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Cheap Gas! Who Can Resist?

June 27, 2008

Have you heard about Chrysler's latest advertising gimmick? They are now offering a $2.99-a-gallon gas guarantee for purchasers of new Chrysler vehicles. This guarantee lasts for three years, and though I checked out the fine print, I couldn't find any catches or hidden fees. It's pretty straightforward: for the next three years, no matter how high fuel prices rocket, you're guaranteed "cheap" fuel. The only limitation is a reasonable 12,000 miles per year maximum.

This promotion got my attention. How much money, I wondered, will be saved by the average guy who takes advantage of this offer? A little math revealed that at 28 MPG and $4.00 per gallon gas, the savings will amount to approximately $450 a year. Definitely nice pocket change, but is this promotion a bigger money saver than other ongoing promotions, such as lower APR or cash-back incentives? (According to the program's fine print: "This program is an alternative to traditional incentive programs. Consumers who select this offer will not be eligible for the traditional consumer/lease cash, sub-vented APR rates...")

Maybe not. But we are currently understandably obsessed with gas prices; for many of us, stopping at the gas station for a refill puts us at risk of developing Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. As such, three years of fixed gas prices is a calming and reassuring thought. It matters not that other available incentives might actually save us more money. $2500 cash-back doesn't sound nearly as alluring as $2.99 gas...

To me this is an example of brilliant marketing. It's based on the recognition that, for the most part, what drives people isn't logic and mathematical equations, but certain underlying — and often subconscious — fears and aspirations. If advertising was predicated on persuasive logic, marketers would consult with a group of PhD's. But it isn't. Hence the enlistment of focus groups in the interest of creating successful ad campaigns.

This theory is also successfully employed during political campaigns — all too often for negative campaigning. Instead of arguing policy, candidates merely associate their opponent with an entrenched societal fear. This practice continues, despite universal condemnation and revulsion, and despite every candidate's assurance that he/she will not "stoop" to such levels. Because it works...

Perhaps one of the first instances of such negative advertising is recorded in the Torah in the Book of Numbers. The Israelites sent scouts to Canaan to reconnoiter the land in preparation for its conquest.

The spies returned and reported: "The people who inhabit the land are mighty, and the cities are extremely huge and fortified, and there we saw even the offspring of the giant. And the Amalekites dwell in the south..."

Amalekites? How did they make their way into the report? Their land was not scheduled for Israelite invasion. The biblical commentator Rashi explains that this was a red herring: "Since they had already been 'burnt' by Amalek, the spies mentioned it in order to frighten them." Logically it would have been difficult to argue that even the strongest of humans could prevent the divinely-assisted Israelites from conquering the Holy Land. So instead, evoke traumatic memories of a nation that had brazenly attacked the Israelites years earlier. Unfortunately, it worked: "The entire community raised their voices and shouted, and the people wept on that night..."

Specific strategies aside, the idea of marketing itself is quite remarkable. It's predicated on the reality that merchandise — no matter its quality or usefulness — does not sell itself, and certainly not en masse. An important lesson to us all, because to a certain degree we are all marketers. We wish to market ethics and values to our children and acquaintances, and as Jews, we wish to influence fellow Jews to "buy into" a life enriched by the teachings of the Torah.

So we must all be salespeople. Doing so requires us to search out the emotional needs and fears of our prospective clients. Logical debates rarely does the job. Have you ever purchased an item because the salesperson argued you into the sale? Understand what the person craves and needs and develop your sales pitch accordingly.

And the deepest desire and need of every Jew is to connect with G‑d. So how does this marketing line sound?

"G‑d loves you and desires a relationship with you. His 'pick-up line' was delivered some 3,000 years ago — it is the Torah. He has 613 open lines, and He's waiting for your call anytime of the day or night."

Preventing Fat Cells

June 22, 2008

How important is it to encourage our children to develop healthy eating and exercise habits? A fascinating study recently published in the online journal Nature reveals the lifelong effects of childhood obesity.

It turns out that you're stuck with the number of fat cells you have acquired by about age twenty. Even extreme weight-loss strategies, such as bariatric surgery, do not reduce your number of existing fat cells.

People gain and lose weight at least in part by changing how much fat is in their fat cells. Obese people, however, can have twice as many fat cells as their lean counterparts, which explains why it is so easy for them to gain back weight that they have lost.

The findings of this study suggest that the focus for controlling obesity should be on children. If the number of fat cells is capped by age twenty, then the smart approach is to prevent their formation in children.

Isn't it amazing how the more we learn about the workings of the body, the more clearly we see how the physical reality mirrors its spiritual equivalent?

A person's constitution is determined during his or her formative childhood years, and the effects of the habits he or she learns in these years can never be completely reversed—only controlled through strong self-discipline.

If we want our children to be spiritually fit for life, we have to get them into the habit of living a spiritually healthy lifestyle while they are yet young. There are no guarantees; even a child with healthy habits can choose to behave otherwise. But as parents it is our responsibility to ensure that we give our children an edge, a constitution that is conducive for a spiritually fit lifestyle.

The Israeli-Palestinian Cycle of Errors

June 20, 2008

A poll published in today's Yediot Achronot shows that 56 percent of Israelis support the truce with Hamas that yesterday went into effect. But 79 percent said they do not believe, or are inclined not to believe, that it will last for long.

A very telling poll. To me this demonstrates that the majority of Israel's citizens have despaired of reaching a real and permanent solution to the terrorism that plagues the nation on a daily basis. They seem to be well aware that countless such truces have been brokered in the past years, and none have solved the core issues. The enemy advantageously uses these truces to regroup and rearm, and then attacks again with a vengeance.

A lasting resolution to the conflict can be achieved in one of two ways. One way is to capitulate to the demands of Hamas. We need only look at their charter to see what their expectations are. Here are some quotes:

"Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it."

"The land of Palestine is an Islamic Waqf consecrated for future Moslem generations until Judgment Day. It, or any part of it, should not be squandered: it, or any part of it, should not be given up. "

Our nation longs to live in peace. But that would come at the cost of our land—every inch of it, that is. Are we ready to vacate the Middle East in order to appease them? As long as we refuse to consider this option, it is apparent that peace with these terrorists is out of the question. That leaves us with the second option: militarily destroying their organization's infrastructure and wiping out and/or detaining their militias, thus rendering them incapable of attacking us, or, at the very least, greatly minimizing the threat they pose. This is a very painful option, one that would inevitably involve unbearable loss of life, but one that in the long run would save many lives and bring a measure of security and calm to the citizens of Israel.

But it appears to me that as a nation we detest hostilities and dread the UN Security Council condemnations that are sure to follow. We crave acceptance by the international community and are unwilling to make the real sacrifices necessary to achieve relative stability. So we opt to follow the path of meaningless truces. We repeat our mistakes, with the full knowledge that they are mistakes. We are seemingly incapable of escaping a mentality of appeasement that has become embedded in our genes over the course of millennia of oppression and persecution.

How about a similar Middle East "Cycle of Errors" that occurred many, many years ago, when our ancestors sojourned in the Sinai Desert. In fact, it is impossible to study the story of this sojourn without questioning our ancestors' sanity.

We currently live in a spiritual blackout. If only G‑d would show us a miracle, if only He would allow us to once glimpse His mighty hand, we would surely serve Him faithfully for the remainder of our days. I'm not talking about earth shattering miracles such as splitting a sea or turning Gaza's waters into blood, just an occasional blatantly supernatural phenomenon to silence the agnostics—as well as the small but vocal agnostic that resides within each one of us.

That's why it's so hard to come to grips with our ancestors' persistent nitpicking, grumbling, and lack of faith. They had witnessed firsthand the miraculous plagues G‑d inflicted upon their oppressors and had experienced the awesome divine revelation at Mount Sinai. I can just envision a guy enjoying a breakfast of manna and water-courtesy-of-a-rock, and then walking out of his tent only to see clouds of glory surrounding and protecting him from all sides, and then grabbing his picket sign and protesting that he wants to return to Egypt!

It all came to a head when the Israelites reacted rashly to the scouting report issued by the spies dispatched to reconnoiter Canaan: "If only we had died in the land of Egypt, or if only we had died in this desert! Why does G‑d bring us to this land to fall by the sword; our wives and children will be as spoils. Is it not better for us to return to Egypt? . . . Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt!"

At this point it became abundantly clear that the slave mentality that the Egyptians had beaten into the Israelites was part of the fiber of their national psyche. This explained their lack of trust, complaining and dependency. I wonder if the Israelites were aware – consciously or sub-consciously – of their condition and understood the folly of their statements, but were almost helpless to do anything about it.

Every narrative recounted in the Torah is a lesson. Otherwise, there would be no reason for the Torah – the same Torah that cautions us against needlessly speaking of others' faults – to tell us about our ancestors' failings.

When we recognize that we have a dangerous tendency, we must have the courage to overcome it. Succumbing to an unhealthy predilection can have disastrous results. Especially when the security of five million Jews depends on the resolve to overcome this predisposition.

Gas Prices

Don't sweat the petty stuff and don't pet the sweaty stuff

June 19, 2008

Okay Rabbi, here's a challenge for you. Chassidic texts teach that there is a positive life-lesson in everything we see or hear. So get out your Geiger counter and find me the silver lining in $4 a gallon gas (oops! it just went to $4.24).

Well I love a challenge, so here goes:

Why the outrage? Was $3 a gallon acceptable, $3.25? $3.75?

Let's take a short lesson in relativity.

1) How much more is the new price than the old? Don't start reaching for your calculators, the query is metaphoric not literal.

2) How much better is a '08 Lexus than an '86 Oldsmobile? They both achieve an identical basic function, transporting you from home to the grocery at about the same speed. So how much more fortunate, in real terms, is the tycoon than the working stiff?

[Disclaimer: I am not discounting the real poverty that affects so many; I understand that they are not worrying about $4 gas; they are worrying about their next meal. This post is addressing car owners staring at the pump meter cycling around like a slot machine.]

3) We are now in another heated race for the Presidency, but what is really the difference between the parties and candidates? The most leftwing and furthest rightwing politicians agree on the basic principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of a good pastrami sandwich.

[All high school social studies teachers screaming about the significance of the presidency, kindly adapt the previous disclaimer and take a chill.]

Now imagine the Pharaohs of old, ancient monarchs, dukes and noblemen—they didn't have internal combustion engines to propel their vehicles, even a jalopy is superior to their golden chariots.

And how wide is the divide between the Democrats and Republicans? Contrast them against all other forms of governments, from monarchy to anarchy.

And the difference between $4.24 (uh oh; just went to $4.32) a gallon and the "good old days" (that would be two years ago) is still only about $10 a fill up... Real money to be sure, but if that's a breaking point, you were living beyond your means before the price spike.

So are we falling into the trap of fixating on issues that are of relatively little consequence?

Recessions come and go; they always do. That is how this country has thrived for more than two hundred years. The economy will adjust and happy days will be here again. And even if they won't, sad news indeed, yet our identity is who we are, not the state of the economy or who the president is; those things are fleeting.

We, as Jews, have a special affinity for worrying. Perhaps it stems from our obligation to care for the entire world. Sometimes, however, our concerned nature gets sidetracked to areas that a) we can't control and b) are not genuinely determinative. That's where the G‑dly soul has to put up the stop sign and remind us, "Hello! It is far more important how much time you spend with your children than how much you spend at the pump. Putting on tefillin or helping Mrs. Teplitz carry her groceries up to her apartment are tangible ways you can change this country, far more meaningfully than electing a particular official."

It takes months to get a bill though congress or drill for oil, yet only a moment to perform an act of kindness to bring redemption to the world.

So stay home a little more often; focus on those things you can do something about and count your blessings. Contemplate the abundance we share and the insignificance of it all.

Obama Phenomenon III

June 4, 2008

His platform of change has got him past his first major hurdle. As of yesterday, Barack Obama clinched his party's presidential nomination. Since Day One, his detractors have accused him of having expressed very vague views on a host of domestic and foreign policy issues, instead basing his appeal on optimistic speeches, without providing much detail on how he would govern.

I have a theory. I think that he won the nomination not despite his ambiguity on the issues, but because of it. Proposing legislation and the outlining of detailed initiatives can not possibly compete with the utopian picture presented by the promise of "change." It is an intrinsic part of human nature to always be unsatisfied with the current situation. To always want more and better; to always yearn for change.

Had Mr. Obama based his campaign on a series of initiatives and a defined platform, his appeal would have been limited to those who approve of the proposed agenda. But the prospect of change talks to everyone—at least all those who are convinced of the sincerity of his intentions to really bring about change. And it excites one of the most basic human drives.

Brilliant campaign strategy? Apparently yes. Will he deliver if elected? Maybe. But one thing I can say with certainty. Even if elected, and even if he turns out to be a wonderful president, Obama will never satisfy our innate hankering for change. Accomplishing that will take much more effort on our part than pulling a lever in a voting booth.

Satisfying this need – on a personal as well as a global level – is possible. Every mitzvah we do brings closer the moment when the world will be changed for the good, once and for all.

If only all those who voted for Obama – both Jews and non-Jews – knew that their vote for change is perhaps a manifestation of their soul's deep desire for the ultimate change. The one that we can and will collectively accomplish; the one that will be ushered in by Moshiach.


June 1, 2008

This past Friday, New York was stunned by the deaths of two construction workers who were killed by a collapsing construction crane—the second fatal crane accident in Manhattan in recent weeks. A criminal inquiry has been opened by the Manhattan DA's office, focusing on whether the crane's turntable had been seriously damaged last year and then inappropriately put back in service.

While it has yet to be determined that indeed anything criminal has occurred in this instance, I can't help but be reminded of other tragedies that were caused by people who chose to take a chance with shoddy equipment or materials. Do you remember when a floor collapsed at a Jerusalem wedding hall in 2001 leaving 25 dead? The video of that disaster was, and still is, all over the web. It later turned out that the materials used in the building's construction were sub par. The contractors and the owners of the hall were convicted for manslaughter.

Builders who try to cut corners by using unsafe equipment or materials certainly don't anticipate that their actions will cause loss of life. Ninety-nine percent of the time, the equipment and materials will hold up just fine. Instead they are trying to save a few dollars – for themselves as well as for their clients – while dispensing with "cumbersome and oppressive" regulations.

But the regulations are there for a reason. Because 1% is too heavy a cost to pay, too.

This got me thinking about all the rabbinic regulations that some see as stifling and excessive. Restrictions on inter-gender association, restrictions on handling items that have a forbidden function on Shabbat, eating milk and fowl, etc.

Is this overregulation, or sound oversight?

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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