He steps in a pile of strawberries. His white shoes become his red shoes. He stops, says “Oh no,” and keeps walking, singing now about his love for his red shoes. Then he wanders into a pile of blueberries. He just keeps walking along and singing his song.
Then Pete steps into a big puddle of mud. But once again, he keeps walking and singing, “I love my brown shoes…” Just as he gets closer to school, he steps into a bucket of water. The water washes away all the colors. But now his shoes are wet. He walks into school singing, “I love my wet shoes!”
On the surface, it’s a story telling us that accidents happen. It also reveals much more.
1. Attitude is everything. Life does not always go the way we think it will. Pete got excited when he put on his new white shoes. That excitement and joy did not diminish when they became his red shoes, his brown shoes and his wet shoes. Things change. Sometimes we step in mud. Like Pete, we can choose to stay positive.
2. You can always start over. Every accident became an opportunity for Pete to have a new pair of shoes. His approach reminds me of a great story told by Rabbi Harold Kushner.
“I was sitting on a beach one summer day, he writes, “watching two children, a boy and a girl, playing in the sand. They were hard at work building an elaborate sandcastle by the water’s edge, with gates and towers and moats and internal passages. Just when they had nearly finished their project, a big wave came along and knocked it down, reducing it to a heap of wet sand.”
“I expected the children to burst into tears, devastated by what had happened to all their hard work. But they surprised me. Instead, they ran up the shore away from the water, laughing and holding hands, and sat down to build another castle.”
3. Keep singing your song. Through every accident Pete keeps singing. He was probably sad, but the singing helped cheer him and up keep him going. What do you have in your life that keeps you going? Is it a special song, a mantra, a prayer? Perhaps it is a deeply engrained sense of purpose and system of values? Amidst the puddles of mud we inevitably counter, we need a firm set of boots that will keep us looking up and standing straight.
4. Change is inevitable. Pete begins his walk in his new white shoes. He ends it in his new–but wet–white shoes. While life often seems to repeat itself, the only consistent is change. Nothing ever stays the same. We don’t need to sweat the small stuff.
This recognition does not leave us powerless. It does not mean we can sit back and simply let things be. Rather, it reminds us of both our opportunities and our limitations. As Maya Angelous brilliantly put it, “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.”
There’s a reason we remember certain childrens’ stories. There’s a reason we smile when we read them to our kids. There’s a reason we read them over and over. With simplicity and subtle wisdom, they capture what is universal and timeless.
What are your favorite children’s books? What lessons do they teach?
By Evan Moffic, Rabbi of Congregation Solel in Highland Park.
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Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. Last week my colleague Rabbi Jason Miller shared the story of a 21-year-old college student named Brett Cohn.
Cohn decided to do a little experiment. He hired a film crew, some body guards, and several photographers with bright lights and microphones. He then asked them to accompany him as he walked through Times Square in New York.
Guess what happened? He was inundated. Kids wanted his autograph. Tourists had their picture taken with him. The film crew asked random pedestrians what they thought of Brett Cohn. They raved that they were his biggest fans!
We All Worship Something
What does this story say about our culture? What does it say about what we value? Do we admire for people for what they do or for how famous they are?
Before we get too hard on ourselves, we should remember that people have always been impressed with what seems big, shiny and new. Before people worshipped celebrities, they worshiped different gods. That’s part of the story told in the Hebrew Bible.
The big celebrity of biblical times was a god named Ba-al. The Hebrew word literally means “master.” He had lots of raving fans. The Hebrew God was very different.
He was not flashy, loud and surrounded by raving fans. The story of the prophet Elijah illustrates this beautifully. Elijah is alone upon Mount Sinai. The Bible tells us that a whirlwind appears. God was not in the whirlwind. Then an earthquake. But God was not in the earthquake. Then a raging fire. But God is not in the fire. Then God speaks to Elijah in a still small voice. (1 Kings 19)
Judaism resists the idols of the ages. Celebrities are the idols of our age. They can block us from appreciating our true heroes.
The great historian Daniel Boorstin makes this argument from both an historical and contemporary perspective. “The hero,” he writes, “was distinguished by his achievement; the celebrity by his image or trademark. The hero created himself; the celebrity is created by the media. The hero was a big man; the celebrity is a big name. Celebrity-worship and hero-worship should not be confused.”
How true! Making idols of celebrities not only creates embarrassing stories like Brett Cohn’s experiment. It also undermines our gratitude for the people who really do make a difference. The antidote to a culture of celebrity is a culture of humility.
Humility is not meekness. It is an openness to something larger than the self. It is found in listening rather than speaking. In looking at other people as ends and not means. It is listening not to the loudest voice. But to the still, small voice of conscience within us.
Forgiving others often involves struggle. As I wrote a few months ago, forgiveness does not necessarily mean condoning. Rather, it means accepting, moving on, and not holding your life hostage to the actions of another person.
Does this same logic apply, however, to the actions of a public official? As one of my congregants recently asked me, can we forgive a comment like that of Congressman Todd Akin, who contended that certain types of rape are “legimimate?”
Furthermore, what does forgiveness mean in this case? Since the comment was not directed at any individual in particular, who is entitled to forgive?
These are not easy questions, and in the case of my congregant, it is a hypothetical one, as she does not live in Missouri and has no connection to Congressman Akin. Yet, it does demand some soul searching. How do we judge the words and convictions of others, and how do we hold them accountable?
Here’s what I said:
1. Forgiveness demands a clear and unequivocal apology: We have all received apologies where the offender says “I’m sorry for how my actions and my words made you feel.” In most cases, this is not an apology for one’s actions. It is simply an acknowledgment that what he or she did or said hurt us.
Congressman Akin needs to apologize for what he said unequivocally. It is not enough to say he misspoke. It is not enough to engage in a new ad campaign. He needs to show that he understood the ugliness and dishonesty of what he said. It is not politics. It is ethics.
2. Forgiveness and atonement are not the same thing: As Rabbi Brad Hirschfield points out in his thoughtful article, forgiveness is letting go of one’s anger and moving on. Atonement, on the other hand, involves reconciling oneself with the offense. It involves a renewed relationship and understanding. It takes more than a few days, and more than letters and advertisements.
3. Keep an open mind: Politics thrives on divisiveness. It is about who wins and who loses. Human relations, on the other hand, thrive on empathy and understanding.
Todd Akin probably has no future in politics. Yet, he does have a future as a human being. Let’s hope that future is one of growth and empathy.
By Evan Moffic,
What Do You Think?
Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said that “Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.” Foolish consistency is clinging to a viewpoint when all evidence points to the contrary. It is refusing to change when change is the only approach that makes sense. We see a beautiful historical illustration of this truth in a study of the Jewish Sabbath in America.
Beginning in the 1870s, Rabbi Kaufmann Kohler–the seminal philosopher of Reform Judaism and soon-to-be President of its rabbinical seminary–initiated a radical change. He began holding his synagogue’s primary worship service on Sunday. While maintaining Saturday as Judaism’s “historical Sabbath”, he designated Sunday as the primary day of communal worship. The service included a liturgy, choral music and sermon/lecture.
Kohler rooted his change in Jewish history, contending that he was following rabbinic tradition. Near the start of the Common Era, he noted, Jewish communities read Torah on Monday and Thursday, the market days when most Jews would already be in town.
The Sunday service followed this precedent in also meeting an economic need. By gathering for worship on Sunday, rabbis would acknowledge the many immigrant Jews who had to work and their businesses open on Saturday.
In predicting its impact, Kohler did not mince words. It would, he insisted, “prevent people from becoming altogether estranged from Judaism.”
In a stunning mea culpa, he wrote “ having for eighteen years been one of the chief advocates and promoters of the Sunday Service, often standing forth in its defence single-handed against a multitude of assailants, I consider it not merely my privilege but my duty to state publicly that I have found sufficient reasons to change my views.”
His reasoning was straightforward. The Sunday service lacked the spirituality of the traditional Sabbath. Famous lecturers would draw big crowds, but few engaged in the rest and study that made the Sabbath sacred.
A New World
Kohler had also lost a great deal of confidence in his belief that antisemitism was declining. Whereas his early sermons and lectures predicted the world’s embrace of “Israel’s pure monotheistic truth and broad humanitarian ethics,” he now lamented that “the world still hates the Jew.”
Kohler refered specifically to the rise of pogroms in Eastern Europe and growing hostility toward Jews among the German intellectual establishment. He also lamented continued social antisemitism in the United States, pointing out that “No Jew Need Apply is still the able of clubhouses and summer resorts.” Kohler’s tone of the 1890s differed significantly from that of the 1880s.
Kohler also became more circumspect about the wisdom of rapid change. He describes the danger of a “perilous drift” in which traditions are changed simply for the sake of convenience. The only legitimate reasons for radical change, he argued, were ethical demands and demonstrated effectiveness in strengthening religious life.
Kaufman Kohler’s change of heart is not only an exploration of the meaning of the Sabbath and a window into late nineteenth century Jewish life. It is an exercise in adaptive leadership.
Harvard leadership expert Ronald Heifetz distinguishes between technical and adaptive leadership. Technical leadership addresses challenges with simple solutions. Adaptive leadership addresses more complex challenges that involve the way we think and define the problem.
Kohler’s initial response–moving the primary worship service to Sunday–was a technical solution to an adaptive challenge. The challenge was strengthening Jewish life. The technical solution was changing the primary day of worship.
Over time, however, Kohler revised his conception of the challenge. No technical solution would solve the evolving challenge of building Jewish life in the transformative new context of America. A new understanding of Reform Judaism was needed.
As Kohler himself put it, “True progress lies not in abolishing but in improving the ceremonies of religion, and in making such innovation as tend to strengthen the loyalty and reverential piety of the people.”
Kohler recognized that transformative leadership is not solely about embracing what is new. It also renews what is old. Looking to the future, it reflects upon what has worked and guided the past, and envisions a way in which they can provide a foundation for the future.