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Monday, September 1, 2014

THERE IS NO PERFECTION

Recently I learned that Perfection Valley is a fictional place in Nevada where the ex-silver mining town of Perfection was located. It served as the primary setting for the 1990 film called Tremors. It does not exist—just as perfection itself. Hebrew does not have a good word for perfection. The closest one, shlemut, means “wholeness.”


I have reached a point in my life where I no longer expect or seek perfection in anything or anyone. Salvador Dali, the famous Spanish/Catalan painter once said: “Have no fear of perfection; you’ll never reach it.” Human beings, being fallible, make mistakes, either small or big, and need to learn how to deal with their consequences. I only try to do better, and hope that my errors are rather benign or correctible. 


Everything we do and have in life ends up being short of the ideal. Examples:

1. There is no perfect joy. It is always tinged with some shade of darkness. During the Jewish wedding ceremony, it is customary to break a glass. Rabbinic sources provide various interpretations for this act. According to one, this is a reminder that even at the height of our happiness we need to remember the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 586 BCE and then in 70 CE. For me, it means that the bride and groom must acknowledge that they will experience moments of joy as well as times of sorrow in their lives. However, the love they have for each other will enable them to meet the future challenges together with optimism and hopefully with success. 


2. There is no perfect friend or spouse. What we need in life is not a perfect partner, but a good one; one who has a kind heart and an empathetic soul. One cannot live with someone who claims to be beyond reproach. This would drive you crazy, because you would always feel that you cannot meet that person’s expectations. And that is not a good recipe for friendship. Better accept each other for who you are, and complement each other lovingly.


3. There is no perfect job. I don’t know of anyone who is totally happy with his/her work. Every profession has its highs and lows. We frequently overlook the difficulties in our work because we derive so many other benefits by doing what we love best. 


The realization that there is no such a thing as perfection does not mean that we should lower our standards. That is simple laziness and would represent a personal let down. We should acknowledge our limitations, do our best, and make the necessary corrections as we go along.  And if we do that for ourselves, shouldn’t we also tolerate and, at times, even overlook other people’s imperfections? 


According to a rabbinic text, everything that was created at the beginning of time needs “fixing,” such as, “The mustard seed needs to be sweetened, the wheat needs to be ground, the lupine needs to be soaked and man needs to be repaired (tzarikh tikun, i.e. circumcised) (Gen. R. 11: 6). The Hebrew Bible tells us that only God’s deeds are perfect (tamim in Hebrew, meaning, wholesome, pure, complete, perfect; cf. Deut. 32: 4; Ps. 18: 30; 19: 8), whereas human beings are limited creatures who can and should improve themselves. That’s all we need to do.
Rifat Sonsino 
Sept. 1, 2014


Sunday, August 10, 2014

SETTING UP PRIORITIES IN LIFE



Are you clear about your priorities in life?


As people mature, they begin to formulate achievable goals. Then one can look back and evaluate what was accomplished and what was missed.  According to the Babylonian Talmud (the repository of Jewish wisdom compiled in the 6th cent. CE), at the final judgment one is asked three basic questions: Did you conduct your business with integrity? Did you set aside fixed times for study? Did you hope for better things to come? (Shab. 31a). Each one is worth thinking about. 


1.Carry out your business with Integrity:

It is good to be ambitious in life, because it encourages one to get better. However, excessive craving is dangerous. The psychoanalyst Erich Fromm once wrote, “Greed is a bottomless pit which exhausts the person in an endless effort to satisfy the need without ever achieving satisfaction.” Vaulting ambition often leads to vanity and disappointment. It is better, as one ancient Rabbi suggested, to reach a point where one is content with one’s own lot (Mishnah, Avot 4: 1). Everyone is entitled to make a living, but for the sake of one’s peace of mind, this should be done with integrity, honesty and without covetousness.


2. Set up a fixed time to study:

“None is poor but he who lacks knowledge,” said an ancient sage (Ned. 41a). The ancient Rabbis knew the value of study, not only because it stimulates the mind and provides answers to many unknowns in life, but also because it often leads to correct behavior. The final goal in life is not mental gymnastics but carrying out deed of loving-kindness towards others. 


3.Hope for better things to come:

There is a Hebrew term that can refer to this hopeful outlook: yeshuah, literally meaning “salvation”. Even though this word has been understood differently throughout the ages, for me, it means self-realization, namely, to reach one’s highest potential in life. To become better, you need to keep the flame of hope alive. Some people tend to be worriers. They see the cup half-empty. Others are more open-minded and hopeful. They see the cup half-full. The ideal is to develop a balanced approach that is based on a healthy optimism and a sense of reality, which will enable us to go forward with courage, and reach the best of what we can.


So, in order to live a life of blessing, ask yourself what is most important for me, and how to achieve it. Do it now. It is a worthy endeavor.


Rifat Sonsino

August, 2014






Wednesday, July 30, 2014

WORDS THAT CHANGED MY LIFE



People are often affected by transformative words. What my High School French teacher once told me gave me a new perspective on life that stayed with me until now. Here is the story. But first, a word of introduction.

In ancient times, it was believed that words by themselves have the power of action. Thus, according to the biblical text, various components of our world came into being by the creative energy of God’s word: “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Gen. 1: 3). Similarly, in the ancient Near East, treaties between countries as well as law collections were often concluded with a list of eloquent blessings and terrifying curses; blessings to reward those who fulfilled the requirements of the laws and treaties, and curses to bring down the punishment of the gods upon those who transgress them. Even borders were secured by placing signs that contained curses. (Today we say, ‘beware of dog’). Now we understand why the book of Proverbs emphasizes that, “Death and life are within the power of the tongue” (18: 21).

Words still have power of action, even though their impact is less than cosmic. When we say to someone, “I love you” or “I hate you”, we establish a new level of relationship. When we propose to our sweetheart by asking, “Will you marry me?,” And he/she says, “Yes,” we change the nature of our bond. Similarly, when the police officer says, “You are under arrest,” you better stay put where you are. When the boss says, “You are fired,” that is the end of your employment in that office. And, God forbid, when the doctor tells you “You have cancer,” the verdict falls on you like a bomb. So, watch what you say, and how you say it, because words do count.

When I was a teen-ager in Istanbul, Turkey, my life changed dramatically after my High Scholl French teacher, Miss Fernandez, a petite old lady, told me something that remained with me for the rest of my life. As I was growing up, I realized that, even though my classmates were getting taller, I was not. And that was beginning to bother me.  (I am still not very tall; only 5.5”). So, during one of our private conversations, I shared my concern with her. In response, she told me that being tall is not always a measure of success but that in reality “height is measured from the shoulders up.” That was a revelation. To me it meant that in order to grow in stature I had to develop my mind and overcome my shortness through various types of intellectual pursuits. 

It is this new insight that led me to the study of law, to the rabbinate, to graduate school, and ultimately to an academic life. My French teacher’s insight gave me a new direction in life, and I am who I am today because of what she taught me. Her memory is a blessing.

Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.
Aug. 2014.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

REMARKABLE PEOPLE I HAVE KNOWN; INA GLASBERG OF NEEDHAM



                                                                    Ina Glasberg 

During my congregational rabbinate, I was fortunate to work with dedicated leaders and board members. However, among them Ina Glasberg occupies a very especial place.





I was fortunate to be a beneficiary of her wisdom and kindness. In 1991, during her presidency, Ines and I took a three-month Sabbatical in Israel. This was during the Gulf War with Iraq when Saddam Hussein was launching his rockets into Israel. Securely living in Jerusalem, I remember seeing the Scud missiles flying over our heads in the direction of Tel Aviv. Ina was beside herself. She kept calling us making sure we were safe and gently implying that we return. We assured her that we were safe, based on the assumption that Saddam Hussein would not be foolish enough to bomb Jerusalem and accidentally destroy the sacred Muslim shrines.

Presidents and rabbis meet regularly to discuss temple matters and strategies to achieve the goals of the synagogue. It is during these private meetings that Ina could tell me, in a very subtle way, the things that I either overlooked or ignored. She did that out of love and concern for my family and me, and I responded in kind. Ever since, I believe that every Rabbi deserves an Ina, and I was blessed to have her as a dear friend, for which I am eternally grateful.  

Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.
Rabbi Emeritus,
Temple Beth Shalom, MA
 July 6, 2014
 



Thursday, June 12, 2014

JAI ANGUITA OF BARCELONA



REMARKABLE PEOPLE I HAVE KNOWN: 



 


JAI ANGUITA OF BARCELONA 


For the last few years, every summer, my wife, Ines, and I went to Barcelona, Spain, spending from two weeks to a month, in order to help out a small but slowly growing progressive Jewish congregation called Bet Shalom, led by a hardworking leader named Jai [i]Anguita, who is a Jew-by-choice and a lawyer by profession. There are two liberal congregations in Barcelona: Atid and Bet Shalom. Both are affiliated with the World Union for Progressive Judaism. Jai was a member of Atid but left in order to establish Bet Shalom.


Though I am retired from the congregational rabbinate and worked with a dozen of wonderful synagogue presidents in the past, I have rarely interacted with someone as charismatic as Jai. He leads Bet Shalom with his sometimes unorthodox style. Along with his partner, Adele, he identifies good workers for the temple, trains them, and gives them responsibilities. He is well connected, extremely focused on his goal and works tirelessly, along with a group of dedicated individuals, in order to advance the cause of liberal Judaism in Spain. 


In 2008 I discovered online that Bet Shalom was looking for a Rabbi to spend some time in Barcelona to lead services and coordinate the final stages of a conversion process to Judaism. I volunteered to help out. Jai invited me to come in and spend about a month in his beautiful city. The fact that I could speak Spanish was a great advantage to them. [See my blog posting on this synagogue, dated April 26, 2010). Since then, Bet Shalom has become affiliated with the European Union of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (located in London), moved from a garage-size synagogue to a larger location, set up a new web page (http://www.betshalom.cat/), and continues to offer regular Shabbat and festival services (every Friday night the service is followed by a pot-luck meal) as well as introduction to Judaism classes ably taught by Jai himself.  It is now looking for a full-time Rabbi to lead this 60-70 family congregation, with great potential for further growth.


Jai was not satisfied with setting up a synagogue in Barcelona, but extended his help to other emerging groups in Galicia, Seville, Madrid and other locations. Jai has become the undisputed leader of the progressive Jews in Spain today, and deserves to be supported by Jews all over the world. It has been my pleasure and honor to work with him, and will continue to do so as long as I can.


Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.

Boston, Ma

June 12, 2014








[i] Pronounced as “chai” or, better “hai”, in Hebrew meaning, “life.”