Views on the News

The Jerusalem Paradox

May 24, 2010

Politics bore me. The news completely disinterests me. But one would have to be completely isolated to not know that there is a man who wants to blow up Israel, completely demolish it with nuclear weapons. So, although real estate is yet another topic of conversation which I tune out, I know enough to assume that if a country is the latest potential target of nuclear war, the real estate market in that location should be at an all-time low.

Yet, once again, Jerusalem defies logical assumptions.

From where I live, I can see Jerusalem from my porch. It is sprinkled with construction cranes. Every corner of this holy city is being renovated. Throughout the city, temporary white walls are being put up around construction sites, and signs boasting "Luxury Apartments Coming Soon" are hung. Where dilapidated warehouses and deserted parking lots once echoed with emptiness, now stand beautiful modern apartment buildings. Even the cities old rundown apartments are now worth disproportionate amounts of money, simply because they are located in the holiest city in the entire world. The rich are buying them, gutting them and building beautiful exclusive homes. Apartments that were bought for a few thousand dollars are being sold for a million.

When I came to Israel ten years ago, I would walk almost daily past a huge deserted monastery just outside the Old City. Over the course of the past several years, that monastery was also razed and in its place Mamilla stands. Mamilla includes luxury apartments, an elite hotel and a modern mall, reminiscent of the upper-class outdoor malls of America where one would find Saks Fifth Avenue and Brooks Brothers.

The Jerusalem Light Rail, the city's new intra-city train, is due to begin running in 2011. Enormous amounts of energy, time and money have been invested in this project that makes the Old City quickly accessible from all corners of Jerusalem. The intercity train has also undergone major renovations; new tracks are being built to include cities that had hitherto not been reachable by train. New highways are being set to speed up traveling time from one end of Israel to the other. Bridges are springing up to connect new roads to old roads.

I can not help but laugh every time I see another building project. Iran is threatening nuclear war and our country is building as though we are going to host the Olympics. Why? Why are the prestigious members of American, French, Belgian and English societies purchasing apartments in the X that marks the spot on the terrorist's map of the world? Why is Jerusalem not quaking in fear of nuclear war?

We've been here before. We have been in Jerusalem during its peak of glory and the Romans dragged us out in chains. We were the cream of Spanish nobility, living in exquisite estates that were then usurped by the church as flames licked our feet. We lived in Germany and Hungary during times of physical and spiritual plenty, and then were carted out on cattle cars. But today, the Romans, the Spanish Church, and the Nazis—world leaders have come and gone, yet we remain. We stand, proud of our heritage, excited for our future. An ancient divine promise that Zion will be rebuilt is the lyrics to the latest new releases of pop Jewish music. It is sung in our early morning prayers and in the lullabies to our children. So, we build and build and build. Cities, settlements, homes, schools, parks, families and communities. The Jewish focus is forward.

This passionate Jew hater that is planning nuclear war on us is flesh and bones. Albeit, he may very well possess the means to initiate war with Israel, we still are not afraid. Because G‑d, who is not flesh and bones, loves Israel, gave it to us and it will always be ours.

"See Something, Say Something!"

Thoughts About Slogans

May 18, 2010

The world is catching up.

This idea has been highlighted by the recent "Times Square Scare" (a pretty catchy description...). In the wake of the incident, Homeland Security's slogan, "If you see something, say something!", which motivated a street peddler to alert the authorities about a smoldering SUV, has received much prominence. A clever phrase helped save the day. In fact, it's being referred to as the Homeland Security's equivalent of Nike's "Just Do It!"

Hey, that's been the ethos of this blog all along: the teaching of the Baal Shem Tov that everything a person sees or hears is an opportunity to learn a lesson in the service of G‑d.

When Moses encountered the burning bush, the Torah emphasizes that only after G‑d saw that Moses had approached to investigate (another smoldering phenomenon) did He call out to him. Others may have walked right past the thorn bush, oblivious to its paradox; perhaps others did notice and ignored it, dismissing it as a curiosity and moving on. Moses paid heed to the message; is that why he could be G‑d's messenger? Was it because he paid attention and took the time to discover the lesson that G‑d entrusted him with leading His people?

There are burning bushes all around us—signals from G‑d. We have to be attentive, notice these events, and look for their G‑dly message. An enslaved nation's freedom might depend on it.

Which leads me to the other slogan I referenced before: "Just Do It!"

It has worked wonders to sell athletic apparel; so it's no surprise that – since way before the sneaker was invented – it’s been working wonders to make the world a G‑dlier place.

It recalls a quote from the first chapter of Ethics of our Fathers: "It is not the discussion that is primary, it's the deed." The Rebbe's mitzvah campaigns highlight this motto. You might know the script: "Excuse me, are you Jewish? Please put on tefillin or shake the lulav. What is that you're saying? You don't understand the depth of this mitzvah, unsure of what is inside the black leather boxes? We'll discuss that later. For right now, 'Just Do It!'"

Maimonides instructs us to, under all circumstances, view ourselves, our communities, in fact the whole world, as being in perfect balance—and the next holy thought, word or act will tip the scales and bring redemption to oneself and all of creation.

So, if you see something, learn something. And when a mitzvah option is in your path – whether you appreciate all its nuances or not – just do it!

The world will thank you.

The Queen, Our Majesty

May 16, 2010

The subtitle of England's recent election is that Her Majesty the Queen had the last word.

With all the pomp, politesse and reverence, it would be hard to imagine that across the pond a whole bunch of her subjects want to give her the pink slip. Especially when one of her royal family gets into a royal mess. "End the constitutional monarchy! If they act like the rest of us, let them stand in line like the rest of us!"

The sentiment has value; stirrings of democracy moved that country to a constitutional monarchy from the off-with-your-head variety.

But what is the citizenry reaching for, to turn themselves into royalty or to make royalty more like them? Undeniably when the royals try to show a common touch they end up being just common—but why does it disappoint? Doesn't our disappointment in them testify that we expect better? When they let us down, does that not show that they are meant to be the standard bearers? And if the standard bearers go, then what happens to the standard? Does everyone attain the standard, or does the standard get shelved in the attic?

Royalty demands bearing a standard that is greater than the individual, personifying an ideal that was bequeathed not for you to do as you like, but to protect for progeny. Not to live for the moment but to make the moment live suspended in a chain of succession of noble forbearers and towards the promise of the future. It is inherently optimistic.

Royalty, paradoxically enough, is essentially humility; standing in awe of the majesty of your charge and being totally defined by it. Being so bound to your subjects as to lose all identity other than the subjects'. Not calling attention to the self—for this deflects attention from the call of duty. Hence the kabbalah defines majesty as essentially feminine. (We confuse royalty with tyranny only because lousy royals have consistently done so.)

Being the queen is not easy; it is most likely the most arduous vocation on earth. Jewish tradition prescribes the recitation of a blessing upon viewing a monarch. Regardless of whether the monarchists or republicans prevail (note the small r), royalty will still garner attention, lots of it.

If introspection follows, then her Majesty will become our own.

Lady Amelie Jakobovits

A personal recollection of a very special lady

May 14, 2010

Like all of British Jewry, I was deeply saddened to hear of Lady Jakobovits' death last Friday. I can't believe we won't see her cheerful, charming face and hear her lilting French-tinged accent as she brings happiness and inspiration to so many people all over the world

I immediately thought back to my first real meeting with Lady Jakobovits.

I was so nervous I could hardly breathe. It was the late 1970s and the Chief Rabbi Sir Immanuel Jakobovits (as he was known then, before being created a Life Peer and becoming known as Lord Jakobovits) and his lovely wife Amelie were coming to stay with us for Shabbat.

My husband was the rabbi of a community in South London and our synagogue had invited the Chief Rabbi and his wife to be its guests, and they had kindly agreed.

All of the officers of the synagogue lived in homes far larger and more comfortable than ours, but the Chief Rabbi had agreed to be our guests in our small toddler-filled home.

On both Friday night and Shabbat lunchtime we hosted a large group of youth from the community, but that wasn't what I remember about their visit.

I remember all the little ways Rebbetzin Jakobovits put me at my ease with her every thoughtful touch.

Before she arrived she had first called to ask if I minded if she brought her own home-made challahs, as it was her custom to bake them every week. Mind?! I was honored and thrilled. She arrived with gifts for me and our oldest son, a book about a child's experience in the Holocaust in which she had inscribed, "To Shai, with best wishes to be read in about two years or so," a book which I read and knowing her background as a Holocaust survivor I well understood her choice. As a mother herself, she knew that our son wouldn't appreciate the book yet, but also knew it would have far longer lasting worth than a toy or game more suitable for his age, and in fact the book still sits amongst his books today, 30 years later.

She was admiring and appreciative of everything we did and served, but went to great lengths to make me treat her normally. When we were on our own, she was with me in the kitchen and waved away plates and napkins when we had coffee and cake standing up by the breakfast bar.

She was very attentive to our young children and asked many questions about my family and my husband's. My father had died not long before and she expressed her sorrow that he wasn't there to know about how much we were doing for our community.

But to me the highlight of their visit came afterwards. Later on, on Saturday night, my mother called me in great excitement.

"You'll never guess who just called me. Lady Jakobovits. She told me what a wonderful Shabbat she had spent with you and how I must have such naches from you, my son-in-law and the grandchildren. Wasn't that wonderful of her?!"

I could hardly believe it. Lady Jakobovits had taken the trouble, as soon as she had arrived home, to find out my mother's telephone number and call her straight away to give her pleasure.

That was Lady Jakobovits: thoughtful, considerate, friendly and warm, always looking for ways to make you feel good and to bring joy to people's lives. She was a true Lady and a tremendous eshet chayil (woman of valor).

May her memory be for a blessing.

My Personal Oil Spill

How to steal, while ensuring that you are not likewise victimized

May 13, 2010

The Baal Shem Tov famously advocated using every experience one is exposed to as a lesson in one's service of G‑d. As my fellow blogger Baruch Epstein pointed out to me, this is the lesson he learned from the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority's security motto, "If you see something, say something!" Say something to yourself, and maybe share it with others too.

Well, over the past few weeks, the entire world has been exposed to the calamitous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Public servants and oil executives certainly have lessons to learn from this major fiasco, but little me also has to use this experience as a lesson. I dug a bit, and I think I may have struck oil... A lesson in how to steal, while ensuring that we are not likewise victimized. Allow me to share my thoughts, and feel free to chime in with your comments.

Oil is found deep in the earth, under land or sea. Accessing it is not a simple process; it requires extensive mapping, drilling, etc. And another hurdle remains even after the reservoir is reached. The oil in the wells is highly pressurized and it must be properly channeled, lest it become an untrammeled geyser—which is exactly what occurred when an explosion sunk the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig.

"For you shall be a desirable land, says the G‑d of Hosts" (Malachi 3:12). Every one of us is analogous to "desirable land"; we contain a treasure trove of valuable resources—some closer to the surface, and some which we can only uncover if we drill and drill.

Deep, deep down lays the soul's oil well. When tapped, it has the ability to provide ample fuel and illumination for the person, his environment, and the entire world. But what happens when the oil isn't properly channeled? When the oil rig explodes?

Before answering that question, let's discuss the nature of the soul's oil.

The human being is animated and powered by two distinct drives. In chassidic parlance, these two drives are termed the "G‑dly Soul" and the "Animal Soul." Boring down to the essence of these two souls, we find two engines, with diametrically opposed agendas.

The Animal Soul is driven by the quest for self-fulfillment—emotional, physical, and even spiritual. Its own interests are all that concerns her.

The G‑dly Soul, by contrast, is, at her core – her "oil" – characterized by complete surrender and submission. It desires nothing for herself—not even spiritual fulfillment. It is one with her Creator, and desires only that which He desires.

Thus, the human is the battleground for the perpetual showdown between selfishness (albeit not necessarily of the negative and nauseating sort), and ultimate selflessness.

But the souls are not only battling for dominance over the person they inhabit—they are battling for domination over each other.

In other words, the G‑dly soul desires to take control over the person's natural tendency towards self-centeredness. It wants to "steal" the Animal Soul's ammunition. If it's part of human nature, it too should be directed towards holy causes. You want pleasure? Enjoy a relationship with G‑d. You want fulfillment? Enjoy doing a favor for another. You want good food? Load your Shabbat table with every sort of delicacy.

Conversely, the Animal Soul, not content with its dominion over self-serving impulses, desires to steal the G‑dly Soul's modus operandi. It wants to squander the powerful oil well of selflessness and altruism on trivialities and worse. Ever wonder why we sometimes do things though we know them to be harmful and self-destructive? Where is the selfish interest in these behaviors? Or how about blind adherence to certain (sometimes innocuous, sometimes not) nonsensical routines or habits?

That's stolen goods. The G‑dly Soul's tools hijacked.

Oil that pollutes.

Instead of illuminating.

A calamity.

Crazy Stock Market?

May 11, 2010

Ignorance is indeed bliss. Here the financial world almost collapsed and I didn't even know until I read about it on Chabad.org. Now that's a lesson right there—all you need to know is right here!

The NASDAQ and other exchanges reversed the trades made because of the erroneous information—a teshuvah (repentance) lesson if there ever was one. We can make mistakes and still reinstate our standing with G‑d; in fact, we can even have past sins completely reversed!

But it was this quote from CNN.com that caught my attention: "The slowed trading occurred at a time that investors were growing increasingly worried about Greece's debt issues and other economic factors."

So had the economy not been on a roller coaster – reeling for the past few years, and then seeming to rebound – investors might have seen this for the computer glitch it apparently was. Instead, spooked traders who thought the rebounding economic news of the last year was a sign that all was right in the world and we'd never regress again, freaked at the sight of trouble.

I believe that there is a strong message here. We all have our less-than-ideal tendencies, and we try to overcome them. With few exceptions, however, we don't truly master ourselves. We fend off our impulses, but that's it.

Tanya, the primary work of Chabad philosophy, opens with a Talmudic quote: "Even if the whole world says to you that you are a tzaddik [cured of the distraction that is posed by anything that is not G‑dly]—consider yourself similar to [i.e., vulnerable as] a rasha [one capable of failure]."

I overeat, I resolve to diet, I resist cupcakes for several days or even months in a row. Am I cured, no longer prone to over-indulgence?

A rocky economy sets a certain tone. Then, a few indicators of recovery offset the loser mentality. We are in the clear; happy days are here again! It's "limit up" every day from here on!

Bad idea.

Tomorrow or next year, my instinct to overeat will assert itself again. If I interpreted my previous successful resistance to mean that I am now immune to temptation, I will see the reappearing impulses as an indicator that I am a failure, forever destined to overeat (so why keep trying?).

This is self-defeating. I must realize from the start that I am never going to fully eradicate my bad tendencies, and so there's no need to panic if temptation reappears. Even if, G‑d forbid, I surrender to it—there is teshuvah, opportunity to regroup and resolve.

We don't solve the market anymore than our inclinations; though we hope to control the direction it takes us. Like dandruff, the market and our character are conditions, we don't seek a cure only get a handle on it. Armed with an appropriate measure of neurosis we are prepared for dips and corrections, we see them for what they are and adjust—rather than "Chicken Little" it to the nearest bridge.

My diet continues.

Apocalypse at the Stock Exchange

May 9, 2010 1:14 PM

May 6, 2010, 2:43 p.m., on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Trading closes in just over an hour, and weary brokers are thinking about heading home. It's been a rough day. Indexes across the board are down on worries that Greece's national debt could lead to more serious financial problems all over Europe. There have been better days in the past… but today's nothing out of the ordinary.

Tension suddenly fills the air. The steady hustle and bustle of the stockroom floor is interrupted by alarmed shouting. People are pointing up at the big black monitors that display the values of the market indexes. The numbers are all dropping.


The Dow Jones Industrials Average has slipped 6 percent and is still falling. The tension quickly gives way to panic. The markets are in a free fall. Brokers start frantically dumping huge share volumes, trying to "get out before it's too late." In a matter of minutes, the crazy selling frenzy spreads across the globe as traders in Asia that have long gone to sleep are shaken from their beds in a desperate attempt to stem their already catastrophic losses. By 2:55 p.m., Dow Jones has plummeted more than 950 points, the largest single-day drop in history.

It quickly becomes apparent that despite all efforts to the contrary, the American financial system will not recover from its recession. The long-predicted demise of the world economy has finally come to pass. In the coming weeks, hundreds of thousands of people will be laid off from their jobs, as huge corporations are forced to declare bankruptcy, their assets having melted away into oblivion. The United States, once the symbol of wealth and prosperity, will now lead the world towards poverty and despair.

Until five minutes later.

By 3 o'clock, relieving news pours in across the wire. There's been a glitch. Apparently, a faulty computer algorithm has set off a series of high-volume trades, giving the impression of an epic market sell-off. Not need to worry, though. The erroneous transactions will be canceled and stock prices restored to their original values. By the end of the trading day, the markets have recovered most of their losses. And all of a sudden, the future is looking brighter...

All is well that ends well.

From the depths of depression, it is difficult to accurately perceive reality. In our minds, we conjure up horrible, apocalyptic visions of the future. It seems like things will never get better.

But if we would just take a step back and try to gain perspective, we would realize that, more often than not, our supposedly dreadful situations are simply a glitch in the system. A bump in the road. Just give it some time. Things will clear up, and all will be well.

This is true in our personal lives, as well as our nation's collective history.

"For a small moment have I forsaken you, and with great mercy will I gather you." (Isaiah 54:7).

"But," you ask, "can two thousand years of persecution, pain and suffering be written off as a 'small moment'?"

Though the pain of our exile is very real, G‑d assures us that He will redeem us from this suffering. And when that day comes, we will look back at the bitter exile, and it will seem like just "a small moment."

Like ten gut-wrenching minutes on the stock exchange floor.

What I Learned From the Near Crash

May 7, 2010 12:13 PM

In what was one of the craziest ten minutes in stock exchange history, the Dow dropped nearly one thousand points yesterday, suffering what would have been its worst fall in 23 years, before rebounding to recoup most of its losses. According to experts, $700 billion was wiped out in those few minutes. According to the New York Times, shares in Proctor & Gamble, which began at about $62 fell to $39.37 before rebounding nicely to end the day at $63.75.

CNBC, citing multiple sources, reported that the drop may have been precipitated by a "fat finger" trader, who depressed the B button instead of its neighboring M button; triggering the plunge by flooding the market with Proctor & Gamble shares worth sixteen billion, instead of sixteen million, dollars.

It is too early to tell if these reports are factual, and officials at Citigroup, where the trade is alleged to have originated, assert that they had no evidence of Citi's involvement with erroneous trade action.

Thankfully, everyone walked away relatively unscathed from the biggest financial nail biter of the year. The fast-paced action has slacked off and the Monday morning quarterbacks enter the fray—as do the couch rabbis looking to spin a few new sermons...

Here's one of my thoughts on what happened yesterday.

Never Too Late

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of the Chabad Chassidic movement, is said to have engaged in conversation a talented bright young man who had strayed far from the ways of the Torah, about his large, swift horse. "Tell me young man," said the Rebbe, "why do you ride such a great horse?"

"Well," replied the young man, "the swifter the horse, the faster I arrive at my destination."

"What happens," rejoined the Rebbe, "if you take a wrong turn, will you not move quickly away from your destination?"

The man thought for a moment and replied, "Indeed, I would, but once I realize my mistake I can turn around and make even better headway in return."

The Rebbe was not talking about the horse, but about its rider. He was asking the young man why he chose to live in the fast lane. The young man explained that he liked to move quickly and enjoy life. The Rebbe asked, what happens if you make inappropriate life decisions—your swiftness then will lead you farther away even faster! After reflecting for a moment the man replied that in that case he would indeed turn around and direct his talents and energy to repentance and return. Legend has it that the young man did indeed return to the path of Torah.

This story comes to mind when reflecting on the market's quick recovery. Indeed, allegedly one trader made a mistake, and a huge one at that. But once the market realized what had occurred it applied its unbounded energy and corrected itself.

Never should we imagine that we have reached a point of no return. There'll be a tomorrow and the sun will rise again. Take heart, for tomorrow you can channel your energy on fixing that which you broke today.

Better yet, make like the market and don't wait for tomorrow. Get started today.

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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