Telushkinism: Words to live by in 2011

As seen the Jewish Week.

With the New Year season upon us, authors are crowding the morning talk shows to hawk their new self-help books. Take those talking heads as you may, some of the best self-help comes from our own Jewish wisdom. To offer practical Jewish advice, we asked the always profound and prolific Rabbi Joseph Telushkin to offer us a perspective and insight for the year ahead.

Who is Wise?
“Who is wise?,” the Talmud asks. The answer is halomeid mikol adam, one who learns from everyone. So a wise person is not necessarily the one who is always teaching people, but the one who is always open to learning. Because if you’re always just trying to teach, at a certain point you’re just going to be recycling your own material. You’re not acquiring new material, broader understanding. A person who is open to learning from every encounter, that’s the one who is really going to become a person of great wisdom.

Who is a hero?

Ezehu gibor? Who is a strong person? Who is a hero? One who can overcome his inclinations. Here the Rabbis seem to be referring to evil inclinations, the struggle with our self. The Rabbis understood that the hardest struggle that every one of us faces is our internal struggle. You have to know what are your weaknesses – it could be hurtful things you say when angry, liquor, greed, unfair judging of others, issues of honesty—and know what it is that you have to struggle with everyday. It’s easy to be judgmental of other people’s weaknesses, much harder to face up to our own.  Day after day.  But if you don’t, you can go through life hurting people.

Who is Rich?
Who is rich? Hasameach bechelko, one who is happy with what he or she has. It is very hard for most of us to practice this teaching because most of us have a tendency to think, “If I only had this, I’d be happy.”  We don’t have to be satisfied with what we have – how many people do you know who are?  But since we will never have all that we want, if we can’t learn to be happy with what we do have, we are condemning ourselves to a life of misery, conscious always of what we are lacking.

Self Worth
Most of us associate worth with money.  The answer to the question, “What is so-and-so worth” is always a monetary one. If you hear someone say, “I’m worth $10 million,” what happens to that person when his investments collapse and he is then worth $2 million dollars? And then if he loses everything, what is he worth? Nothing? Our value ultimately derives from the fact that we were created in God’s image. We are holy people. All of us are holy and our worth to others is based on how we act. We’ve had no shortage of children come from very wealthy parents who end up writing memoirs and speaking about their parents in the angriest manner. There are no shortage of people who grew up with poor parents, who have been given by them the most precious gift parents can give to children. Guess what? It’s not money. Its love!

Love Your Neighbor As Yourself

  * Make acting with love something you think about at least once a day.
  * The explicit command in “Love your neighbor as yourself” is to love your neighbor; the implicit command is to love yourself. Self-love is important, and it’s important not just for ourselves. I wonder if there has been an abusive parent in history who had a decent self-image.
  * If you make personal prayers to God, then first pray for others before you pray for yourself.
  * The Torah commands, “Don’t hate your brother in your heart.” Tell the other person directly how he or she has hurt you. It might lead to an apology and peace between you.
  * The reason the Torah commands us to love our neighbor, and not “Love humanity,” is because it’s easier to love humanity than to love the person who lives next door.

The renowned lecturer, Joseph Telushkin, named by Talk Magazine as one of the fifty best speakers in the United States, is the author of 16 books, including Jewish Literacy, The Book of Jewish Values, and most recently Hillel: If Not Now, When?

Can we help?

My desk is coated with letters of request: Adopt an animal at the zoo; come to a gala for the Jewish food bank; plant a tree in Israel; plant a tree in Los Angeles. Feed 50 meals to homeless people. Support public radio. Support the temple building fund. Support the school PTA, the booster club, the play. Need I go on?

These bids for help come in every year at about this time, but this year they feel different. We all are facing the reality that these are really hard times — for everyone, it seems — and there’s a note of desperation in these letters, a fear of becoming destitute. In fact, it’s probably a feeling most of us share to some degree, whether when we look at our 401(k)s (don’t!), or hear from our relatives (do!), or watch friends figure out how to get unemployment checks … or talk to someone who has lost their home to foreclosure.

So this year, all those pleas for funds have to be weighed against our anxieties. And the nagging question inside us must be: Should we hold back on our giving because what we have now might not last? And when we give, whom should we give to? Who are the neediest?

In his recently released “A Code of Jewish Ethics, Volume 2: Love Your Neighbor as Yourself,” (Bell Tower), Rabbi Joseph Telushkin quotes the familiar talmudic teaching: “Charity is equal in importance to all the other commandments combined.” (Bava Bathra 9a). But Telushkin also goes on to quote Maimonides: “It is our duty to be more careful in the performance of charity than in the performance of any other positive commandment.” (Laws of Gifts to the Poor 10:1).

In our era, Telushkin points out, we equate charitable giving to cultural causes — museums, orchestras, universities — as much as to helping the poor. But it is the latter that the Bible refers to exclusively in the teachings on tzedakah. For a person in need, the Bible commands, “You shall open, yes, open, your hand to him,” and not “harden your heart nor shut your hand against your needy brother” (Deuteronomy 15:7-8). And the need for such generosity is so drilled into the Jewish soul that, as Telushkin paraphrases Maimonides, “Not giving tzedakah constitutes such cruel and un-Jewish behavior that we should question the Jewishness of one who acts in this way.”

The Shulchan Arukh assures us: “No person will become poor because of giving charity.”

So does this mean the art museum is out and the homeless shelter is this year’s beneficiary? That the temple coffers come before the school or after? What do we value most? And should we really decide? Because as we open our checkbooks this year and attempt to give back to the world, shouldn’t we consider sustenance from all angles?

High on our list, of course, should be those whose very lives depend upon our help. But this also is not a time to extinguish the many institutions that have risen up to create a civil society. The arts nourish the soul, schools nurture the potential of our youth, but they also promote the scientific and creative research that will secure our future. And the synagogue is one place where we can turn when we need caring most.

Our relationship with Israel also cannot be lost in the mix — its need for health and security doesn’t disappear while our attention is focused elsewhere.

And those animals in the zoo — should they be left out?

To be fair, aren’t times of hardship when we should be giving the most? And not just to one place?

I have a friend who runs an institute for the deaf — a place that gives the gift of communication to people who might otherwise be cut off from the world. She recently told me of a single day in the life of her institute: A check for $1 million came in from a major donor. Cause for great celebration. Then a look at the endowment showed a $1 million loss — just that same day. What do you do?

As the articles in this special Giving Guide illustrate, everyone is trying to answer all the questions I’m proposing here. And there are no easy answers.

But I would suggest this. This is the time to step up to the plate. And there are ways to do it even as we tighten our belts. We can think hard before we buy that fancy pair of shoes and get something more practical; then take that extra money left over — and give it away. Think again before we allocate fun money and find ways to share the pleasures with those who haven’t got the spare cash. We can take the bus once in a while and spend the gas savings on a person in need. Even small economies can turn into great gifts.

This is a time when, at whatever level we can, we should all continue to respond to the pleas for help from charities of all kinds — and give to our capacity, and maybe a little more. Because, as the Shulchan Arukh assures us, and as Telushkin notes, “No person will become poor because of giving charity.”