Views on the News

Consumer Confidence

March 31, 2008

As I've stated before on this forum, I'm not an economist. I regularly tune out when in it's time for the Wall Street report. I'm still waiting for the day when my large stock portfolio will cause me to be interested in the NASDAQ...

In fact, on those few occasions that I do pay attention to the market analysts, I don't understand much of what is being said. Take the current financial crisis as an example. The financial markets and the US dollar are plummeting because of the "sub-prime mortgage" catastrophe. Having no clue what a sub-prime mortgage is, I'm reduced to imagining an evil cabal plotting to destroy the American Dream by seducing naïve citizens to sign on the dotted line that will spell their eventual doom. These would be the same people who put poison in the candies they give to trick-or-treaters...

But a recent financial news story caught my attention. The Consumer Confidence Index has sunk to an all time low. The goal of the CCI is to gauge the mindset of the public vis-à-vis the current and short term future financial outlook. The results of their monthly survey are a reliable indicator of future spending habits, which has a huge effect on the state of the economy.

This month's reading was 64.5. Considering that any reading below 100 is viewed as negative, and that we have currently sunk to a five-year low, this is disturbing news, indeed.

There are many variables that affect the economy, many of which are beyond our control. But it turns out that our mindset – our optimism or pessimism, our saving or spending habits – plays a pivotal role in determining whether we will descend into recession or catapult back into economic expansion.

This principle is true in our personal lives as well. Our lives and wellbeing seem to be manipulated by a variety of influences. But in truth, our mindset and choice of reaction is more powerful than all these external forces combined.

If we fall into the trap of pessimism, then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. But if we can muster the strength to think positively and remain optimistic, we can weather anything.

Passenger Bill of Rights

March 27, 2008

A federal appeals court has overturned a "Passenger Bill of Rights" enacted by the New York legislature. The law was passed in response to lengthy delays on New York runways during the winter of 2006-07, and required airlines to provide food, water and fresh air to passengers stuck on the ground during long delays.

The court ruled that New York's Passenger Bill of Rights conflicts with a federal law that prohibits states from regulating airlines. A patchwork of laws by states and localities would be impractical and harmful to consumer interests. "If New York's view regarding the scope of its regulatory authority carried the day, another state could be free to enact a law prohibiting the service of soda on flights departing from its airports, while another could require allergen-free food options on its outbound flights, unraveling the centralized federal framework for air travel."

The onus is now on the federal government to enact a similar law to be uniformly applied within all the states. The House has already passed such legislation, and now there's hope that this ruling will lead to action in the Senate, too.

My first thought as I read this news item was that, thankfully, the judicial branch has pulled through once again—the system is operating exactly as intended. While the court conceded that the intentions behind the bill were laudable, and the current situation certainly requires redress, nevertheless, good intentions don't always justify behavior.

There are good-intentioned acts that may be wrongly executed, or for which the timing is off. Or, perhaps, I may be the wrong person to tackle this project—it's not my jurisdiction altogether. This is a concept that can be applied to virtually every area of life – business, family, and religion too – and an objective outside observation is needed to determine the proper course of action.

But it occurred to me that this whole episode is perhaps a metaphor for something deeper, too.

After all, we are all travelers; spiritual entities journeying through a terrestrial realm. We have rules that guide and limit us—we all have to buckle our seatbelts and certain potentially dangerous items are banned on board all flights. But each of us also has his or her own needs; and each of us are entitled to a "bill of rights" that addresses them.

To whom do we direct our demands concerning these needs? There are so many bodies that have some sort of jurisdiction over us and seemingly have the ability to provide some or all of our needs—our employers, our spouses, the government, etc.

Well, the US Court of Appeals just ruled that it is the federal government's responsibility. When addressing our basic needs, the buck stops right at the top.

In the words of the Rebbe:

Torah study and the observance of mitzvot are the wedding ring with which G‑d betrothed Israel and obligated Himself to provide them with sustenance and livelihood.

So, we turn right to the Top and ask that You provide the needs of each and every one of us. After all, You put us on this journey.

The Fall of Bear Stearns

March 23, 2008

The markets have been very volatile lately and according to most experts the United States has entered a recession. All of this uncertainty and financial difficulties is a result of the credit crisis that was sparked by the collapse of the sub-prime mortgage market. On Monday of this past week everything came to a head with the collapse of Bear Stearns, one of the world's largest global investment banks.

It was bought by JP Morgan Chase in a stock swap worth $2 a share. Bearing in mind that its stocks were worth $172 a share in January 2007, this was a humongous downfall of a massive financial institution. Needless to say many people on Wall Street lost money and many companies went into crisis mode.

The focus is not only on the banks and financial institutions that are in trouble because of the credit crunch, but also on the people that are getting hurt. Many people got into a three- or five-year ARM (Adjustable Rate Mortgage) and when their mortgage adjusted to a higher rate, they could no longer afford payments and their homes went into foreclosure. As more homes were taken back by the banks the housing market in many areas started to fall. People who borrowed one hundred percent for their home immediately started to have negative equity issues. With nothing to lose many have walked away from their homes, leaving the banks with further loses and their mortgage-backed securities significantly devalued.

It Take Two to Tango

Clearly it takes two to tango and this credit mess is the combined fault of both the banks and borrowers—they were both deceptive with each other. Borrowers were able to get home loans without having to prove their income; many therefore deceived the lenders regarding their real salaries. Lenders for their part were offering people with bad credit interest-only loans for above-market interest rates that seemed manageable at the time of the transaction. In many cases they were not, however, up-front about what would happen when the rate adjusted. Any reasonable outsider was able to see that this deception would come crashing down at some point, to everyone's detriment.

Indeed this is what has been happening over the last eight months or so. Banks no longer trust people and there is virtually no such thing as a no-doc-loan anymore—if you want a loan, you have to prove your income. Banks don't even trust their fellow banks anymore.

The Torah Predicts a Crisis

It is fascinating that all of this has come to a climax on Monday of this past week. Jews have a custom to study the week's Torah portion according to the way it has been divided for the day of the week. Tradition has it that within each daily portion there are elements that relate directly to the happenings of that particular day in any given era.

On Monday we studied the laws that pertain to the asham, the guilt offering that was brought up on the Altar in the Temple by a person who had sinned. There are numerous reasons why a person would bring a guilt offering. One of them is for dishonesty. The Torah says in the end of the previous week's portion (Leviticus, 5:21–25), "If a person sins … by falsely denying to his fellow concerning a deposit, or money given in hand, or an object taken by robbery, or he withheld funds from his fellow … [he] shall then bring his guilt offering to the L-rd."

Bear Stearns as a Guilt Offering

On Monday of this past week—the day Bear Stearns finally fell—we read more about the offering that a dishonest person must bring to gain atonement (Leviticus, 7:1-4), "And this is the law of the guilt offering. It is a holy of holies … And the kohen shall cause them to [go up in] smoke on the altar as a fire offering to the L-rd. It is a guilt offering."

It seems clear to me that the fall of the mighty Bear Stearns and the shaky US economy and the volatility in the markets is a result of dishonesty that has taken place over the last few years and Bear Stearns was the sacrifice offered as a result of this. In fact many experts have said that the liquidity crisis is a direct result of a lack of trust between banks.

If the economy is to recover, all of us—financial institutions, Wall Street professionals, and regular people alike—must take the Torah's advice to heart and there must be a collective repentance and atonement for the dishonesty of the past. Let us hope that Bear Stearns is the only sacrifice needed for this atonement to take effect permanently.

National Heroism

March 19, 2008

This past Friday, the Reader's Digest magazine announced its "2008 Hero of the Year." Every month the periodical features a heroic individual. At the end of the year, the readers are asked to choose the individual whose heroic act stands out from the rest. This year's elected hero is Moezeldin Elmostafa, a Sudanese immigrant taxi driver.

In 2006, the Duke lacrosse team scandal was making waves in the national media when Elmostafa received a phone call from one of the player's attorney. Elmostafa had driven that player home on that fateful night. Elmostafa agreed to testify in the player's defense, vouching that the player was in his cab at the time of the purported assault.

Little did Elmostafa know that the prosecutor in the case, Michael Nifong, wasn't exactly motivated by a sense of fairness and justice. Two weeks later, Elmostafa was arrested on a charge relating to a minor crime—charges that were settled years earlier. He immediately realized that this was a strong-arm attempt to scare him into recanting his testimony.

But he stood firm on his principles. With his limited funds he hired an attorney to defend him against the frivolous charges—and he gave his exculpatory testimony under oath.

Eight months later the Duke players were cleared. Nifong was disbarred. Elmostafa was heralded as a hero.

Now, there are two types of heroes. There is the "good samaritan" type hero who experiences a moment of complete transcendence. On a moment's notice, when espying a fellow in danger, he risks life and health and rushes to a victim's aid. Most of the heroes on the Reader's Digest ballot were of this ilk: the men who following a tornado saved children trapped in a collapsed school; the man who jumped into a frigid river to save a woman and her child; the man who fought a pit bull that was mauling a pedestrian. Regarding such heroes the Talmud says, "There is one who earns his World-to-Come in one moment."

But the readers – wisely, in my estimation – chose a person whose heroism wasn't a spur-of-the-moment act. They chose a hero who for an extended period of time lived in fear—but nevertheless stood by his convictions. A person who was willing to live by his ideals, no matter the consequences. His heroism wasn't an extra-curricular activity; it defined who he was.

There are two types of holidays: a) Purim. b) All the others.

All other holidays are other-worldly experiences. We spend time in the synagogue, not at the workplace. We suspend our daily routines and focus on spirituality. Yes, there's Chanukah, whose eight days are normal workdays, but the holiday's observances are all of a spiritual nature. We light candles—a metaphor for spiritual light, Torah and mitzvot. We pray and recite the Hallel, Psalms of thanksgiving.

And then there's Purim. The day's prayers are minimal—no longer than your average weekday. Instead, the day's mitzvot focus on community and family. Gift giving and feasting. Good food and wine. Very un-transcendent.

That's because the heroism we demonstrated during the Purim events wasn't transcendent. Haman issued his decree on the 13th of Nissan. The decree called for the Jews' annihilation eleven months later, on the 13th of Adar. Though Haman was hanged, the decree was never rescinded. And for eleven months the Jews lived in fear for their lives.

But there was an escape route. Haman's decree was aimed against "Yehudim," Jews who rejected idolatry. Life and security were guaranteed for anyone willing to abandon Judaism.

But throughout the eleven month period, not one Jews exercised this option. For more than 300 consecutive days, every Jew woke up, ate, went to work, spent his leisure time, went to sleep—all with a loyalty to G‑d that trumped the most basic instinct of self-preservation. They lived and breathed mesirat nefesh (supreme self-sacrifice).

Their heroism was rewarded. "On the day the enemies of the Jews had thought they would dominate them, the situation was reversed: the Jews dominated their enemies." And a holiday was established.

But can this miracle be commemorated with an other-worldly, transcendent synagogue session?

Strength, Greatness and Mourning

March 12, 2008

To my dear friends and family,

Daniel and I just got back form paying a shiva call to the family of Segev Avichayil, a young boy murdered in the Merkaz Harav terrorist attack Thursday night. I was expecting a terrible scene of crying and shouting, of blaming and lots of unanswered questions. What we encountered was the exact opposite.

The apartment was a modest one, the only interior design being the Torah-books lined living room walls. This was clearly a home of Torah and piety. At least a hundred people were crowded into the room, all listening while the father of this young man spoke with total composure and clarity. Segev's mother and sister sat quietly listening to words which are difficult to imagine coming from a man whose son had been so cruelly torn from him. I tried to absorb every word, knowing that I was in the presence of greatness and would probably never encounter strength like this again.

Rabbi Avichayil was telling all the heartbroken people who came to comfort him that he was not broken. He said that he, his wife and all of their remaining children were stronger in their faith and love for G‑d than ever. He said that G‑d has chosen this time for the Jewish nation to return to its borders, and the terrorist was just an agent to test our resolve to resettle the land. G‑d had now chosen a new path for him and his family to embark on, and all he could do was thank G‑d for having been graced with such a precious soul for the years his son lived.

Someone there asked if he had questions for G‑d. He said that the Talmud is written in a way that there are always more questions to be asked, deeper layers to reveal and understand. He said that he did not have questions of G‑d; he just knows that he can not understand everything yet. He said that he had no questions, just perhaps he felt a lack of clarity. He went on to describe his son Segev, a boy so connected to Torah at just fifteen years old. He loved to learn with his father, and had deep respect for his father. He stood when his father entered the room, and always was very interested in how his father was doing. He called from yeshiva all the time to speak to his parents and siblings; always caring so much for what they were doing and how they were. He went regularly to the hospital to dance and sing and make people happy. His father asked him once if he was embarrassed to do it, and he could not understand the question. Why should he be embarrassed to make people happy? We have truly lost a special soul.

Segev's rabbi from Merkaz Harav was there. He told us that the reason Segev had been in the library the night of the shooting and not in the study hall was because the study hall was crowded and he did not want to be distracted from his learning. The terrorist killed all the students who could not escape the library fast enough. Segev died with his holy book still open in his hands.

May G‑d bring consolation to this beautiful family, who raised their son with the most beautiful Torah values and love for Judaism. May we see the redemption quickly in our days. We must all continue to pray for peace for the Jews in Israel, and for protection from the evil reincarnation of Haman and Amalek.

May we hear good news,

Spitzer's Personal Matter?

March 11, 2008

Most people won't lose their jobs due to such behavior. I won't stop visiting my doctor if I find out that he is guilty of such an offense, nor will I stop using my plumber or accountant if they made such errors in judgment. I hire these people for the services they render; their private life isn't my concern.

Yet, according to news reports, Governor Elliot Spitzer of New York, who recently was considered a rapidly rising star in the political arena, will today resign his position after being implicated in a vice crime. Polls show that an overwhelming majority agree that Spitzer must leave office. Other than the clergy and politics, I can't think of another job that would be jeopardized by behavior of this ilk. Even the top executive of a Fortune 500 company would get a pass.

Defrocking a clergyman for such behavior is understandable. Morality is his job. How can one guilty of such an indiscretion continue pontificating about the virtue of chastity? But how does such behavior affect the way our elected officials balance a budget or preside over public matters?

I think this is another example where, as a society, we proclaim one thing, but deep down we have a different opinion altogether. We talk about the importance of "separating church and state"; of having a purely mechanistic government. We claim not to make any spiritual or moral demands of our leaders whom we elect to "purely secular" posts.

But in our heart of hearts we know that our success as a nation stems from our professed relationship with G‑d—in "whom we trust." Without this relationship we are lost and doomed to corruption and chaos. And we expect our leaders to live according to this ideal.

Politicians come and go. We'll be fine—we still know what's right.

Blood-Drenched Torah

March 7, 2008

From Tzvi Freeman:

The precious souls of eight young Torah scholars were whisked away from us on Thursday night by a cold-blooded terrorist. Eight pure candles of Torah light snuffed by a Kalashnikov.

Now there is a void. And we are left to fill it.

Let us try to take the place of those young scholars. Let us join to fight the darkness by turning up our own lights.

Let us all commit to learning an extra half hour of Torah this Shabbat. Let us be the voices, the minds and the hearts of those young men for just one night. Who knows? Perhaps, in some small way, we can bring them back to life.

Let us fill the void. And may the darkness soon be transformed to eternal light, very soon.

If you need material to study, print out some articles and insights from our Parshah Section.

Also please say a prayer and some Psalms for the following students who were wounded in the attack: Yonatan ben [son of] Avital, Shimon ben Tirza, Nadav ben Hadas, Reuven ben Naomi, Elchanan ben Zehava, and Naftali ben Gila from Sderot. If anyone knows the names of any of the other victims, please post below in the reader comments – NS.


Massacre in Jerusalem

March 6, 2008

There are no words to describe the mourning and grief; no words to rationalize or explain.

Eight young yeshivah boys gathered in a school library cruelly gunned down by beasts disguised as humans.

May G‑d welcome their holy souls into His loving embrace. And may He tenaciously avenge their blood.

My G‑d, have we not suffered enough already? How much longer will You allow Your beloved nation to suffer such tragedies? It is the month of Adar, a month when You told us to increase our joy. How, now, are we to be joyful?

We believe and trust that all You do is good. But the time has come for belief and trust to be replaced. Seeing Your goodness instead of trusting in it. Feeling your love instead of believing in it.

Israeli "Aggression"

March 2, 2008 1:30 PM

There's an old joke about three people, one of them a member of the Israeli Defense Forces, who were shipwrecked and landed on a remote cannibal-infested island. They were captured before long, and as cauldrons of water were being hoisted on to the fire, the generous natives offered to grant each of their captives one last wish.

The first doomed man requested a pen and paper, and penned a farewell note to his family. The second person asked for a five-course –non-human-meat – final meal. The Israeli then asked that the tribal leader punch him in the face. A strange request, but in their final moments on earth, people don't always think coherently... As soon as the Chief socked him, the Israeli pulled out an Uzi and mowed down the hapless captors.

"Why did you wait until he punched you before shooting them?" the two relieved friends asked.

"And have the world say that I was the aggressor?!"

Nice joke, but, as I sadly learned this week, it does not at all reflect reality. It seems that regardless of how she is socked, any action Israel takes in self-defense will be viewed as "unwarranted aggression."

Reading the international reaction to the latest Israeli-Palestinian conflagration, I was unsure whether to laugh or cry.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon accused Israel of "disproportionate and excessive use of force." Israel's "close friend and ally," the "moderate" Mahmoud Abbas, used words like "genocide," "massacre," and "international terrorism" to describe Israel's actions. A statement issued by the EU condemned the "recent disproportionate use of force by the Israeli Defense Forces against the Palestinian population in Gaza." Saudi Arabia compared Israel's assault on the Gaza Strip to Nazi war crimes. Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister expressed concern about the Israeli retaliatory measures "because of their impact on civilians." And Pope Benedict called on "both Israelis and Palestinians" to unconditionally halt the violence.

The "moderate Palestinian" leadership based in the West Bank also suspended peace talks with Israel. The Palestinian representative to the United Nations explained that the Israeli attacks threaten to destabilize the region and "derail the peace process."


After months and months of relative inaction in the face of daily rocket barrages, the Israeli government decided to take action to defend her people. The decision to act followed the death of a civilian in Sderot from Kassam fire, and the landing of rockets in Ashkelon, a southern city with a population of 100,000+.

So here's my question: We see that Israel will never have an acceptable "excuse" to pursue the terrorists and destroy their infrastructure and rocket factories. Such action will inevitably trigger universal condemnation. So why wait to be punched in the face before embarking on a self-defense mission?

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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