful Midrash from Yemen shines a light on what is common to everyone:
“They say to a person: ‘Go to a certain town and learn Torah there.’ But the person answers: ‘I am afraid of the lions that I will encounter on the way.’
So they say: ‘You can go and learn in another town that is closer.’ But the person replies: ‘I am afraid of the thieves.’
So they suggest: ‘There is a sage in your own city. God and learn from him.’
But the person replies: ‘What if I find the door locked, and I have to return to where I am?’
So they say: ‘There is a teacher sitting and teaching right here in the chair next to you.’ But the person replies: ‘You know what? What I really want to do is go back to sleep!’ That is what Scripture refers to when it says in Proverbs 26:14: ‘The door is turning upon its hinges, and the lazy is still upon his bed.’” -Yalkut Midreshei Teiman
Do we recognize ourselves in this Midrash? Though the mitzvah refers to learning Torah its application is far broader. The protagonist lists one hundred and one ways why he can’t learn or find a teacher, mentor or guide to help him grow and change.
Are we not like the Jew in the story?
Like him, so often we just don’t want to get out of bed nor confront our shortcomings, inadequacies, and failures of will.
Like the Jew in the story, so often we’re accustomed to doing things the way we always have done them, even if they’re dysfunctional and self-destructive, and even if they’re the source and cause of our alienation from others and unhappy relationships.
Like the Jew in the story, so often we find reasons to avoid change.
Like the Jew in the story, so often we’re stubborn. Though there’s comfort in routine, a routine may keep us stuck in the past when we should be living our lives forward.
As Chassidic wisdom teaches, if you want to go east but are going west, all you have to do is turn around and take that first step.
This is the season of turning, and though changing direction may require an extreme act of will before taking that first step, once we do it, the second step is easier to take and the third easier still.
Shabbat Shalom.
Painting by Reuben Reubens


Netanyahu Claims Israel-Arab Relations Are At An All-time High. Is He Right?, Forward

In the tumult of the early months of the Trump presidency and in light of the recent natural disasters brought by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, many of us have been distracted from Israel’s “matzav – situation” regarding the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Yossi Alpher is a long time security analyst who served as an advisor to Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s delegation at the 2000 Camp David peace effort with President Clinton and PA Chairman Yasser Arafat.

Alpher writes frequently and is always worth reading as he is clear-sighted, pragmatic, and an astute and informed observer of Israel’s security situation.

In this article, Alpher writes:

“Netanyahu….has leveraged Middle East chaos astutely to Israel’s strategic advantage. This is an important contribution to Israel’s overall security. But it is a temporary advantage, bereft of deep roots in any shared vision of Israel’s future. Israel’s Arab friends are all dictators whose lease on power could ultimately go the way of the Shah of Iran, an earlier semi-clandestine ally who was swept away by extremist Islam in 1979. Nor are these Arab neighbors blind to the fact that the same Netanyahu is presiding over the dissolution of the two-state solution. He is engineering Israel’s slow slide down a slippery slope toward a complicated and conflicted one-state reality that will critically weaken its legitimacy. As matters stand, history will probably find far more fault with Netanyahu’s Palestinian policies than benefits to his regional strategy.”

Read more:…/netanyahu-claims-israel-arab-relation…/

Today, everything depends on the negative factor, the dual Iranian and ISIS threats.

Overcoming Despair and Beginning Again

The central theme of the High Holidays is teshuvah, a restorative process that brings us back to ourselves, to our families and friends, to our community, to humanity, to the natural world, to Torah, and to God. Teshuvah demonstrates the power of hope, that who we are today need not be who we become tomorrow.

Teshuvah is a step-by-step process of turning and re-engaging with our inclinations, the yetzer hara-the evil urge that’s propelled by desire, lust, and self-centered needs and our yetzer tov-the good inclination that is inspired by humility, gratitude, generosity, and kindness.

The beginning in the teshuvah process is, however, despair, hopelessness, and sadness, the feeling that we’re stuck and can’t change the nature, character, and direction our lives have taken us.

Judaism rejects pessimism, cynicism, and everything that impedes personal transformation and a hopeful future.

In the story of Jonah, to be read as final scriptural portion on the afternoon of Yom Kippur, we read the tale of the prophet’s descent into despair and what’s required for him to change direction and restore a hopeful self.

Jonah is an unrealized prophet who runs away from himself, from civilization, and from God. Every verb used in his journey is the language of descent (yod-resh-daled). He flees down to the sea. He boards a ship and goes down into its dark interior. He lies down and falls into a deep sleep. He is thrown overboard down into the waters. A great fish swallows him and he finds himself down in its belly where he remains in utter darkness for three days and nights until his despair forces him, at last, to choose to live and not to die. Then he cries out to God to save him.

God responds and the great fish vomits Jonah out onto dry land. Jonah agrees this time to do God’s bidding and preach to the Ninevites to repent from their evil ways. The town’s people put on sack cloth and ashes and promise to change.

Jonah, however, still believes that change is impossible and the Ninevites are destined to failure. God chastises Jonah for his pessimism and lack of faith, for his self-centered concern for himself and not the well-being of others.

Teshuvah is difficult and challenging. It’s a dramatic break from the past, our refusal to remain stuck. It’s for the strong of mind, heart and soul, for those willing to work hard and transcend their suffering and fear of failure, to get up every time, to own without defense and excuse what we do and what we’ve become, to acknowledge all of it, to apologize to ourselves and to others without conditions that we are responsible and at fault, and to recommit to our struggle step-by-step, patiently, one day at a time, one hour at a time, one moment at a time to turn our lives around.

When successful, teshuvah is restorative and utopian, for it enables us to return to our best selves, to the place of soul, to the garden of oneness.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik wrote that in teshuvah we’re able even to transcend time: “The future has overcome the past.”

Originally published – September 13, 2015


Bannon’s Demagogic Vision of America

In watching Steve Bannon dueling with Charlie Rose on 60 Minutes, I was reminded of this famous Yeats poem and wondered what further damage Bannon and his minions will do to the soul of America.

“Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, / And everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned; / The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”


William Butler Yeats

Trump is Heartless and Cruel

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A narcissist is a person concerned only about himself. He sees the world through a lens reflecting just his image. Everything is a function of his ego. He is hypersensitive to slights. He bristles at criticism. If it serves his interests, he attacks, maligns, humiliates, and obliterates those he perceives as a threat.

When a narcissist is President of the United States, his actions, words, and policies can be cruel, and cruelty is the only word that adequately describes Trump’s action against 800,000 children of undocumented people who have committed no crime.

Trump’s cancellation of DACA instituted six years ago by Executive Order of President Obama, despite the urging of Trump’s advisors and many fellow Republicans not to do so, is without question the ugliest action he has taken since becoming President. In my memory, this is the ugliest action taken by any president in my lifetime.

Countless Jewish organizations have condemned Trump’s decision including the Union for Reform Judaism, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the American Jewish Committee, the ADL, Bend the Arc, J Street, Amenu, the National Council of Jewish Women, Truah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, the Shalom Center, the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect, and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

Why did Trump do it? The writer John Binder in Breitbart News tried to justify Trump’s action:

“Ending DACA could be a major stimulus for the 4.4 percent of unemployed Americans who will see more than 700,000 new job openings across the United States.”

Rob Eshman, the publisher of the LA Jewish Journal, put it exactly right when he wrote this week:

“… ludicrous. It assumes none of the Dreamers are self-employed, that their roles can easily be filled by the ranks of the remaining unemployed – many of whom are far less well-educated, less well-trained, less motivated, far older or not even living in areas where the Dreamers work. Some 250 work for Apple – in what fantasy world are those jobs just ripe for the picking? But Breitbart knows that.”

And so, what’s this all about?

It seems to me that Trump was motivated by two things:

First, he hates Obama, never missing an opportunity to trash policies of the Obama administration. It doesn’t matter what good Obama did for the country and for millions of people. If the policy was Obama’s, Trump has sought to reverse it.

Second, Trump recognizes that his shrinking power-base has to be fed continually. His base of nativist, xenophobic, white supremacist and anti-immigrant bigots will stay close if he speaks and acts on their dark impulses. According to polls, Trump is now losing everyone else at the rate of one percentage point each week.

Thankfully, for the sake of these 800,000 children of undocumented immigrants, there is a potential silver lining. Not only has the nation reacted negatively across political lines to Trump’s decision to cancel DACA, a number of Republicans are working in a bi-partisan effort with Democrats in Congress to legislate a compassionate and humane solution for the dreamers.

As more and more Republicans lose faith in Trump and see him for who he really is, many Republicans in Congress will be guided not by partisan politics but by their moral compass. That will be good not only for the DACA people but for the country.

An Appropriate Response to Trump’s Cruelty is Compassion


This week has yet proved another difficult time for the American dream and the dreamers.

I offer some thoughts by others as an antidote to the hard-heartedness of Donald Trump.

Compassion, in which all ethics must take root, can only attain its full breadth and depth if it embraces all living creatures and does not limit itself to mankind.” -Albert Schweitzer

I learned compassion from being discriminated against. Everything bad that’s ever happened to me has taught me compassion.” -Ellen DeGeneres

The dew of compassion is a tear.” -Lord Byron

The measure of a country’s greatness is its ability to retain compassion in times of crisis.” -Thurgood Marshall

If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” -The Dalai Lama

Az mir hat nit kein rachmonis, farvoss zein zee a Yid? — If you have no compassion, so why be a Jew?


The Time for Forgiveness is Now!

Forgiveness (i.e. forgiving others and forgiving ourselves) may be the most difficult challenge we ever have to face. However, we often make it more difficult than it needs to be because we misunderstand what forgiveness is and is meant to do.

Forgiving others doesn’t mean excusing their bad behavior or forgetting that they wronged us. Even if people who hurt us don’t apologize to us and even if they continue to justify what they did that is contrary to what we believe actually happened, we ought to forgive them not for their sake but for ours. Forgiveness means “letting go” of resentments because these negative and toxic feelings are damaging to us.

Having noted this, the ideal goal of forgiveness is to reconcile and reestablish some kind of relationship with the offending “other.” Let me be quick to say, however, that reconciliation isn’t always possible if, for example, the person who harmed us or we harmed is deceased, nor is it always desirable if the “other” is so incorrigible, narcissistic, and damaged that we have no desire for reconciliation.

Here, however, is one positive example of what forgiveness can do.

A woman in her 70s hadn’t spoken with her sister in forty years. Out of the blue one day her sister called to tell her that she was dying and wanted to see her. They met, her sister apologized for the wrong that caused the breach so long before, and asked for forgiveness. They wept together and reconciled. After her sister died the woman felt a heavy burden lifted from her heart, and the love she once felt for her sister returned.

There is no time like the present (in this season of Elul before Rosh Hashanah in particular) to summon the courage, take the risk, and seek forgiveness from those we’ve wronged even if the event occurred many years ago. Hopefully, those who wronged us will do the same. There is no expiration date nor is there a statute of limitations on forgiveness.

Michael McCullough extends the principles of forgiveness to groups, communities, and nations:

“The forgiveness instinct … can change the world. Groups can be helped to forgive other groups, communities can be helped to forgive other communities, …and nations can even be helped to forgive other nations. Leaders… can offer apologies on behalf of their people to groups with whom they’ve been in conflict. They can also offer … remorse and empathy for the suffering of another group, and they can provide compensation to groups of people whom they’ve harmed – just as individuals can. When they engage in such gestures, it is often to great effect.” (Beyond Revenge – The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct, [Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 2008] p. 181-2)

Think of the power of Pope John Paul II’s apology to the Jewish people for Christendom’s participation in the Holocaust, the Japanese apology for war atrocities it committed against China and Korea, the United States’ apology to Japanese Americans interred in concentration camps during World War II, and the Irish Republican Army’s apology for the deaths of noncombatants during the war in northern Ireland.

Imagine Prime Minister Netanyahu on behalf of Israel and President Abbas on behalf of the Palestinians taking a similar step and apologizing to the other for the pain and suffering each people caused non-combatants on the other side. If this were to happen, if either took the initiative, I believe that a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is possible.

Longfellow wrote: “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each person’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.”

Note: Selichot (the Holiday in which Judaism teaches that the Gates of Heaven begin to open to receive the petitionary prayers of the community) this year falls on Saturday night, September 16. Those who live in Los Angeles and are unaffiliated are welcome to join us at Temple Israel of Hollywood. We’ll convene for learning with the Rabbis at 8:30 pm considering all aspects of forgiveness, followed by a presentation by Theater Dybbuk on the theme of forgiveness, and then we’ll join together in the mystical service of Selichot in which we will change the Torah mantles on all our sifrei Torah to white. Come dressed in white.  

L’shanah tovah.