Views on the News


February 28, 2008

Perjury is in the news again. In the aftermath of the Baseball Steroids Debacle, Congress is now asking the Justice Department to investigate whether a certain star player lied under oath during the course of a congressional hearing on the matter. If convicted, this player faces up to five years behind bars.

Interestingly, though many baseball players were implicated for using steroids and other banned performance enhancing substances, and many have openly admitted their mistake, no one is facing criminal charges for their drug violations. It seems that perjury is considered a more severe offense.

Why is that? As a society, we don't view lying as a punishable offense. Yet if someone lies under oath, we're quick to bear down with the full force of the law. Scooter Libby and Martha Stewart learned this lesson the hard way.

When a person makes a statement under oath, he is creating a trust. The judges who preside over courts of law as well as members of Congress are our representatives. As such, an oath made in front of them creates a trust between the individual and "the people."

We don't quickly forgive breaches of sacred trusts. The subject of the prevarication is not so relevant; we can forgive many indiscretions. But to break a trust? That we refuse to pardon.

The Talmud tells us that before a soul descends into a body, it is administered an oath: "Be righteous and do not be wicked." Many have questioned the logic behind this oath. Tell the soul what's wrong and what's right, inform her what's expected of her—why an oath?

Perhaps this is one explanation: As long as there is no "trust" then every act is judged based on its merits. If it's a good deed, it has to be weighed to determine how beneficial it was. In the case of an offense, how bad was it? Is it excusable?

But once a sacred trust has been established, then a mitzvah is more than a "good" act—it's an act of integrity and loyalty. And next time we are tempted to disregard a "trivial" prohibition, let's just think of it as perjury.

Fighting the Good Battle

February 21, 2008

Two stories caught my eye this past week:

New York City's Madison Square Garden recently hosted the 132nd annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. Dog owners from around the world came to exhibit their purebred pooches. In what is considered by many to be America's most prestigious dog show, the judges award the dogs who epitomize the published standards for each breed. For example, this year's winner was a 15 inch beagle, which – according to WKC's standards – is a dog with a "muscular body, bold attitude and hardy bearing." Its ideal disposition oddly reminded me of my children: "smart, independent and easily bored, they will get in trouble when unsupervised."

In response to this show, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) released a TV ad showing a hooded KKK member making himself at home at a meeting of the "purebreds"-only American Kennel Club. According to PETA, the pageant is irresponsible because "it promotes dog breeding and spurs interest in 'purebreds' while animal shelters overflow with unwanted mutts who are in desperate need of homes."

"When it comes to contempt for 'mixed breeds' and a fetish for 'pure bloodlines,' there's not much difference between the KKK and the AKC," says PETA Vice President Daphna Nachminovitch..."

Second story, off the AP wire:

A California court recently issued a verdict in an inter-neighbor dispute.

Mark Vargas had asked prosecutors to file charges against his neighbors because their towering redwoods blocked sunlight to his backyard solar panels. After more than six years of legal wrangling, a judge recently ordered Richard Treanor and his wife, Carolyn Bissett, to cut down two of their eight redwoods, citing an obscure state law that protects a homeowner's right to sunlight.

Both sides say they want to do what's best for the environment. Treanor and Bissett, who drive a hybrid Toyota Prius, argue that trees absorb carbon dioxide, cool the surrounding air and provide a habitat for wildlife. Vargas, who recently bought a plug-in electric car, counters that his solar panels reduce dependence on fossil fuels, and more effectively reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

These two stories share a common thread—a characteristic so typical of many if not most of today's disputes.

Yes, there's still plenty of evil out there, and the battle against the forces that relentlessly represent oppression and hate still continues. But for the most part, in our age that stands on the threshold of the Messianic Era, humanity is beginning to accept moral and ethical ideals. But we still fight. One environmentalist pitted against the other; one animal lover equates his fellow animal lover with a KKK member.

I don't know who is right in either of these disputes. And no matter who is right – and perhaps, as is often the case, both parties have a valid point – it seems that the tactics used are less than savory. But here's what I see: we have well-intentioned individuals fighting each other over the same cause. It's an unfortunate fact that sometimes we can be striving for a specific goal, and the methods we employ are actually detrimental to that cause.

Let's bring the issue somewhat closer to home. We all want to be spiritual. Are the methods we are using to attain spirituality furthering the cause, or are they hurting the cause? Are the trees that we are planting perhaps blocking our souls' "spirituality panels"?

It's great that we have the right intentions. Really, no sarcasm whatsoever intended. But we have to be certain that these intentions are properly directed.

Thankfully, G‑d gave us a Book of Directions.

On the Job

February 15, 2008 1:30 PM

An interesting news item I recently stumbled upon:

A man died last night after driving a black Toyota into an artificial pond in Central Islip while trying to evade the police. Three officers who tried to rescue him from the water were also taken [to the hospital] with hypothermia. The driver had been acting suspiciously in a Home Depot parking lot, sitting in the car with the lights off, and had drawn the attention of the police. When officers knocked on the car's window, the driver did not respond at first, but then put the car into gear and drove into the water, nearly running over one of the officers... (excerpted from NY Newsday, Feb. 10).

What possessed these officers to jeopardize their lives in an attempt to save an obviously deranged individual who just moments earlier demonstrated that he could care less about them? By jumping into the frigid waters, the officers demonstrated incredible love for their fellow—from whence came this love for an unloving individual?

But I don't think that the officers viewed it as an act of love. In their eyes, they were simply discharging their duty. Part of their job.

Care and love, not as an emotion, but as a duty! That's certainly something we can learn from.

"If you come upon your enemy's bull or his stray donkey, you shall surely return it to him. If you see your enemy's donkey lying under its burden would you refrain from helping him? You shall surely help along with him" (Exodus 22:4-5).

And when we act lovingly, the emotions will follow. And even if they won't... the main mission has already been accomplished!

Boosting the Economy II

February 15, 2008

In a post I wrote last Friday, I promised to give a spiritual spin on the economic stimulus package recently passed by the Congress. Before I get to that, though, I want to respond to some of the comments that came in on that post. Here are two of them:

"While you think that giving money to the public is a good thing to do, you should be aware that it only make the poor people poorer, and the rich people richer"—Margaret Granut, MI.

"America needs a stimulus package like an Alcoholic needs another shot! We need to curb OUR spending and Credit Card usage!"—Richard.

Point well taken. Throwing money at the needy isn't the long-term solution. Yet the Torah tells us to give charity. This means that while "tough love" and encouraging self-sufficiency is important, there is also a time and place for giving a needy person a needed "shot in the arm" and the ability to get himself back on his feet. And it seems that politicians across the aisle agree that now is such a time. I'm not an economist, but it seems to me that they are correct.

Now, back to the "spiritual spin":

(I hope I'm not oversimplifying... If you are an economist, maybe now is a good time to read my other posts :) )

In a democratic, free-market society, the government taxes its citizens—whether through appropriating part their income, sales taxes, property taxes, or in America, all of the above and more too... The revenues from these taxes are then given back to the citizenry in the form of services. Security, roads, hospitals, emergency services, schools and more.

The rest of the citizens' income is spent at their discretion. But this spending, too, benefits the general economy, and ultimately increases the government's tax intake—and, in turn, the amount of services they can offer. It's a big wheel...

But when things are going belly-up, the government steps in and infuses some cash back into the economy—stimulating commerce that will benefit the economy as a whole, and get the wheel turning again.

These economic principles mirror the "spiritual economy." G‑d gives us all life, money, talents, etc. He then asks us to give back a percentage of these commodities, such as charity, money spent on mitzvot, and a Torah education for our children. But these "taxes" are not meant to line G‑d's pockets, He throws them right back at us in the form of more health, wealth, and miscellaneous services.

Our remaining "non-taxed" resources are then spent at our discretion—but they, too, are for the betterment of society. We are to use them in productive manners, and all with the objective of having more resources to give to G‑d and our fellows.

At times, however, a person's spiritual economy is tanking. He's in deep debt: using more than he can afford to give back. At such a time, it is G‑d's turn to step in and give a little boost. If He gives a little special attention – some more health, wealth, and peace of mind – the person will be able to get back on his feet and become a productive member of the spiritual economy.

Am I far out? Let me know!

Have a great Shabbos.

Change We Can Believe In

February 13, 2008

The following was written by Mendy Kaminker, editor of Chabad.org's Hebrew site.

So who will be the Democratic nominee? While that's still unclear, what is clear is that Barak Obama is emerging as the surprise of this election. If he wins the nomination, he should first thank his campaign manager for the brilliant slogan: "Change we can believe in!"

The slogan is right on target. Change. What a beautiful word! Who doesn't want change? The employer wants a change that will give him a revenue boost, while the employee wants change in order to get a raise. The father wants change in his relationship with his son, while the mother wants change in the way her mother-in-law treats her.

But yesterday I was listening to the radio, and a rabbi was asked to comment on this topic. "A lot of people talk about change," he said. "But when my grandmother used to light Shabbat candles, she would pray, 'G‑d, please make sure that everything stays the same...'"

It's easy to understand the grandmother's sentiments. Back in her times, no news really was great news. If no new pogrom was on the horizon, that itself was a reason to celebrate.

So I was left confused. Is change good or bad? What does Judaism have to say about it?

The Lubavitcher Rebbe and the Chabad movement are great examples to study. Long before anyone thought of the concept, the Rebbe encouraged us to use all the high-tech tools to facilitate the spread of Judaism and Torah. When others viewed the radio as a negative force, the Rebbe called upon his chassidim to use this new tool to broadcast goodness and Torah. Before most even knew of such a thing called "internet," there was a Chabad chassid, Rabbi Y.Y. Kazen OBM, who was the "Chabad Representative to Cyberspace." The Rebbe demanded that Judaism adapt—discard shtetl mentality and enter the Information Age.

But when it came to Jewish law and principles, the Rebbe never compromised. He insisted that the Torah is everlasting, and we can never change it even one iota.

Is that a paradox?

Well, maybe we have here the answer to our question. Change is good, but as long as you are not running away from the basics. When making a change, we need to be sure that it's based on the solid grounds of the 3000 years-old Torah. Then, our change will be real, lasting—and productive.

So you want a raise? Great. But make sure that the steps you take are based on age-old standards of decency. Don't step on your coworkers or insult your colleagues.

Who will win this election? I can't predict. One thing I'm sure, though: change is possible. You can believe in it. You can do it.

Boosting the Economy

February 8, 2008

Boosting the Economy

So, the economy is sliding. The housing market is in the doldrums, citizens are having a tough time making ends meet, and the national debt is dangerously climbing.

Well, we are a superpower; we shouldn't have a problem dealing with such trivial issues. Two options that come immediately to mind: a) Nationalize all the Fortune 500 companies. b) Give Australia an ultimatum: Hand over all your diamond mines or be nuked.

Yet, our government chose an altogether different route.

CNN: The House on Thursday quickly passed a Senate-approved economic stimulus package and sent the bill to the president's desk for his signature . . . The deal, passed in the Senate on a 81-16 vote, includes rebate check amounts of $300 to $600 for people who have an income between $3,000 and $75,000, plus $300 per child...

Yup, facing difficult times themselves, the solution the government came up with is to give out money. Pretty amazing, inconceivable a century ago, and goes to show how our world is becoming a better and more humane place.

Yes, the politicians continue to wrangle and rant. How much should the rebates be? Who should be receiving them? And, as many of the analysts are pointing out, the politicians' primary motivation is victory in next year's election. But at the end of the day the bill was passed. Once again the horses have led the wagon to the desired destination.

What is the spiritual spin on boosting the economy? Check back next week...

Have a Good Shabbos all,

Why I Didn’t Vote

February 6, 2008

Submitted by Rabbi Menachem Posner, a good friend and a member of Chabad.org's "Ask the Rabbi" team.

Super Tuesday came and went and I stayed home.

Since I turned eighteen I have always taken the opportunity to exercise my right and duty to participate in the electoral process.

Why did I bother? Didn't I know that in overwhelmingly Democratic New York my lone conservative vote would never have any affect come the general election? Florida, Michigan…maybe, but New York?

I guess that my religious zeal carried over to my political philosophy.

Maimonides writes that every individual should view the universe as perched on a delicately balanced scale. Every small deed counts. One extra mitzvah and you've tipped the scale in a positive direction and Moshiach comes. One less mitzvah and…

That's why I always marched over to the old, red five-story holdover from the days before public schools needed to be wheelchair accessible or fire-safe, and signed my name on the dotted line.

But this year I didn't. I could say that it was because none of the contestants were particularly appealing. But, heck, I voted in those local elections when I chose candidates based on the number of syllables in their names! So why didn't I vote today?

I finally realized that politics is not religion. G‑d is infinite, so He can make my tiny actions important. But politicians can't. If my vote doesn't count, it's a waste of time and I don't have enough of that as it is.

But a mitzvah, even a small one, is not a waste of time at all.

Maybe one of the reasons why Menachem didn't vote is because he's getting married in less than a month. Mazal Tov! – N.S.

It Ain't Broke, Fix it Anyways

February 5, 2008

An analysis of federal inspections records revealed that at least 17,000 bridges in the U.S. went more than two years between safety inspections, this according to a recent MSNBC.com exposé. This despite the fact that Congress in 1971 ordered rigorous standards for inspecting bridges every 24 months.

Perhaps this exposé was intended to induce indignation, but on me it had the opposite effect. It demonstrated how thankful we ought to be:

  • We live in a country where our government's top concern is its citizenry's welfare. They regularly enact regulations to ensure the safety of our drinking water, elevators, medicines, bridges, the air we breathe and even the Barbie dolls our children play with.
  • You'll have to read past the report's first few paragraphs—but it's there. The author reluctantly concedes that the bridges that received late inspections comprise less than 3% of the U.S.'s 592,000 vehicular bridges. So most bridges are inspected on schedule, and a fraction of them are also inspected—a bit late.
  • I'm most gratified that the author of the report chose not to take a positive upbeat attitude. a) That wouldn't have left me much what to write about. b) When journalists focus on the negative, the appropriate government agencies are prompted to act—to make a currently good situation even better and safer.

So what's the lesson in this for us? Here's one thought:

Every individual is a little island. Throughout our lifetimes we build an elaborate infrastructure of bridges that connect us to family members, friends, and our Creator. Building a bridge is a tedious process, but once it is sturdy and structurally sound, we tend to forget about the importance of bridge maintenance.

And when a bridge comes crashing down, we suddenly realize: the cement was crumbling over there... the underpinning were compromised by that storm... the suspension lines were wearing out over there. Now we are facing a huge construction job, when regular maintenance could have spared us the hassle.

Do the inspection yourself. Don't wait for a bridge to fall, or for someone else to do an exposé on one of your bridges...

What’s so Super about the Super Bowl?

February 4, 2008

Close to 150 million people tune in every year to watch at least part of football's championship game. Compare that with the approximately 15 million who tune in to your average World Series game—the difference is pretty stark, and certainly not reflective of the fan base of the respective sports.

The reason? A single winner-take-all game is much more exciting and important than a seven-game series. No one game of the series that determine the basketball, baseball or hockey champion is as consequential as the Super Bowl. So your team lost one? No reason to panic, tomorrow will be another game...

The Super Bowl is also more interesting because anything can happen in a single game. This gives the weaker team a better chance of winning; the outcome is less predictable.

So where am I going with all this?

Every day we have different struggles; we're always facing one sort of contest or another. How important is it to be victorious? So you want that piece of non-kosher cake, you want to skip that prayer, or you want take a pass on doing that favor for your friend... Is it a big deal? Tomorrow you'll get it right!

I guess it depends whether you view each struggle as part of a series, or a Super Bowl.

And if you're in Super Bowl mode, you get another advantage: in any one game, anything can happen. You can win even if you think you might be outmatched in this particular area.

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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