D’var Torah: Me, myself and I

Tom Wolfe dubbed the ’70s the “Me Decade.” A poor economy sent Americans away from the social caring of the 1960s and into a retrenchment of insecurity and self-focus.

Today, along with massive economic setbacks, we are enduring a decade of almost endless self-aggrandizing. We feel empowered by our consumer choices; there are millions of things to buy and watch and listen to, such that we spend our days jam-packed with stimulation. But what does this really bring us?

Beneath the barrage, our hearts feel unfed and unloved. Interest in social action has gone out of style, as has involvement in spiritual community, as we withdraw into our homes, replacing friendship with Facebook.

Los Angeles Times Op-Ed columnist Meghan Daum dubbed us a “nation of jerks” for our collective addiction to social media. Instead of connecting when we leave our homes, we “bang into each other when we exit movie theaters because we’re buried in our iPhones.” Almost daily we hear of new mass shootings, perpetrated by people whose only motivation is emptiness.

I propose we call the 2010s the “I Decade.” The individual has moved from “me,” the object of everything, to “I,” its subject. Generosity of spirit, the will to see all people as equal creations of God and to connect with them from a place of depth — the “Thou” of relationship as explained by Martin Buber — is gone from our popular culture.

By admiring self-determination and callous manipulation, and filling every millisecond of our time with shallow interactions, we worship the ultimate non-God: stuff. This is idolatry, the real meaning of the “I Decade.”

“Aleinu, it is upon us,” as we say at the end of every prayer service, to take direct action against this cancer on the Earth we call “I.” We need to restore the “Thou,” and fast. Doing so starts with us — each and every “I” — and the will to want to relate to others, and to God, as a truth as equal and as beautiful as our own. To find the strength to overcome shallowness and truly be present, to trust and to love, is the central struggle of life today for the spiritually alive person.

This is what we learn in this week’s Torah Portion, Shoftim, or Judges. In it, God lays out the key elements for living a good life, a life deserving of the land that God is about to give the Israelites. Central among these is the tenet to never set up a post as a thing of worship, or to bow down to foreign gods. The person found guilty of this must be stoned to death, God adds through Moses. “Thus you will sweep out evil from your midst.”

Yes, that’s harsh. God wants us to know that it takes a hard-line policy to make a system function. In this case, the system is ourselves and our willingness to be distracted from truth and connection. To take a call in the middle of a conversation. To text while driving, watching movies, sitting in synagogue or taking a hike in the hills. To fill our time with pettiness, instead of giving our minds time to be open to the world, to think about our lives and how we are behaving in them, to truly connect through love. To be.

But how do we overcome so pervasive an addiction, especially when it involves devices and information we do need in order to get by in this modern age?

Medieval kabbalist Rabbi Chaim Vital finds the answer in our parasha, which begins, “Appoint judges at all your gates.” Vital notes that this is phrased in the singular (you, a specific individual), because it is meant to address each one of us, and our work to overcome the sin of chronic distraction.

We all have six “gates,” Vital says, namely, our eyes, ears, mouth, nose, hands and feet. At each portal, we must “station a judge,” a metaphoric guard, to enforce upon us limitations on what we look at, listen to, say, touch and run toward.

As the High Holy Days approach, take some time today to ask yourself — what am I doing to ensure that I spend my time meaningfully?

“Every intelligent person should take this [teaching] to heart, while he is still alive,” Vital said. “He will then merit to have the gates of righteousness open before him (at the time of death).”

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Avivah Erlick is president of L.A. Community Chaplaincy Services (LACommunityChaplaincy.com).

Create a new model to enhance work, self, family and community

Now is the time of year when we return to what matters most in our lives. We reflect on what we’ve done and we commit to making things better in the year ahead. What a great and powerful moment in the Jewish cycle. For without this annual taking stock, how can we evolve to become the person we want to be and build our legacy as a positive force during our precious time on earth?

Following the June publication of my book, “Total Leadership: Be a Better Leader, Have a Richer Life” (Harvard Business School Press), I spent much of this summer traveling, speaking about work and how to make it fit with the rest of life in ways that are good both for companies and the people employed by them.

Here’s what I heard: There’s much pain. Too many people feel overwhelmed, disconnected, pessimistic and with no other purpose than to merely survive. Demand for change is the order of the day, as it has always been in our Jewish tradition. Now, as I step into my 25th year teaching at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, I’m struck by how different the work world is today and why a new approach to leadership — no matter where you are or what you do — makes sense.

This new approach is all the more necessary given the new demands on our time as well as our evolving aspirations. Throughout human history, the sun’s relationship to the Earth determined when people worked and rested. Thanks to the revolution in digital technology, this is no longer true for most people. New communication tools promise freedom from time and space, but it’s just dawning on us that we need to learn new psychological and social tools, too, to avoid drowning in the deluge of nonstop pressures that come at us through cell phones and BlackBerries.

The Jewish tradition’s respect for meaningful and useful boundaries is clearly evident in the concept of Shabbat, which creates a natural separation in our lives. But just as there are boundaries, there is also a strong need for integrating the various parts of our life. When the different aspects of life fit together as one — perhaps the essential Jewish idea, to which the Shema calls our attention — then everything in life seems better.

The ago-old Jewish commitment to social justice and respect for the world around us is returning to favor in American business. Employers are learning that people perform better in their jobs when they bring passion into the workplace, when they are doing what they believe matters to the world and when they have a hand in figuring out how to get it done. Greed and competition were ’80s cool. Green and collaboration are ’08 cool.

As I wrote in my book, being a leader is not the same as being a middle manager or a top executive. Being a leader means inspiring committed action that engages people in taking intelligent steps, in a direction you have chosen, to achieve something that has significant meaning for all relevant parties.

Individuals can do this whether they are at the top, middle or bottom of an organization or group. And they can do this in business, families, friendship networks, communities and social associations.

This may be easy to say, maybe not so easy to do. There are a few simple principles that can help:

  • Be real, by acting with authenticity and clarifying what’s important in all parts of your life.
  • Be whole, by acting with integrity and respecting all aspects of life.
  • Be innovative, by acting with creativity and experimenting with what you do and how you do it.

Anyone can bring these principles to their lives and perform better in all aspects. You just have to make an effort to reflect and grow, bolstered by those you enlist to push and encourage you. This is just what our Jewish tradition challenges and inspires us to do, especially during the High Holy Days.

In the Total Leadership process, you begin by writing and talking about your core values and your vision of the kind of leader you want to become — how you want to affect the world around you and why. That’s what I mean by being real, and it’s akin to what we as Jews do in prayer — we contemplate what’s important and how to bring our lives in closer alignment with our values.

Next you explore how the different parts of your life fit together as one — whether your world has integrity — by thinking through the performance expectations of the most important people in each of the four different parts of your life: work, home, community and self.

Then you talk to these people, whom I call your “key stakeholders,” for they are essential to your future, as you see it, to verify and perhaps revise your grasp of these expectations. This activity is similar to what we do on Yom Kippur in talking about what we need to do to strengthen our most precious relationships.

Finally, the fun, inspiring part is being innovative. This involves trying new ways to get things done with the intent of improving performance in all four life domains — pursuing, in other words, what I call “four-way wins.”

We need to focus on what matters most and to consciously take small, realistic steps toward acting on it. You’ll spend your time more intelligently — better aligned with your values, using more of your natural talents to pursue passionately the goals to which you’re genuinely committed. As the great Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, “Life without commitment is not worth living.”

In these Days of Awe, as we reflect on the work of our lives, ask whether and how your “living” makes sense in the bigger picture of your life, your world. If it doesn’t, consider taking one small step toward making it so. Experiment with a change that aims to make things better for you — your mind, your body and your spirit — and for the people around you at work, at home and in your community.

Stewart D. Friedman (www.totalleadership.org) is on the faculty of The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and is the author of the best-selling “Total Leadership: Be a Better Leader