Views on the News

If Getting There Is Half the Fun – It Ain't That Much Fun

April 26, 2010 9:19 AM

It seems that every week the airline industry tries another add-on charge in a desperate reach for cash. Check luggage: $50. Want three more inches of legroom: $28. Now one airline even wants to charge for carry-ons, and has increased passenger loads by installing non-reclining seats!

This nickel-and-diming attitude has caused many air travelers to reach for the motion sickness bag. United States senators have weighed in to protect the public's constitutional right to salty snacks at 30,000 feet. The add-on charges are pretty frustrating, though I chuckle at the oddity of people complaining that they don't get airline food—I don't remember it having been much of a treat.

Maybe the airlines are greedy, or maybe they're incompetent—or maybe they're actually onto something. Think about it: There have long been luggage charges in taxis in many cities, and you can't stretch out on the New York subway. Why do we expect air travel to differ fundamentally from other forms of travel?

There was a time when the flight itself was part of the adventure, something to look forward to. People got formally dressed up to fly. Now, because it is so common, the airline flight is seen only as a means of getting from here to there, and nothing more. The average 15-year-old has been on more planes than trains. In fact, a trip on the Chicago elevated tracks would be more novel for many local teenagers than an airline flight.

So the airlines are dropping the Queen Mary Yacht mentality and embracing a new-millennium "public transportation" persona. They are trying to compete with Greyhound, Amtrak, and driving—promising to get you there as efficiently and inexpensively as possible. That's it, no frills. Thirsty: that will be $4; hungry: $5; need to bring along luggage, want better seats: like anything else in life, if you want more, you pay more. Simply want to be in Philadelphia by 6:00 pm: here is the ticket price.

There is a significant lesson here about differentiating between what we are doing and why we are doing it. Think about your day, all the steps that lead you from point to point—where are you going? Why are you doing it all? Does your destination get lost in the process of getting there?

There is a dangerous risk that we get so enwrapped in what we are doing that we forget that it is only the means to the an end. Couples date interminably, forgetting that they are supposed to be creating a home. Perpetual students are too sidetracked to finish their degree. Fathers so focused on winning the Monopoly game that they forgot that they are really spending time with their children.

We, the Jewish people are also susceptible to having our attention diverted. We have been in exile for a long time. But "this" – our current exiled, dispersed lifestyle – is only a precursor, a warm-up for the objective of creation: the time of Moshiach, when we will apply all we have learned. We mustn't get so busy stretching, that we forget to exercise; so busy getting there, that we forget where we are going.

So stripped down transportation has a message: Get from point A to point B as efficiently and as fast as you can; reaching the destination is the objective. We are supposed to transform this place we call home into a place in which G‑d is at home.

Don't be distracted by whether there are tiny bags of peanuts.

The Latest "Act of G‑d"

April 18, 2010

This is an old pet peeve of mine. And I have a feeling that G‑d may share my gripe.

Unless you've been hiding somewhere under a rock for the past few days, you are aware of the tremendous havoc wrought by an invisible cloud of volcanic ash that covers much of Europe's airspace. The eruption of a volcano beneath Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull glacier (no, that is not a typo) is causing major problems for airlines and their now-stranded passengers, as airports across Europe have been shut down for days now, resulting in tens of thousands of cancelled flights. The International Air Transport Association estimated that the disruption is costing the airline industry some $200 million a day—an estimate that the IATA terms as "conservative."

What bothers me is that while perusing the various news stories covering this monumental mess, three words keep on appearing: "Act of G‑d."

A CNN story dated April 16, for example, explains that passengers may not be able to make claims on travel insurance "because the volcano's impact may be classified as an act of G‑d."

Now, I ask, what do you think G‑d thinks of this expression, used to describe extraordinary and unpredictable phenomena?

I can imagine Him saying, "Hey, everything that happens to you is an 'act of G‑d'! Yes, when your bread fell on the floor earlier today – buttered side up, no less – that was Me! Look up, you see that very visible and completely ordinary cloud, it's Me who is suspending those water crystals in the atmosphere. I'm not just in the volcano business!"

Apparently, this is a millennia-old issue, one described by King David (as explained by the chassidic masters):

"G‑d is exalted over all nations; upon the heavens is His glory"—Psalms 113:4.

The "nations" reverently proclaim that G‑d is "exalted." It is beneath His dignity, they maintain, to occupy Himself with the humdrum profane daily happenings here on earth; rather, His glory is in the heavens, where He is involved with spiritual matters that are of infinite import.

The bread that fell this morning, the cumulus cottony mass that floats above me—G‑d doesn't bother with such trivialities. But a globally disruptive volcano, now there's an act of G‑d!

In truth, however, King David continues:

"Who is like G‑d, our G‑d, who dwells on high, [but] who lowers [His eyes] to look in the heavens and the earth?"—ibid. verses 5-6.

To G‑d, both the spiritual and the physical worlds are equally naught. He dwells above them both; involvement in either realm requires that He "lower" Himself. But nevertheless He does so. He lowers Himself to see – and direct – all that transpires on heaven or earth.

Which leads to my next point.

Even if we choose to ascribe to G‑d unusual and remarkable events, why only the negative ones?

A USA Today story last week reported about David Gray, who instead of making his final preparations for running his first Boston Marathon, is stuck in a hotel room in Belgium. "To have an act of G‑d like this happen is really frustrating," Gray remarked.

Or an AP story that discussed the calamitous toll this is taking on the aviation industry: "Many in the travel industry on Thursday weren't asking whether they would be affected but how badly. 'This is the ultimate act of G‑d,' said Chicago-based transportation expert Joseph Schwieterman."

I say that we should combat the rampant sullying of G‑d's reputation.

Next time my daughter tells me about the great day she had in school, I will try to remember to say, "Hmmm, what a beautiful act of G‑d!"

The next time my buttered toast lands on the floor – no matter on which side – I will try to remark, "Wow, another act of G‑d!"

Join me. We can make a difference.

The Kabbalah of Nation Building

April 11, 2010

Iraq and Afghanistan are just the latest examples of countries that struggle with what's come to be termed "nation building." Though tens of billions of dollars have been poured in to these nascent democracies to repair their economies and infrastructures, train their militaries and police, and bolster their fledgling governments, progress is painfully slow. Perhaps the biggest problem that these countries contend with is rampant corruption, proving the adage that old habits die hard.

Yet some 3,300 years ago, it took exactly forty-nine days to form the Jewish Nation. Seven weeks for an enslaved nation to become G‑d's nation, and a light unto all the other nations.

When G‑d took us out of Egypt all those years ago we were eminently unready to become His Chosen Nation. Although we had retained certain aspects of our heritage, such as our Jewish names, garb and language, we had assimilated with the local culture on a grand scale, worshipping their idols and debasing ourselves by following their immoral practices. The situation was so bad that, according the Midrash, the angels questioned whether we were in fact any better than the Egyptians who were being punished.

How did we manage to transform from a downtrodden nation of slaves to a G‑d-fearing nation in forty-nine days?

What did G‑d know that Presidents Bush and Obama, and Prime Ministers Blair and Brown have failed to grasp?

As we move through the seven-week "Counting of the Omer" period from Passover to Shavuot, we retrace the steps of the Jewish people as they moved from being freed from slavery to receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai.

Each day of these weeks we count one more day and we also enumerate how many weeks we have counted. During the Ribono shel Olam prayer that follows the counting (click here for the full text), we also ask G‑d to help us fix one of our character traits. Kabbalah teaches that G‑d created the world through ten distinct sefirot or Divine Emanations. Corresponding to these are the ten soul-powers through which our souls express themselves. Three of these powers relate to our intellect and seven to our emotions.

Through the seven weeks of the Counting of the Omer we attempt to rectify these seven soul-powers: love, discipline, compassion, perseverance, humility, bonding and implementation. Each of these soul-powers is to the power of seven – love is comprised of love, discipline, compassion and so on; discipline is comprised of love, discipline, compassion and so on – so each day of the week we rectify one seventh of a soul-power. (And for seven weeks we read Ethics of Our Fathers to help attain this character refinement.)

The beauty of this whole system is that it is all of our own making. G‑d brought us out of Egypt and pointed us on the way to Mount Sinai, but the process of nation building was our own. As we work our way towards Shavuot, we need to have the will to transform our natures to be fitting recipients of the Torah.

There is a parable of a farmer whose prize peacock falls into a muddy pit. The farmer is dismayed by the mud-covered bird and tries to scrub it clean, however it seems that the quicker he removes the mud, the quicker the mud seems to spread to another part of the peacock. After a few hours the farmer takes a break from his exertions; the peacock picks itself up and walks out the barn. With one shake of its plume all the mud flew off and the bird was back to its magnificent self.

When it comes to nation building, it is great that these formerly oppressed nations are being given the opportunity to redefine themselves. But there has to be a will of the people to build their nation. Otherwise, no amount of dollars or political pressure will do the job.

In these modern-day instances, the arduous process is progressing very slowly. Much longer than seven weeks... But hopefully in the end they'll get there. We're all rooting for them!

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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