Views on the News

The Craigslist Killer's Fiancee

April 30, 2009

As the case against Philip Markoff, "the Craigslist Killer," becomes ever-more-common knowledge, Megan McAllister, his fiancée, continues to publicly defend him.

On April 21 she said: "He could not hurt a fly…Philip is a beautiful person, inside and out."

And two days ago: "What has been portrayed and leaked to the media is not the Philip Markoff that I know. To me and my family, he is a loving and caring person."

Could it be? Maybe a huge mistake has been made. Maybe Markoff is just a regular guy who got pounced upon by a sensation-hungry public. He'll win in court, and the two of them will get married in an avalanche of bliss. Then they will live happily after.

But probably that's not going to happen.

(In case you haven't heard yet, Markoff is the medical school student who has been charged with killing one woman and robbing and kidnapping another. He allegedly lured both women through ads they posted on Craigslist, and the evidence against him is formidable.)

What is this fiancée thinking?

I think she is not thinking at all. Her thinking powers have been preempted by blind loyalty. It's a beautiful thing, actually. And it happens to all of us. At some point in our lives, whether consciously or unconsciously, we pick teams. Often our teams consist of people who just happened to land in our lives: family members we grew up with, friends we met through random encounters. And then, more or less, we don't think about whether those people should stay picked or not. (Before Facebook hit the scene, "de-friend" wasn't even a word.) On the whole, blind loyalty is probably good for civilization.

Loyalty is beautiful, and good for many things. But it is not good for distinguishing fact from fiction. Or for distinguishing fiancés who should be married from fiancés who should not. The case of Megan McAllister is a drama of misplaced loyalty.

As irrational as she looks to the rest of us, we are just as irrational much of the time. The only difference is, the people we are defending so stalwartly are usually ourselves.

For example, have you ever heard of the "Lake Woebegone effect"? This common illusion explains why, according to Wikipedia, "Swedish researcher Ola Svenson found that 88% of American college students rated themselves as above the median on driving skills."

It seems to be built into human nature. We tend to believe we're nice people even if we just slammed the phone down on someone, that we're caring people even if we just walked right by someone needing our help, and honest even if we just told a little white lie.

Add to the list of things loyalty is not good for: Distinguishing the things we excel at from the things we actually don't.

That's why, in our quests for personal excellence, we sometimes need to get some outside help. Overwhelmed with blind and sincere loyalty to ourselves, we may not be able to accurately gauge our own failings and triumphs. But other people can. Our Sages advise: "Assume for yourself a master, acquire for yourself a friend" (Ethics of the Fathers, 1:6). In other words, for optimal spiritual growth, get a mentor and a buddy.

Dog Bites Man

PA Court Sentences Arab to Death

April 29, 2009

As I browsed one of the Jewish news sites last night, I stumbled upon the following item, originally reported by IsraelNN.com: PA Court: Hang Arab for Selling Land to Jews.

According to this story, a Palestinian Authority military court yesterday sentenced a Hebron Arab to death by hanging for treason. The crime? Selling land to Jews in Judea and Samaria. The court's ruling is the first time the PA has officially handed down a guilty verdict of treason for this crime.

I quickly switched to my standard news sources, hoping beyond hope that they would deem this story newsworthy. But... nothing. Not on the sites' homepages, and not even buried somewhere in a two-hits-per-week Middle East news index. (In case you're doubting the veracity of the story considering its Israeli source, Aljazeera's website also reported this story.)

A phenomenon that is becoming predictable, though still discomfiting every time anew.

(I should note that CNN did find another news item more worthy of reportage: An indictment drafted by a conference of Islamic prosecutors – hosted by acclaimed human rights champion, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – against Israeli leaders, accusing them of crimes against humanity and war crimes in Gaza. "Israel is a regime that only understands the language of violence and force," the peace-loving Ahmadinejad moaned...)

Is this due to a bias by the "mainstream media" against Israel? Perhaps.

And perhaps not. Maybe this is simply a byproduct of the journalistic rule: Man bites dog—newsworthy. Dog bites man—not newsworthy. This also explains why chances are that many of you are unaware of the vile vandalizing of Joseph's Tomb that occurred this past week, this holiest of sites desecrated with swastikas and other anti-Semitic graffiti. This also explains why Gilad Shalit, now held captive by Hamas for nearly three years, is nowhere near public consciousness.

In truth, however, I believe that this story is a bit more newsworthy than many other similar crimes that happen so often in that corner of the world. Yes, Arab "collaborators" have, for years, been tried and murdered by vigilantes and ad hoc kangaroo courts, with tacit support from the Palestinian Authority. But this is the first time that the P.A., the "moderate" entity that the world expects Israel to view as a partner for peace, has officially, and "legally," initiated this heinous injustice.

May G‑d have mercy on this poor Palestinian. And may G‑d give the relatively new Israeli government clarity, courage and strength in their quest for security and peace.

Swine Flu in the Air

April 28, 2009

There is panic in the air! The swine flu has arrived. The naysayers say not to worry, but the media apparently missed that memo. You can hardly turn on your radio or TV without hearing another doomsday scenario. And people are scared, and perhaps rightfully so.

I would like to provide another side to the discussion, and even a lesson in our service to G‑d that we can derive from this health concern. But first a disclaimer: I don't work for the CDC, nor do I have a degree in public health matters. But I like to listen and learn.

Listening to a radio show yesterday, I heard a guest by the name of Michael Fumento. He is an author, journalist, photographer and attorney specializing in science and health issues.

To counter the growing panic, he pointed out that "this virus currently has infected about forty or so, and killed no one in the U.S. [still true at the time of this writing]. The seasonal flu, on the other hand, infects between 28 and 56 million a year, hospitalizes 100,000 a year, and kills 36,000 a year, according to the CDC."

Furthermore, he said that in 1976, the last time the swine virus reared its head, there was a rush to create a vaccine. "While thousands were infected by the virus, only one person died directly as a result. Meanwhile, a few hundred died or got very sick and even paralyzed as a result of the defective vaccine."

Then he said something that really caught my attention. "There is a school in Queens that closed and sent all the kids home since a couple hundred students were displaying symptoms of the flu. Did they have the flu? Maybe three or four did; maybe none did."

What did happen is what he called "mass psychogenic illness." This is when groups of people (such as a whole class of students or office-full of workers) start feeling sick at the same time, even though there is no physical reason for them to be sick.

Wow, can you imagine the power of the psyche? Hundreds of kids getting sick, really feeling sick, even though there is absolutely nothing wrong with them!

But what this really shows us is the power of the environment. If it can impact us in such a powerful way on the physical front, how much more so must this be true on the spiritual front!

In fact, Jewish teachings talk about the importance of making a svivah, a good and healthy environment in order to grow spiritually. If we surround ourselves with friends who have values that negate spiritual growth, or if we overly expose ourselves to "Hollywood Values," we put ourselves at increased risk of getting spiritually sick. Despite our best intentions, we take on a world view that negates G‑d-consciousness.

And what is Mr. Fumento's recommendation for avoiding infection? The same thing we do to avoid infection by seasonal flu: Bolster our immune system.

Spiritually it is the same. If we keep ourselves moored in holiness, and we regularly take the vitamins of Torah study and mitzvot, we are, to a large degree, shielded from the temptations that try to bring us down.

May we see the speedy end to the current scare.

Disclaimer #2: The story is still unfolding. I am writing to inspire, not to claim any medical details as fact. I may be wrong about the flu, but I am not wrong about the lesson.

A New Holocaust Museum and a Menorah

Where the neo-Nazis wanted to march

April 22, 2009

My Illinois hometown is in the news. My sleepy little village—where it seems that the lion's share of the village's municipal budget goes toward the upkeep of parks and recreational facilities, and the front page of the village website discusses the right way to get rid of your yard waste—made national headlines this week.

"Skokie Holocaust Museum Opens," "Thousands Turn Out for Grand Opening of Holocaust Museum," the headlines read. Yes, our little storefront Holocaust museum—where we used to take field trips to see faded family photographs donated by neighborhood families—has just moved into a multi-million dollar facility. Addressing the crowd were President Barack Obama (via videotape), former President Bill Clinton, and Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel.

This moment was a long time in the making. Skokie, a suburb of Chicago, has always had a strong Jewish presence. These streets are home to ever-growing numbers of synagogues, kosher bakeries and butchers. Thirty years ago, roughly 5,000 out of 70,000 Skokieans (or do you prefer Skokieites?) were survivors of the Holocaust, and the majority of the population was Jewish. In 1977, this meant that anti-Semitic bigots thought that our village would be a perfect platform for them to display their hateful rhetoric and cheap shiny boots.

As you can imagine, this did not go over very well with the residents of our village, be they Jewish or non-Jewish. Court hearings and national headlines followed, and our little village was plucked from suburban anonymity into the center of a swirling controversy. The entire ruckus concerned what would take place in a just few blocks, the downtown area containing the village hall, the library, some mom-and-pop hardware stores, and a historic firehouse. (The art school my siblings and I attended as kids is located there too.) And the Nazis never marched.

Local survivors mobilized to open the small store-front museum which I remember visiting as a fifth-grader, and their efforts culminated in the museum that opened just two days ago.

The Skokie Chabad Public Sukah
The Skokie Chabad Public Sukah

But I am also inspired for another reason. You see, at the center of that very same downtown where the neo-Nazis wanted to march, lies a small park containing a few benches and some lovely flowers, an oasis of calm in the middle of an already sleepy downtown. But twice a year, it livens up: For many years, Lubavitch Chabad of Skokie has arranged that on Chanukah there is a giant menorah presiding over the snow covered flowerbeds, and every Sukkot a beautiful paneled sukkah is erected in the center of the park, offering people the opportunity to shake the lulav and etrog and to have a quick bite.

The sukkah is quite an institution in town, and we have "regulars" who come every year to participate in the holiday celebrations. Little old ladies pushing wire shopping carts come by share their memories of the sukkah that Zayde would build in Russia, and mothers bring their kids to stand in the shade of the fragrant pine boughs, and I stand for hours each day welcoming them in and showing them how to say the blessings.

So the neo-Nazis have come and gone (my 8th grade teacher is convinced that she scared them off when she showed up with her son's baseball bat), but the sukkah and the menorah will remain forever!

The Blessing of Rising Healthcare Costs

April 17, 2009

The skyrocketing cost of healthcare in the U.S. has been a major source of concern for some time now. Recently, President Obama declared that the exploding cost of health care in America today is "one of the greatest threats not just to the well-being of our families and the prosperity of our businesses, but to the very foundation of our economy.... The greatest threat to America's fiscal health is not Social Security, though that is a significant challenge; and it is not the investments we've made to rescue our economy; it is the skyrocketing cost of health care."

And indeed, the statistics corroborate the President's concerns. In 2007, the cost of healthcare in the U.S. was an astounding 15.2% of the nation's GDP, second largest of any nation. Or, in more comprehensible terms, in 2007, healthcare cost per capita was $7,421. Compare that with $148 per capita in 1960 (source: Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services). One need not be an expert to understand that that is well above the rate of inflation.

Would that we went back to those simple times, when a family health insurance plan wasn't in itself a major cause of health problems such as high blood pressure and anxiety...

So how do we reduce healthcare costs? It would seem reasonable to start with identifying the reasons behind the soaring costs. Then, hopefully, we can start cutting them—and passing the savings on to the consumers.

Poking around on the internet, I've learned that there are five key causes for the exponential rise in healthcare costs:

1) Student Loans. Doctor's fees are somewhat inflated because many of them are saddled with substantial student loans. The 10-12 years of pre-med and medical school that provide our physicians with the best education, skills and hands-on apprenticeship are costly—and that cost is eventually passed on to the doctor's patients.

2) Longer Life Expectancy. During the 20th century, life expectancy in the United States rose more than 30 years. Old age, though certainly a blessing, brings a variety of unique health issues that often require costly treatments.

3) Malpractice. Doctors and hospitals pay steep premiums to cover their malpractice policies. In times past, medical institutions and practitioners were not held to the highest level of responsibility; mistakes were usually left unpunished. In addition, for fear of lawsuits, doctors are extremely cautious—prescribing batteries of expensive tests and diagnostics based on even slight suspicions, resulting in many conditions diagnosed in their earliest stages and then successfully treated.

4) Medical Equipment. The high-tech machines and diagnostic equipment used today are extremely expensive.

5) Research and Development. The medical establishment no longer relies on "cost effective" treatments such as ground herbs, brandy, leeches and cold compresses to cure diseases. Today's medications are very expensive. In the United States, the development of a single drug can cost between $10-$200 million—and approximately one in ten of these drugs reach the market. This all due to the numerous protections installed to ensure that the drugs are safe and effective.

So now that we've identified the major culprits causing this crisis, where do we start slashing expenses?

Do we cut a few years out of medical school? Do we stop treating conditions brought on by old age? Maybe we should stop holding doctors accountable for preventable errors? Or do we maybe call for a moratorium on the production of medical equipment and drugs—or simply relax our standards on what we allow on to the market?

I hear that in Zimbabwe medical care is still relatively inexpensive. Maybe we should follow their lead? (Does it really matter that life expectancy there is 39.5 years?)

(I'm also aware that this crisis is partially caused by fraud, waste, and exorbitant tort verdicts. While these areas should certainly be seriously addressed, doing so will not eliminate the high costs caused by the factors enumerated above.)

I believe that it's time for a shift in perspective. Oftentimes, that which is perceived as a curse is in actuality a blessing (not even in disguise). High healthcare costs are a direct result of the fact that we have the absolute best healthcare that ever existed in the history of this world. As we get nearer and nearer to the coming of the Messianic Era, when all disease will finally go the way of polio, we are making hitherto unimaginable leaps and bounds in that direction. This is a cause for celebration, a reason to daily express our gratitude to G‑d.

This doesn't mean that we can rest on our laurels and simply count our manifold blessings—unfortunately there are many who can't afford these blessings available today. And I certainly believe that it is the responsibility of the government and communities to ensure that all, even the least fortunate, can avail themselves of the highest quality medical care. But instead of grumbling about the costs, let's embrace them; they are, I certainly hope, not going away. And then, as the wealthiest nation in the world, we must respond to the challenge of making these costs manageable for everyone.

On a more general level, this lesson is applicable in so many areas of our life. Quality control is raising prices in all areas of the economy. Take construction, for example: today everything has to be fireproof, handicapped accessible, construction materials must be of top-grade quality, etc. So we pay more for a house or to build a bridge, but can we put a price on the peace of mind that comes with knowing that the electrical wiring in the house was done properly, and is highly unlikely to explode at any given moment?

We pay for what we get.

This is also something to consider next time we feel that Judaism is "costing" us, when it seems that the effort and discipline (and sometimes also the practical costs) it calls for is over the top.

Instead of seeing these things as costs, let's embrace them for what they really are... Let's not move to the Zimbabwe of the soul.

Madoff's Egypt

April 7, 2009

"I thought I would do this [ponzi scheme] for just a short time and then extricate myself and my clients from it"
—Bernie Madoff, during his sentencing hearing in court.

We can imagine the temptation, the first time Madoff's investments turned sour, to use the money from new investors to pay the old. What harm could there be in borrowing in hard times and paying back when things improved?

Most criminals do not start off with the deliberate intent to hurt others. They justify a temporary flirtation with evil with the firm intention of abandoning their imprudence at the first opportunity. They fail to anticipate the mire that will engulf them as soon as they cross to the "other side."

How quickly things change! At first the wrongdoer is immobilized by a sense of guilt and self-loathing at having engaged in the forbidden. Shortly thereafter, the self-preservation instinct kicks in, and the person begins to justify the act. It is hard to muster the motivation to escape evil when it no longer feels evil.

The real cause of moral downfall is not the act of evil itself, but the psychological responses that keep the sinner tethered to the act long after it has ceased to be tempting.

The noted Chasidic mentor, Rabbi Mendel Futerfas, once told his students, "A chassid is not someone who does not sin. A chassid is someone who can commit an egregious offense and muster up the courage the next day to engage in prayer with the same fervor as before."

Rabbi Mendel taught that spiritual growth depends on our ability to feel sorry for our acts without being overcome by feeling sorry for ourselves. It lies in our ability to recognize that in spite of our imperfections, we have the power to connect with G‑d and redirect our lives.

Maimonides writes that there is evidence that one has truly repented only when one encounters the same challenge that one failed at in the past, and yet courageously withstands the temptation. Why is it so important that one face the exact same test and conditions which led to the initial failure?

The commission of a sinful act creates a feeling of vulnerability which haunts the sinner. Having failed once, the perpetrator feels like a failure in the face of temptation, and thus is likely to sin again. Only when the sinner musters up the gumption say "no" to the same circumstances is the sinner able to truly be free from the clutches of that evil deed.

At the Seder, we will read about the enslavement of the Jews in Egypt. How did the respected children of Jacob end up being slaves in Egypt? Originally, Pharaoh hired them as workers. However, once they became dependent on the Egyptians for their livelihood, Pharaoh decreased their wages until eventually, they were slaves.

And yet, even in the face of the cruelest suffering, they could not see the error of having relinquished their own independence. They justified the benefits of slavery to the point that they could not even imagine a different life. According to the Midrash, 80% of the Jewish people refused to leave Egypt, preferring familiar misery to unfamiliar freedoms.

As we approach Passover, it is time to leave behind our Egypt which traps us in prisons born of ancient missteps. We have the ability to be free of our past. We need only muster the courage.

Combating the Mass Shooting Craze

April 5, 2009 1:00 PM

Once again, our nation is stunned by cold-blooded slaughter. Thirteen innocent civilians, victims of yet another senseless mass shooting. Stunned, though truth be told we are beginning to become numb to these tragedies. In the past month alone, we've had massacres in Alabama, Pittsburgh, North Carolina, Binghamton, and a particularly brutal one in Germany too.

While some focus on preventive measures such as heightening security and stricter gun control laws, almost all agree that we also need to explore the deeper issue; we need to get a handle on why this is happening—and on such a frighteningly regular basis. What is motivating these people to be so utterly insensitive to the destruction they are wreaking on people who've never harmed them? How can they not take into consideration the lives they are destroying? And why are they turning the gun on themselves? As a society, where have we gone wrong?

I'm not a sociologist or psychologist, but the answer is quite clear to me. Fortune has not smiled upon these individuals – financially, usually – leaving these people with zero feeling of self-worth. They have despaired of making any positive impact on the world; yet, in a world of six billion people, they want to leave their mark. And if others have to make the ultimate sacrifice on these killers' altar of ego, so be it.

It would seem to me that these peoples' crazed actions are a symptom of a large segment of society's collective low self-esteem and yearning to be immortalized, to make a difference. Thankfully, the basic decency that defines humanity doesn't allow most people to even contemplate such evil actions. But I believe that the answer to these mass killings lies in treating this underlying issue.

Today is the 11th of Nissan, a day when Jews and non-Jew worldwide are celebrating the 107th anniversary of the birth of the Rebbe. To quantify the Rebbe's legacy is impossible—he taught, stood for and accomplished so much, in so many diverse areas. But here are some themes that stand out throughout the Rebbe's teachings:

Every human being has intrinsic worth. This intrinsic worth is not based on achievements. It's because of our pure G‑dly core, the beautiful and holy essence we each have. And every individual can connect to G‑d—no matter the circumstances. There is no greater self-worth than the ability to connect, and bring nachas, to the Supreme Being.

And it is because of this self-worth that every individual, in any situation, can make a significant difference. Wherever you are, you are there for a reason. Whether you are geographically lost or figuratively lost – unemployed, not where you want to be, feeling the sting of failure – you are there because there is something there that needs to be done.

When we see ourselves and our world this way, we are inoculated against the kind of despair that can lead a lonely person to make his last statement to the world using a gun. There is always a reason to live, a possibility of giving, and even the most severe economic or social distress can be weathered.

What is the best way to get this message out to everyone, specifically the people who need to hear it most?

Have ideas? I invite you to use the comment feature to share them with us all.

In Memory of Shlomo Nativ

April 5, 2009 12:00 PM

"Aren't you scared?" "What if something happens to you or your kids—would you be able to forgive yourself?" "I can't imagine living in such a dangerous place!"

These were typical phrases I would hear again and again when speaking to family or friends for the eight years we lived in Jerusalem. Israel is not an easy place to live. And was I scared? Sure. Many times and in many places. It is something you live with that you can't quite describe. An awareness that gives seriousness to every situation. A life where you scan everyone around you, wondering if someone in your midst might want to take your life.

So you might very well ask why anyone would choose such a situation. But there is an answer. And it is not just mine, but something that is shared with everyone who has ever lived in Israel. And that is purpose.

Deep in my heart and soul, I always knew and know that living in Israel is holy and special. Every minute I was there I was doing a mitzvah and my life had a meaning and purpose far beyond my individual mission. And that was something that I not only wanted to live for, but was willing, if G‑d forbid anything happened, to die for.

Today I cried as I read how 13 year-old Shlomo Nativ was butchered to death by an ax wielding Arab terrorist in his community of Bat Ayin. Bat Ayin is a settlement in Gush Etzion, surrounded by hostile Arab villages. Shlomo's parents, Chaim and Revital, were founding members of Bat Ayin and are fellow students of my teacher, Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh. As Shlomo lay dying of his wounds, his murderer then went after a little 7 year-old boy, Yair (ben Michal) Gamliel, breaking his skull. Yair is now in critical condition following surgery.

Both boys grew up in Bat Ayin. Bat Ayin is a unique settlement. Despite where it is situated, there is no security fence. The residents decided that a fence or gate implied that they were scared. That they needed to lock themselves up in order to survive. They wanted to give the message that they did not fear the villagers who wanted them dead. And this message was heard and understood. Bat Ayin has been the target of very few attacks. The feeling in the Gush was that these were Jews who were not to be messed with.

And then today happened. It is easy to speculate that if there had been a fence…if he didn't live in the Gush…if he wasn't in Israel. If…If…If…. But there is no "if" as Shlomo lived knowing that G‑d runs this world and that he was living and giving life to a holy part of the Land of Israel. He grew up knowing that if not for his parents and others like them, if not for Bat Ayin, that area would not have Jews there today. That area would be filled with more of our enemy, more people looking to destroy our people.

We are devastated beyond words with Shlomo's loss. His eight siblings will have a void in their life from their brother who is no longer physically with them. His parents, Chaim and Revital, have lost a precious child who can never be replaced. But every single moment of Shlomo's short life had meaning. Every day of his 13 years was a gift. Can we understand what happened or why? No. Not in this world. Not while we are stuck in this exile. But do we believe there was a purpose? We must.

Shlomo was a boy who lived his life with no fences or walls around him. He lived with the message that he refused to be scared. He refused to give in. He refused to live in fear. The terrorist managed to take away his life. He robbed us of a precious soul. But no one can ever take away the meaning his life was infused with. Shlomo Nativ lived as a proud Jew. And he died as a proud Jew. And the way we can make sure he did not die in vain is to live as he did. Fearless.

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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