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Old Jews and Journalists

May 27, 2008

It's said that everyone aspires for fifteen minutes of fame. Well, I had my moment in the limelight this week, and let me tell you, it wasn't quite the party I'd have imagined it to be.

I was winding down my weekly Kabbalah & Coffee class last Sunday in East Boca Raton, when a student said that there was someone outside wanting to speak to the class participants about the election.

Hearing the word "election," I mentioned the fact that in contrast to all other species that were created en masse, man was created as a singular entity. The image of one man and his world was intended to instill within all of man that it's always about one man and his world. The 12th century Jewish sage Maimonides put it this way: A person should always look at the world as perfectly balanced between good and evil, so that a single action on his or her part will tip the scales for himself, and for the entire universe, to the side of good and redemption.

A single act by a single individual that changes the entire world? My class liked the idea, but also seemed a bit skeptical.

It's not as high minded as you think, I said.

"Think of the 2000 election and the pivotal role of our South Florida county, when America's choice of its president—arguably the most powerful job on earth—was decided by a handful of votes."

I looked around the room of 25 students, amongst them a few Jewish seniors from Century Village that composed my regular crowd. "Looks like it might happen again this time," I quipped. "The fate of the world for the next four years—it's all going to boil down to a few old Jews in Century Village." Everyone laughed, getting the point.

So far, a regular Sunday morning in the life of a Chabad rabbi.

Only this week, it turns out that the "someone outside wanting to speak to the class participants about the election" was a New York Times reporter who was standing in a corridor listening in on the class. She had her sound-bite, and my "old Jews" quote featured prominently in the opening paragraphs of her article about Obama's efforts to woo the Jewish vote in Florida.

From there it spread like wildfire through the news outlets and the Net. Time and Newsweek magazines both featured it as its "quote of the day."

My inbox started filling up with comments by slighted seniors, and the sight wasn't pretty.

I replied to those who wrote me, explaining the circumstances of my remark. But I can imagine how it looked to the many thousands who saw just those 14 words stripped of their context.

Oh, well. "This, too shall pass," the wisest of men is said to have said. I hope I'm not quoting him out of context…..

A Childish G‑d

May 23, 2008
Dr. Albert Einstein thought belief in G‑d childish
Dr. Albert Einstein thought belief in G‑d childish

A letter attributed to Time magazine's Man of the Century espouses the centuries-old argument that anything can happen with time. In the correspondence, Albert Einstein maintains that belief in G‑d is childish.

I totally agree.

Intelligent people make the best of the intelligible, subjecting reality to their reality of things. Ask a believing adult to prove G‑d's existence and he will point to everything that exists in his own existence. Ask a child and he will tell you that "proofs" are immaterial: it says, "In the beginning G‑d created heaven and earth."

When praying, grown men tend to paint He who created man in His image, in their own. To the immature child, however, G‑d simply exists and he prays to Him simply. In his responsa, the great Talmudic authority Rabbi Isaac ben Sheshet (the "Rivash") proudly publicizes that he prays from a child's perspective.

Theologians and philosophers can discuss G‑d's immanence, transcendence, and perhaps His essence. Yet, it takes an innocent child to appreciate G‑d's essential simplicity. It was Einstein himself who said, "God always takes the simplest way." A child knows that way.

A proverbial statement says, "The naive believe everything," and our sages go so far as to attribute that naiveté to Moses himself. He who had seen the Almighty face to face could have also believed at face value.

At the most mature level, one serves G‑d with the innocent immaturity of a child. Ignorance can truly be bliss.

Re: The Recent California Supreme Court Decision

May 22, 2008

For all you loyal followers of my blog, boy do I have a scoop for you! In case you have a son who is approaching bar mitzvah age, hold off on all the plans, cancel the caterer. As it turns out, if all goes right, the age of bar mitzvah will be changing in the near future. The new age will be either nine or eighteen—that's a detail that has not yet been worked out.

You see, in today's day and age, thirteen is not a very sensible age to schedule a rite of passage into adulthood. It's a tough time, the boys have just entered adolescence and are for the most part rebellious little kids who think they are adults. This makes bar mitzvah lessons a daunting task. I figure that training nine-year-olds will make for a much smoother ride. Alternatively, eighteen year olds make for attractive and idealistic bar mitzvah candidates too.

So, I've filed papers with the New York State Supreme Court, requesting that they consider changing the outdated bar mitzvah age. (Thirteen was fine back in the times when children were apprenticed to blacksmiths at the age of eight...)

I'm still in consultations with my attorneys as to which age to shoot for. They are reviewing the Court's past decisions, based on which they will determine which argument stands a better chance in front of the Court's current composition.

Sounds ludicrous to you? Do you think I am naïve for believing that secular jurists will issue a legal decision on a purely religious matter?

Think again.

This past Thursday, the California Supreme Court struck down the state's ban on intra-gender marriage, saying that the gender identity of the two partners "does not constitute a legitimate basis upon which to deny or withhold legal rights... the California Constitution properly must be interpreted to guarantee this basic civil right to all Californians..."

If the Court wishes to grant legal and/or economic privileges to two individuals who choose to establish a joint household—then I can see the grounds for a legitimate debate: Is homosexuality immoral? And if yes, to what extent do the courts have the right to legislate morality?

But that is not the issue at hand. The issue is marriage. Marriage is, and always was, a religious idea: the idea that a relationship between a man and woman can be sanctioned as a holy union, as a partnership in which G‑d takes part. Does the California Supreme Court believe that their ruling will obligate G‑d to enter a relationship He does not condone?

Marriage is not a civil institution; it is a religious one. The Court's intervention in this matter is, in my opinion, a dangerous precedent. This is a decision that should be left to the clergy.

Tragedy in Myanmar and China

May 18, 2008 1:30 PM

Two devastating natural catastrophes have struck in recent weeks. First, Cyclone Nargis smashed into the nation of Myanmar (Burma). So far, 78,000 have been confirmed dead, tens of thousands more are still missing, and many thousands more are in imminent mortal danger because of the lack of food and medical supplies in the affected region. Ten days later, a major earthquake hit China's Sichuan province. More than 30,000 are confirmed dead, and the Chinese government is warning that the death toll could soar to 50,000.

Around the office, co-workers have been asking me why I'm staying silent on these major news stories. The truth is that I have nothing to say about these events per se. What lesson is there to be derived from tragedies of such epic proportions? Can I cheapen such mammoth human suffering by using it as a springboard for my personal soapbox? I'd rather remain silent. I have no idea why G‑d brings such suffering to innocent people. I have no lesson to learn from it. I only pray for the victims of these tragedies, and ask G‑d to hastily bring the day when He will bring a merciful end to all this suffering.

(For a Jewish perspective on this issue, see Reaction to Tragedy which I penned following the Virginia Tech Massacre.)

Obama Phenomenon II

May 18, 2008

Here's the second lesson I gleaned from the "Obama Phenomenon":

In my previous post I explained that experience is not a prerequisite to change. But the question remains regarding a pivotal point of contention between Mr. Obama and his opponent: does experience negate change? Is it possible for a person with experience in a particular field to implement real change?

Let us look at the Torah for the answer to this question.

Rabbi Zeira, one of the great Talmudic sages, immigrated to Israel in order to study the Talmud from the Israeli masters. When he arrived in the Holy Land, he wanted to start with a clean slate. So he fasted forty days in order to forget all he had previously studied in Babylon! (Talmud, Bava Metziah 85a)

Yes, it sounds a bit extreme... But Rabbi Zeira recognized the superiority of the Israeli style of study over the Babylonian one, for the very air of the Holy Land adds wisdom to its inhabitants. Had he studied with the Israeli sages while continuing to use the same thought processes he was accustomed to using back in Babylon, he would have remained shackled to his past. To reach an entirely new horizon required a clean start, unencumbered even by the positive accomplishments of his illustrious past.

On a similar note, the Zohar speaks of an allegoric "river of fire" that every soul must pass through en route to Paradise. This fire causes the soul to "forget the appearance of this world." For the soul to truly appreciate and enjoy the spiritual otherworldly delights that await her in the world to come, it must totally disengage from all the earthly pleasures it experienced while in a physical body. For the pleasures of this world pale in comparison to the spiritual delight the soul will now experience—the delight of basking in the radiance of the Divine Presence.

In short: to effect a real change, one must disavow not only past errors, but even past accomplishment.

In a political sense this tells me that both candidates have a valid point (as is usually the case...). Yes, past experience can be an impediment to being the protagonist of change. But on the other hand, I believe that even experienced politicians can bring change—provided that they are ready to "reject" their path, and commit to an entirely new method of thought and policy.

A few weeks after leaving Egypt, our nation was on the verge of undergoing the greatest change imaginable: a clan of lowly slaves was about to become "G‑d's treasure," and "a kingdom of princes and a holy nation."

For this change to succeed, a complete break from their past was required. Their new journey could not be based on the foundations of previous conceptions and presumptions.

Our ancestors understood this when they famously declared, "Na'aseh vinishma"—We accept all of G‑d's commands, and then we will attempt to understand their meanings.

First they unconditionally accepted. They renounced all their previous experiences and philosophies, and completely surrendered themselves to this impending change. Then, with a clean slate, they were capable of starting anew—a commitment which included both doing what G‑d commanded, as well as understanding the reasons behind the commands.

Sub-Prime Mortgages (And Other Risky Ideas)

May 13, 2008

With the economy battered from all the hits it has absorbed from the sub-prime mortgage crisis, the finger pointing is in full swing. The "know-it-alls" have taken the elevator up and mounted their high horses, berating irresponsible lenders who recklessly extended loans to undeserving candidates. "What do you expect when you loosen the reins; availing credit to a high-risk population?" they self-righteously postulate to anyone willing to listen.

But is allowing more people the opportunity to buy a home an immoral idea? There must be an upside here somewhere.

Think about your first job, your first client, or the kid who included you in the kickball game on the first day of school. We've all benefited from undeserved kindness, been trusted on potential rather than past performance. No track record, no history of credit worthiness; someone takes a chance, and then the rest is up to us. And so it goes we are trusted and we trust others, we take risks and are entrusted with other's confidence.

It's a hazardous business this trust thing; the opportunities for abuse abound. From laziness to outright cheating, con artists make a nice living off other's munificence. And so many seem to be getting away with defaulting.

And when victimized by the recipient of unearned trust, we tend to shame the other and recoil, lock our trusting instinct away, resolved never to be fooled again. It's a pity. Just as cash stuffed under the mattress sacrifices opportunities, trusts withheld wither and die within.

So now what? Should the FDIC terminate all "high risk" loans, should kids only play with well-credentialed friends? And why should I be a chump and make my payments?

Let's look at this issue from a spiritual perspective. As much as we might dislike facing it, we are all gratuitous beneficiaries. Without even having us filling out a credit application, G‑d has entrusted each one of us with a soul. Before even having done one mitzvah or shown any sign of success, a literal piece of G‑d is ours. No collateral, no cosigner, nothing more than our word to be righteous and not evil, and G‑d places His most precious asset in our untested hands—purely on the optimism that we will justify His risk.

It's so tempting to take the money and run; many seem to get away with it. And despite the evidence to the contrary, G‑d continues to believe that we are a reasonable gamble.

A metaphor: A king makes a feast and invites his most honored ministers to celebrate with him. They dig in to a scrumptious meal. Out in the back, the wait staff and the cocker spaniel eat pretty good too; a banquet like this produces some pretty fine leftovers.

A pragmatic observer might conclude that the dog has a better deal; he eats the same food as the partygoers without fidelity to the monarch—they don't even need a tie. Some might even encourage the guests to "take a hint"; leave the hard work for the poor saps who don't know any better and live off the leftovers. Why not make a decent living without breaking a sweat?

On the other hand, the clever waiter, having brushed up against nobility, resolves to graduate from the kitchen to the dining room.

So know ye all lenders of capital or compassion: there are crooks out there that will betray your trust. Yet the only way to profit is through risk and there is no greater beauty than trust requited. And know all ye recipients of kindness: much can be siphoned from the bighearted, yet if you chose that path it leads to the doghouse when your place card reads "dais."

G‑d is an unregulated lender, trusting undeserving folks with unreasonable capital. Let's make him look like a genius by growing His investment!

The Obama Phenomenon

May 11, 2008

The AP announced yesterday that, for the first time, Barack Obama has overtaken Hillary Clinton in super-delegate endorsements, erasing Clinton's once-imposing lead in this area. With Obama leading in the popular vote, pledged delegates, and now super-delegates too, he has virtually secured the Democratic Party presidential nomination. According to all political pundits, the question is not if, but when, Clinton will bow out of the race.

An astounding political upset. Not long ago, Mrs. Clinton was considered a shoo-in for the '08 Democratic nomination. She boasted significant leads in national polls, as well in campaign fundraising. The primaries were going to be a mere formality that would rubber-stamp her presumptive candidacy. The chances of a novice politician upending her run was almost inconceivable.

But it has happened... A political newcomer has managed to upset the establishment. Despite formidable obstacles, Obama has earned the nomination hanging his presidential hopes on one mantra: the promise of change. The people have spoken. They are more comfortable with a person who promises change than a person who rests on the laurels of his or her experience.

There has got to be a lesson we can learn from the "Obama Phenomenon"... And not just a lesson for future political candidates, but one that we can implement in our personal lives.*

Is experience required in order to make sweeping change? Apparently the consensus is that it is not. Changing habits and routines is perhaps the most difficult thing to do; this is true regarding Washington culture or personal tendencies. And there's only one thing more powerful than the force of inertia, and that is determination and willpower.

If there's a true desire to change, then no obstacle is insurmountable. If experience is lacking, then willpower will motivate the person to find the necessary information, tools, and the proper advisors. In the words of our sages, "Nothing stands in the way of willpower."

So... Graduating rabbinical school is not a necessary prerequisite to becoming a spiritual person. You don't need experience in mediation and diplomacy to become a good spouse, parent or friend.

What an inspiring message. Makes no difference where you've been and what you've done. You inherently possess the ability to make of yourself whatever you so choose! A desire to change is all you need. It's a winning formula...

There are some other lessons I've learned from the OP. I will be posting them, G‑d willing, in coming days. Meanwhile, I'd love to hear from you; what kind of lessons have you taken from this news? Use the comment section to let your voice be heard. But... let's stay above personal politics and attacks. Let's see if we can remain focused on the positive.

Disclaimer: I'm not professing to know whether if elected Obama will really bring change. By the same token, I'm not vouching for Clinton's experience. I'm just analyzing their proclaimed virtues, the choice they presented to the voters, and the decision the voters made.

Do You Get Charity?

May 2, 2008

Excerpted from an article, Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness, that appeared in the journal Science this past month:

A large body of research has demonstrated that income has a reliable, but surprisingly weak, effect on happiness within nations, particularly once basic needs are met. Indeed, although real incomes have surged dramatically in recent decades, happiness levels have remained largely flat within developed countries across time. One of the most intriguing explanations for this counterintuitive finding is that people often pour their increased wealth into pursuits that provide little in the way of lasting happiness, such as purchasing costly consumer goods.

We suggest that investing income in others rather than oneself may have measurable benefits for one's own happiness.

As an initial test of the relation between spending choices and happiness, we asked a nationally representative sample of 632 Americans (55% female) to rate their general happiness, to report their annual income, and to estimate how much they spent in a typical month on (i) bills and expenses, (ii) gifts for themselves, (iii) gifts for others, and (iv) donations to charity. The first two categories were summed to create an index of personal spending, and the latter two categories were summed to create an index of pro-social spending. Entering the personal and pro-social spending indices simultaneously into a regression predicting general happiness revealed that personal spending was unrelated to happiness, but higher pro-social spending was associated with significantly greater happiness.

If this interpretation is correct, then people who receive an economic windfall should experience greater happiness after receiving the windfall if they spend it on others rather than themselves. We tested this prediction by examining the happiness of 16 employees before and after they received a profit-sharing bonus from their company. [The] employees who devoted more of their bonus to pro-social spending experienced greater happiness after receiving the bonus, and the manner in which they spent that bonus was a more important predictor of their happiness than the size of the bonus itself.

Finally, despite the observable benefits of pro-social spending, our participants spent relatively little of their income on pro-social ends; participants in our national survey, for example, reported devoting more than 10 times as much money for personal as for pro-social spending each month. Although personal spending is of necessity likely to exceed pro-social spending for most North Americans, our findings suggest that very minor alterations in spending allocations—as little as $5 in our final study—may be sufficient to produce nontrivial gains in happiness on a given day. Why, then, don't people make these small changes? Tests revealed that participants were doubly wrong about the impact of money on happiness; we found that a significant majority thought that personal spending would make them happier than pro-social spending and that $20 would make them happier than $5.

G‑d spoke to Moses saying: "Speak to the children of Israel, and have them take for Me an offering..."Exodus 25:1-2.

Our sages have pointed out the curious wording of this command: should not G‑d have instructed the Israelites to give an offering, rather than to take one?

But the precise wording teaches us that when we give a charitable contribution we are actually taking more than giving. In the words of the Midrash (Midrash Rabbah Leviticus 34): "More than the benefactor benefits the pauper, the pauper benefits the benefactor."

G‑d created the world based on a system of rules that He conjured. These rules encompass all of creation—both its matter and its spirit. Many of these rules are of the cause-and-effect variety. You throw a ball in the air, it will come down. You plant a seed, a plant will grow. You forget your wife's birthday, all sorts of bad things happen. You give charity, and you end up getting.

In His kindness, he gave us creation's master blueprint, the Torah, which contains all the rules—whether explicitly or encrypted.

Some of these rules are intuitive, some are not. Sometimes it takes a scientific study to empirically demonstrate the truth of one of these rules.

Who knows? Maybe the next study will confirm that closing one's business on Shabbat actually increases revenue...

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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