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It seems that Rabbi Nosson Meretsky, director of Chabad at Penn State, is poised to set a world record.

According to the Collegian, the nine-foot-long challah displayed at a Sept. 8 Jewish Life Festival was the subject of an online application to Guinness. "Tony and I both did research," Meretzky said. Tony Sapia is the owner of the bakery and the ten-foot oven in which the challah was actually baked. "They have the largest hamburger bun and the largest pita. So we're hoping they can add this as the largest challah."

This reminds me of a radio show I heard a few weeks ago. They were talking about a world record that was then in the making. Maybe it was a record for the most men named Tom congregating in one room at one time. Possibly the participants were also whistling or singing or drumming or weaving friendship bracelets. I don't remember, but I remember the gist of the discussion: Anyone can win a world record. You don't have to be the most athletic or the tallest or anything like that. You just have to submit a record that hasn't been submitted before.

This is an ambition that I can relate to.

Once, when I was about twelve, I had a plan about which I was very enthused: I would walk every single street in my hometown, including alleys. I had a particular affinity for alleys. I found weeds growing around garbage cans to be very poetic.

I have since moved on to other things. I am well on my way to having consumed the most bowlfuls of chocolate chips and frozen blueberries while sitting in front of a computer, despite the fact that I am willing to share. If it turns out that someone else already has this record, I can submit a new record citing the fact that my chocolate chips are organic. Maybe I'll add some soy vanilla ice cream.

Mostly it seems that setting a world record takes doggedness. Probably someone could win the record for the most times hitting snooze (and probably that someone could be my brother). And a little bit of creativity. A sense of adventure.

I am full of ideas:

Most days in a row begun on the right foot by giving a few coins to charity.

Most friendliness to the people around me.

Most equanimity in the face of discovering that the store I drove an hour to get to closed less than five minutes ago.

It's a good time of year for ambitions like this. The air is starting to turn crisp. The garbage cans are at their most poignant. The leaves are at the peak of their greenness. Soon they will start to fall and remind us that our time is limited. A new school year is beginning, and soon it will be Rosh Hashanah.

Folk wisdom has it that avoiding discussions of religion and politics is the key to retaining good social standing. As a rabbi, I find one of those topics an unavoidable occupational hazard, so I am most dogged about steering clear of the other. My intent here is not to analyze the virtues or vices of national health care, or even the specifics of the President's speech that provoked Congressman Joe Wilson's unscripted commentary. Instead, I wish to question the value of spontaneously speaking your mind, of saying what gurgles up into your consciousness.

Our Sages teach us that a pupil should be silent while seated before an expert; he should simply absorb all that he hears. The key to all intellectual growth is the surrender of self, an emptying of one's identity in order to become a recipient for new information. The word chochmah – commonly translated as "wisdom" – can also be read as the "power of [asking] 'what?'" Wisdom is the ability to not know; a willingness to be amazed.

Society is often dazzled by the know-it-all – the one who has seen it all and been there before and has a closet full of t-shirts to prove it. You can't shock him. New ideas are reduced into neat packages of what he already knows; he responds to novelty with a summary dismissal. His favorite line is, "So what you're really saying is…" followed by a trite summary, reduced for minimal impact and neutered of inspiration.

Learning comes from listening, and that can be scary. If I learn something new, I may realize I've made errors in the past. There will be new demands on my behavior, and I will have to acknowledge that I don't know everything.

Now there is a downside to all this openness. Willing chochmah can be overtaken by some pretty silly ideas, which seem reasonable at the moment – think Coke II. So chochmah needs its indispensable sidekick, binah – analysis. Binah is an intellectual winnower, separating good ideas from flawed ones.

I teach in a local high school a few times a week. A student in a recent class wanted to ask a question. Believing that I knew what was bothering her, I suggested that she allow me to explain the idea again, anticipating that I could address her difficulty. She acquiesced; when I finished explaining, she insisted again on asking her question. I was surprised. I allowed her to ask her question, and from its content, it was clear that she had not been listening at all. I said this out to her, but she claimed otherwise, citing her silence while I was speaking as evidence that she had been listening. I explained that she had not been listening, she had merely been polite, allowing me to finish, all the while obsessed with her question, and now that I had paused, she had let loose with her thoughts. Her steadfast focus on her question crowded out any learning. She had abandoned her chochmah.

This happens so often in conversations. We get an idea in our head, and we are going to say it, no matter what. This is not dialogue; it's sequential monologues. I say what is on my mind, and you say what you had decided to say before I even began, without account for my point. We are so smart that while our fellow conversationalist is busy sharing his perspective, we're three steps ahead already formulating a response. It's not a discussion, it's a chess match; verbal sparring. Ask yourself right now: are you paying attention to what I am writing, or are you weighing my point, speculating on its validity, though you haven't even finished reading it?

So the next time you feel compelled to chime in with your two cents – pause and ask yourself if you have followed our sages' advice about being a student. Listen first and then, some time down the road, you'll analyze and comment. Become receptive. You'll learn a lot!

Tammuz 12, 5744 (July 12, 1984)

On the 12th of Tammuz 5744 (1984), the Rebbe delivered an emotional talk. The talk was delivered in Yiddish; yet, even if you don't understand the language, the raw pain and frustration expressed transcend the language barrier. The following is a free translation of excerpts of this talk:

The Gaon of Ragachov writes that the destruction of the Holy Temple is an ongoing event. Not a onetime event that happened more than 1,900 years ago, but something that continues to happen every day. This assertion, the Gaon explains, has its source in the Jerusalem Talmud, where it is stated: "Any generation that the Temple was not rebuilt in its days, it is considered as if that generation destroyed it."

Simply put, this means that though more than 1,900 years have passed since the Temple's destruction, still, since today – Thursday of the week when we read the Torah portion of Pinchas – the Temple was not built, it is considered as if the Temple was destroyed today.

And since Jews screamed ad mosai ["how long will this exile last?"] yesterday, and they screamed ad mosai the day before yesterday, and they screamed ad mosai all the days before that, and yet, today the Temple was destroyed, it is obvious how much screaming of ad mosai there must be today!

Imagine the scene: The Holy Temple is being burned down. Standing nearby is a Jew – an ordinarily emotionless Jew, a completely stonehearted Jew – witnessing the destruction as it takes place. Without question, [in his effort to prevent the destruction from continuing,] he would "overturn worlds"!

Says our Torah—the Torah of Truth, the Torah that provides guidance for life: "Overturn worlds." TODAY!

I vividly recall standing outside my Brooklyn apartment building that Tuesday, as dusk descended upon a stunned New York City and a stunned world, gazing at the horizon. Plumes of black smoke wafted up to the heavens from the blazing rubble of the World Trade Center, some four miles from where I was standing. It wasn't cold; in fact, it was a gorgeous evening. But I was shivering.

Earlier that morning, upon learning of the brazen attacks, my very first thoughts had been, "Where's my wife? Where's my daughter?" Though I knew that my infant daughter was safe at home, and my wife at the school where she taught, I felt an urgent need to see them, to be reassured that they were safe. Because on that morning, nearly 3,000 innocents lost their lives, and nearly 300 million lives lost their innocence. Americans lost their sense of security. Suddenly, we all felt so vulnerable.

The realization was devastating: we have a mortal enemy. One that has no qualms about murdering each and every one of us: men, women and babies alike.

In no time at all, the Department of Homeland Security was created, constituting the largest restructuring of the U.S. government in contemporary history. Congress hastily passed the (now controversial) Patriot Act, giving the government sweeping powers in the war against terrorists. For years following 9/11, politicians running for national office knew that their position on national security was the most important item on their platform.

Ensuring our collective security became our number one priority, with all the other items on our list of priorities suddenly seeming not so important after all. We were a nation singularly focused on destroying Al Qaeda and protecting ourselves in any and every way possible.

President Bush made it very clear that his total focus was on security and destroying terror networks, and his approval rating quickly soared to a mind-boggling 86%.

And then time has its way of healing all wounds.

Government officials continuously advise us that the mortal threat posed by terrorism is far from gone. The current Homeland Security threat level stands at yellow, "elevated," where it has been since the color code's inception in March of 2002 (with only a few minor upward blips in the interim). In the back of our heads we all know that it can, G‑d forbid, happen again; our depraved enemies have not forgotten about us. The threat is as real today as it was then.

Yet, the sense of urgency has long gone. As early as November of 2006, a Gallup poll revealed that only 12% of Americans felt that terrorism was the government's top priority. Americans' collective level of worry about terrorism, measured in a USA Today/Gallup poll conducted this past June, is at 36%, down from 59% in October 2001.

Shortly after 9/11, I recollect hearing that the major news networks all agreed to no longer air footage of the planes hitting the towers, so as not to overly traumatize the American public.

I don't know whether this actually happened or not, but if it did, I’m not so sure the move hasn’t done more harm than good. It may well be a good idea for Americans, and specifically the American leadership, to occasionally go to Youtube and watch the footage. Sometimes it's wise to put traumatic events behind us. And sometimes it can be lethally dangerous to do so.

Of course, this is not to say that we should allow the terrorists the victory of seeing us becoming paralyzed by fear and dread. While our military and intelligence fight the war on terror in their specialized ways, we fight the forces of evil by refusing to flinch. When we refuse to become terrorized, the terrorist is reduced to an insignificant ist. At the same time, however, we must never forget the evil perpetrated against us, and we must always remain wary of the threat that hangs over our head.

Yes, that's quite a balancing act. But it’s a balancing act we need to master in these unique and challenging times.


On a cosmic level, we Jews have been living with this tension for nearly two millennia.

On the 12th of Tammuz 5744 (1984), the Rebbe delivered an emotional talk. You can view part of it here. The talk was delivered in Yiddish; yet, even if you don't understand the language, I'd advise you to watch this clip (it's slightly longer than a minute). The raw pain and frustration expressed transcend the language barrier. The following is a free translation of excerpts of this talk:

The Gaon of Ragachov writes that the destruction of the Holy Temple is an ongoing event. Not a onetime event that happened more than 1,900 years ago, but something that continues to happen every day. This assertion, the Gaon explains, has its source in the Jerusalem Talmud, where it is stated: "Any generation that the Temple was not rebuilt in its days, it is considered as if that generation destroyed it."

Simply put, this means that though more than 1,900 years have passed since the Temple's destruction, still, since today – Thursday of the week when we read the Torah portion of Pinchas – the Temple was not built, it is considered as if the Temple was destroyed today.

And since Jews screamed ad mosai ["how long will this exile last?"] yesterday, and they screamed ad mosai the day before yesterday, and they screamed ad mosai all the days before that, and yet, today the Temple was destroyed, it is obvious how much screaming of ad mosai there must be today!

Imagine the scene: The Holy Temple is being burned down. Standing nearby is a Jew – an ordinarily emotionless Jew, a completely stonehearted Jew – witnessing the destruction as it takes place. Without question, [in his effort to prevent the destruction from continuing,] he would "overturn worlds"!

Says our Torah—the Torah of Truth, the Torah that provides guidance for life: "Overturn worlds." TODAY!

There is no video footage of the Temple's destruction; for this, our mind’s eye will have to suffice.

But how can we be productive and free-spirited people if we are constantly entertaining visions of a burning House of G‑d? To bring this a little closer to home, can you imagine reliving Kristallnacht every day?

In that same talk, the Rebbe addressed this question. He pointed out the incongruity of discussing the Temple's destruction at a joyous chassidic gathering commemorating the release of his father-in-law, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, from Soviet bondage.

"But Jews are accustomed to having the impossible demanded of them," the Rebbe explained.

As Jews, we are constantly aware of the tragedy of the Temple's destruction. Every day, we beseech G‑d for the Redemption. We feel a sense of urgency, doing whatever we can to hasten the day when things will be set right. The words of Isaiah (62:1) resonate within us: "For the sake of Zion, I will not be silent, and for the sake of Jerusalem I will not rest..."

Yet simultaneously we go about our business with unbridled joy: rejoicing in the fact that we are Jews, rejoicing in the performance of G‑d's will, rejoicing in our ability to immerse ourselves in the study of Torah, rejoicing in the confidence that Moshiach's coming is indeed imminent.

How do we live with this contradiction?

There is no rational answer to this question. It is impossible.

But, the Rebbe says, we Jews are accustomed to having the impossible demanded of us... and coming through.

Shalom Jewish moms and daughters!

Tonight, September 4th, while lighting the Shabbat candles, 100s of 1000s of Jewish women and girls all over the globe will have in mind Gilad ben Aviva, Gilad Shalit, who has been suffering in captivity for the past three years. The power of our candles and prayers can, with G‑d's help, bring Gilad home to spend Rosh Hashanah with his family who miss him and yearn for him so terribly.

What we're going to do:

1. In Gilad's merit, we'll all light Shabbat candles--even those who may not do so (yet) on a regular basis.

2. Before lighting candles, we'll give some extra charity in the merit of Gilad ben Aviva.

3. After we light the candles, we'll pray for the speedy release of Gilad ben Aviva, and also for strength and relief for Gilad's parents, who, along with their son, have been living a nightmare, which we pray ends immediately.

In the merit of righteous women, Gilad should be with us very very soon. May we hear good news!

Shabbat shalom, and we all merit to have a sweet and peaceful new year.

An Australian marketing company is offering you the opportunity to buy friends on Facebook. For $177.30, you can get 1,000 new Facebook friends. For $654.30, you can get 5,000. You can also buy Twitter followers and votes on Digg.

Hey, whatever it takes.

I imagine it might be kind of embarrassing to admit that you've bought your Facebook friends. "How do you know all these people from the Czech Republic? Can you really read their status updates?"

Then again, there is also the potential for much mischief. For example, it cannot be too hard to pretend to be fluent in Czech. You can snootily post status updates in gibberish until your (real) friends get annoyed and drop you. But that's okay, you can just buy some more.

The truth is, this scenario is unlikely. uSocial's clients are mostly businesses and celebrities, and they are not pretending to buy anything more personal than a potential customer base.

But buying friends is perhaps not such a bad idea. In Ethics of Our Fathers (1:6), Joshua the son of Perachia is quoted as advising: "Make for yourself a master, acquire for yourself a friend." His words can also be translated as "buy yourself a friend."

While this advice might seem as cynical as uSocial's offerings, Joshua the son of Perachia is actually pointing out a deeper truth: A true friend is so valuable that we should do whatever it takes to get one. If candy and concert tickets don't do it, try "buying" a friend with commitment, integrity, and selflessness.

We are not supposed to live hermetically. (This is, by the way, one of the ways in which humans differ from a three-toed sloth. "The maned three-toed sloth, it will be noted, "is a solitary animal.") There is no point (for humans) in complete self-sufficiency. There is a point in actively pursuing those friends who will help us become better versions of ourselves.

The chilling story of Jaycee Lee Dugard, the girl who was kidnapped at age 11 and held by the kidnapper in his backyard for 18 years, raises many questions about both the police force and the relevant authorities who failed to investigate what was happening in the backyard of Phillip Garrido—a registered sex offender. I sincerely hope that this tragic episode and the questions it raises leads to increased awareness and vigilance in order to safeguard the public against such predators.

But perhaps the biggest question it raises is about Jaycee herself: Why didn't she run away?

Eighteen years is a long time, and during that time it would appear that Jaycee had many opportunities to escape or at least appeal for help from the outside world. Why didn't she?

Although Garrido's actions appear to be those of a monster, Dugard developed a "special bond" with her abductor and abuser. According to her stepfather, Dugard feels that her relationship with Garrido is "almost like a marriage."

Experts say that this is not so surprising. One kidnapping expert quoted by CBS News, Dr. Frank Ochberg – who coined the term "Stockholm Syndrome" in the '70s to explain why adult kidnapping and hostage victims oftentimes begin to bond and identify with their captors – says the situation is different when it comes to child abductions. He suggests the analogy of a slave-master relationship.

"Somebody at a tender age ends up being raised in captivity by a person who gradually transforms this person into a slave," he said. "There are cultures in which this happens, in which women are given to men at a young age."

He was spot on: To be a slave is one problem. To have a slave mentality is a much bigger problem. The person loses hope.

An ancient, well-known Jewish proverb has it that "harder than taking the Jews out of exile is taking the exile out of the Jews."

Over the generations, starting in the exile in Egypt and continuing into the current exile, we developed a slave mentality. We lost hope. We got used to our current reality; we even like it. We've developed a "special bond" with the status quo. It's hard for us to believe that things could be different—that a day will yet come when we will all live in harmony; when the news will not open each day with reports of violence, crime, and hatred; when "nation shall not lift the sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore" (Isaiah 2:4).

But it can be different.

Jaycee waited 18 years. We have been waiting for more than 1,800 years. May the Creator of the world bring the true and complete Redemption—immediately.

Once again, a Jewish addict with over ten years of recovery and service work succumbed to the insidious disease of addiction. Adam Michael Goldstein, whose stage name was DJ AM, passed away last Friday at the young age of 36 from an apparent drug overdose.

As a rabbi who attends full-time to Jewish recovering addicts, it is both tragic news and everyday news. Hundreds and thousands of young Jews have lost their lives to the disease of addiction in all its forms. At the same time, every loss is another awakening, another call to action.

Death, by its very nature, makes a stunning impact. There is no stronger statement than a cold, lifeless body. When the deceased person is young, the magnitude of the shock reverberates throughout the interconnected community. Add to that a very unnatural death and a celebrity and you have a "trending topic" on Twitter. The whole world pauses, some for a second, others for minutes, hours or days. This sort of tragedy gets us thinking -- and rightfully so. The Talmud states that when a man passes on, his close friends need to worry. The ones that were directly affected by his passing should take time to reflect on their own lives and its fragility. When someone's death makes the headlines, everyone who reads the news is directly affected. All of us should take the time to think about what value our lives have and how satisfied we are with our spiritual progress.

The details of a person's death call for a lesson that is specific to that event. When I hear about a gentle and kind person, who battled for years against negatine impulses and desires in an environment that was filled with using behavior, I have deep respect for his accomplishments. When I realize that years of successfully winning numerous battles against addiction don't guarantee a final victory, I think about the constant need to reassess ourselves. Most importantly, when I hear that a person who on the surface had a seemingly successful life spent his last days depressed and lonely, I remember that when it comes to helping others, I need to look past the surface.

Adam's last update on Twitter, three days before his body was found, reads: "New York, New York. Big city of dreams, but everything in New York ain't always what it seems." A quote from a famous song, but also a message for all of us: Let's not wait for tragic events in order to start reaching out to a stranger. Let's not wait 'till after death to realize that our friend could have used an extra hand, or encouragement to change.

Not all deaths make it to the national news, and not all drug addicts die. But when they do, it becomes our responsibility to ensure that their death was not without a lesson for the living. I hope that the Jewish Community will renew its continuous support, and increase its understanding of the addicts among us.

What's the latest news? For that information, check your local or national news outlet. In this blog we will discuss the "why?"

Not "why did this event occur?" but "why did I find out about it?" There must be a reason. It must contain a lesson I can use to better myself and my surroundings. Together we will find the lessons...
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