Views on the News

Shavuot and Bailout Packages

May 27, 2009

The economy is showing flickering signs of recovery. Such was the news hesitantly delivered by Ben Bernanki, Chairman of the US Federal Reserve. Indeed, retail sales rose slightly in April. Auto and home sales are up again and major banks, desperate for bailout money a short few months ago, are recording record earnings for the first quarter of 2009. Wells Fargo posted a record three billion dollar first quarter profit. Citigroup, JP Morgan Chase and Bank of America all posted impressive profits.

Before we holler for joy we must consider the other side. Companies across the spectrum from Chrysler, Levitz and Circuit City to Sharper Image and Linens & Things are declaring bankruptcy. General Motors has shut down hundreds of dealerships and thousands of jobs are falling by the way side. The Fed now estimates that the unemployment rate in 2009 will reach 9.6. The New York Times ran a story as recently as May 20 on surging bankruptcies across the country. Banks are thriving, the TSX is rising, while companies are downsizing or folding and jobs are being lost. What is going on?

Is it possible that banks are allocating their bailout monies to relatively safe mortgages and auto loans, but are refusing lines of credit to major employers? Is this why home and auto sales are up though the larger companies continue to fold? In April, the New York Times reported that the volatile atmosphere in retail is discouraging banks from extending lines of credit. The net result, according to Al Koch, who helped steer K-Mart out of bankruptcy in 2006, is that companies fold while saddling other companies with huge debt.

The multi-billion dollar bailouts handed to the banks was intended to stimulate the economy, not to shore up the balance sheets of the banks. When the banks hold onto the money and decline loan applications, manufacture and retail companies begin to fail. Allowing these companies to fail is shortsighted. The banks benefit in the short term by buying up stock at affordable prices, but the economy suffers in the long term as it continues to spiral downward.

But before we jump on the "I Hate Big Banks" bandwagon, let us slow down and ask ourselves what might be learned from this.

Emotional Bailouts

Every project requires a purpose. Whether it is cultivating a relationship, raising children or building a business there are always steep climbs and difficult times. Success entails investment and investment denotes long days, grueling years and thankless tasks. We don't jump into the project without envisioning the goal upfront, but once we are in the thick of it, it is nearly impossible to keep our eyes on the goal.

Gardening is backbreaking work, but we do it because the image of roses in bloom is motivation enough to propel us out of air-conditioned living rooms and into the hot sun. But after several hours on aching knees, mud-caked arms and sweat-drenched brows, we lose sight of the roses and begin to question our sanity. This is when we need a "bailout"; a quick break, cool lemonade in hand, giving us a chance to refresh our vision, reclaim our enthusiasm and reconnect with our purpose. Thus, motivated, we return to the hard and grimy work.

What is true of gardening is true of everything in life. Raising children entails love, patience and constant discipline; it is enough to make any man (and the occasional woman) grow weary. When your children ignore your instructions, forget their homework and make a mess of the house you find yourself at wits' ends. That is when your gem throws his arms around you and rewards you with a loving smile. Your heart skips a beat and your tension melts away; a warm glow spreads through you and you remember why you are here.

Withholding Lines of Credit

The same is true in our relationship with G‑d. In theory we are prepared to believe in the beneficence of the Creator and in His unconditional love. But when life is beset by tribulation and every day is filled with challenge we rage inwardly at a G‑d who seemingly never shows His love. Give me a sign, we rail, show me that you care. And the next moment a miracle occurs; a car speeds around the bend and misses you by a hair's breadth. Your mind is racing, your chest is heaving; you try to slow your gasping breath. You sift through your jumble of thoughts and discover that G‑d is really there. Your faith has been restored. You have been bailed out.

These spiritual bailout moments are heavenly; cleansing and redemptive. But their purpose is not to provide us with short moments of ecstatic inspiration; they are intended to energize our drive and sustain our commitment in the long term. After the moment has passed and the tedium of routine has returned, these transcendent moments must nurture the embers of our passion.

This means that our thoughts during the moment of inspiration must be directed toward the future, to a time when this moment will pass and our enthusiasm will ebb. This will indeed compromise the fullness of the moment, but the purpose of the bailout is not the moment itself: it is the future. Ignoring the future to experience the moment is shortsighted. It benefits us in the short term with the fullness of experience, but it backfires in the long term when the moment has passed and we are left bereft.


Our sages taught that G‑d betrothed the Jews at Sinai; the holiday of Shavuot is thus our anniversary. Anniversaries are days for couples to reflect on their relationship and to conjure memories of their early ardor. But the anniversary should not be entirely devoted to reveling in memory lane; time and thought must also be devoted to the future. The purpose of the memories is to channel the joyous ecstasy of early love into the stable energy of continued devotion.

As the anniversary of our marriage with G‑d, Shavuot is capable of leaving a lasting impression. The transcendent inspiration generated by the chanting of the Ten Commandments and the exquisite memories of our storied relationship with G‑d remind us of our purpose and bring our bond with G‑d to vivid life. This renders Shavuot a "bailout holiday," but only if we utilize it correctly. The wisdom with which bailouts are applied is the sole determinant of their efficacy.

Let us apply it well.

Idea based on Likutei Sichos, XI, p. 8–13 and Sefer Hamaamarim 5649, p. 259.

Obama Asks Chabad

May 5, 2009

Dear Chabad.org:

Recently, I landed a new job running a country. Actually, I would rather think of it as running a whole world. To do the world thing, one of my plans is to double the size of an outfit called the Peace Corps. I'm also planning to more than triple the size of AmeriCorps, create an Energy Corps, a Green Job Corps and a Classroom Corps. I mean, roll over JFK!

I'm writing to you cuz I saw this video on your site. I saw this Moses-like figure sitting there, right after my predecessor announced the first Peace Corps, rapping his team with, "I've been telling you this for years. Does it take the President of the U.S.A. to get the point across?"

Looks like you now have your own international corps, and it seems darn successful. I mean, we've got about 10,000 out there and your little group has 20,000. So I'm interested if you can give me a few tips. If I can get anywhere proportionally as successful as you have, who knows, I might even get nominated as the messiah.


Peace Corps? Hey, I remember that! I was just a kid when a fresh, young president announced the Peace Corps. It marked the end of stuffy, commy-hunting, super-industrialist, dollar-worshipping, bureaucratic old men running the world, and the beginning of a power-to-the-youth cultural revolution that blew the sixties out of orbit. So you want to do that again? Hey, it's about time for a change, right?

Tips? We got lots of tips. Let me ponder some of the key strategies the Rebbe taught us and look at how it was implemented. I'll just write it out as it comes (we're kinda busy around here):

Tip #1: Hold back on the micro-management, Mr. President. Inspire, provide guidance and guidelines—and then trust your front-line workers to make their own decisions accordingly. Their decisions are your decisions. Unless they fly in the face of your whole mandate, you are going to have to support them all the way. If you want inspired, motivated workers out in the field, they need to be empowered. And the best way to empower them is to believe in them—and prove that to them by leaving them alone.

Tip #2: How can you believe in them? Because you taught them. And you continue to teach them. A real leader, especially one who wants to make real change, is a master teacher. Not just a teacher of knowledge. Not just a teacher of ideas. But a teacher of vision—one who can bring his students to share his vision and believe in it as he does. When you and your students believe in one vision, you can believe in one another as well.

Tip #3: Just like you need to believe in the people you are sending, they need to believe in the people they are sent to help. If they fly in like G‑d's angels to shower pity upon the poor natives, they'll make more trouble than good. They need an attitude of deep respect, awed by the privilege they have to be of assistance to such people.

Tip #4: Obviously, you want to reach as many people as possible. That's nice, but quantity relies on quality. Your people will only make real impact if they form deep and lasting bonds with members of their communities. They'll do that by being there for those people when they are needed, by putting the needs of those people before their own, and by doing it all with their heart. And, hey, they'll do that because you are there for them when you are needed, with all you have, all the way. We've got lots of stories both ways to illustrate.

Tip #5: Support wild and wacky solutions. We actually wrap leather boxes on people on the street. We give away charity boxes and tell people to fill them and give them to whoever. We call normal solutions "sneaking under the problem." The best solutions are always when you jump right over a problem as though it wasn't even there in the first place. Moses splitting the Red Sea is an example of an outrageous solution. So is a Chabad House.

Tip #6: Forget the committees, the feasibility studies, the extensive planning. In the Rebbe's words: Just do it. If it works, great. If it doesn't, the experiment probably cost a lot less than the study would have. The world is moving fast today—by the time the study is done, it's generally irrelevant. Jump in there and get the ball rolling. You'll do miracles. And studies don't predict miracles.

Tip #7: Forget the two year stint. Nothing happens without real commitment, and real commitment doesn't come with a round-trip ticket. Tell your Peace Corps people, "I'm sending you to this faraway land and its your territory, your responsibility. You are there until the messiah comes. Give it everything you've got."

Okay, I know that last one is going to be tough. I mean, you've got leadership qualities alright, but to get a lifetime commitment out of people, you've got to be Moses himself. Or at least a modern facsimile. Or maybe you can start a new religion of some sort. Or better: We've got a whole slew of young couples sitting in Brooklyn waiting for a post somewhere…

Swine Flu: Some Random Thoughts

May 1, 2009

With G‑d's help, by the time you are reading this, Swine Flu will have gone the way of the Bird Flu, the Spanish Flu and the Perrier shortage of 2002. Until then, here is a selection of random lessons we might learn from it:

Any doctor will tell you that the best way to prevent infection is what your mother always told you: Wash your hands! Amazingly simple, profoundly obvious and easily achievable; no six-month training course required.

Society has a tendency to be impressed by gargantuan efforts and dismiss the elementary as unworthy of our attention. Often, simple is better. Think daily flossing versus root canal.

Our opportunity to be in a meaningful relationship with G‑d is similarly within reach: "It is not in the heavens… nor across the sea... rather, this thing is very near to you…" (Deuteronomy 30:12-14).

Want to explore your relationship with G‑d? Try some simple mitzvah observances. The Rebbe recommends a starter kit of ten basic practices.

We can't ignore viruses just because we can't see or understand them. There are forces we can't touch or analyze; and they sure get our attention. It's hard to see G‑d and a lot harder to understand His ways; yet there He is, everywhere.

Think you have no capacity to impact the world? Infectious diseases teach us the impact we all have on one another. If it's true in the negative, it has to be true for the positive. Think a casual good morning to a stranger is meaningless? Think you should only call people when it's an emergency and never "just to say hi"? Think again. Your human interaction could change someone's life for the better.

With respect and sympathy for the victims, one might consider the number of deaths to be barely noteworthy (it is far below what highway accidents, many other diseases, and even the common flu cause); yet look at the laudable outcry and concern throughout the world!

Bravo humanity! Who says man has no concern for his fellow? Instinctively, we understand that we are created by G‑d, with an obligation to care for everyone He has placed on this Earth. Not just my buddies or locals from the 'hood. People do care, and not just because not caring puts them in danger too.

We solve one problem and new ones appear. Medical cures are found, but diseases reformulate and reappear with aggression; we combat them and so it goes. It's tempting to think that if we fix "it" we'll have nothing to worry about ever again. Ha! If only it was so simple. That's life.

Similarly, the basic chassidic work of Tanya emphasizes that life for the average guy is about continuously dealing with challenges, withstanding temptation and then withstanding its mutated form. Resist the extra cupcake, and tomorrow you'll find your favorite pie staring you in the face. That's life; that's living: overcoming challenge, and then dealing with the next one.

As with all past outbreaks and pandemics, this too shall pass (with G‑d's help, very soon). At some point, someone will declare that it is "controlled" and then that it is over. Is it the CDC or the WHO? I don't know, but whenever they proclaim that the danger is gone, we'll all breathe a sigh of relief.

Maybe somewhere in this list is the lesson that this is all meant to teach us, and once we learn it, we will merit the time when death will be swallowed up forever, with the coming of Moshiach now!

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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