Views on the News

How Not to Be Mark Sanford

June 29, 2009

Whenever I hear of someone who has done something particularly reprehensible, my first thought is "what a reprobate." My next thought (if I have not forgotten all about it because the news report is over, and now I am hearing an entertaining ad) is "how could someone do that?"

Like the governor of South Carolina. While everyone thought that he was hiking by himself in the woods, he was actually in Argentina and not at all by himself. What a reprobate. What a hypocrite. How could he do that?

But then, if I am still thinking about it, I remember a course I once took called "classroom management."

When I signed up for the course, I imagined being initiated into all kinds of secret techniques. Maybe we would learn how to get students to stay quiet and attentive by lacing the textbooks with subliminal messages. Or maybe it would be something along the lines of dog training.

But the course syllabus I was handed the first day contained not a hint of any esoteric course content. Not what I was really hoping for, which was hypnosis for beginners.

Instead, we were told, the first thing to do if a student is disruptive or inattentive is to check his environment and his diet and see if there is some physical trigger for the behavior. Does he need to use the bathroom? Is the sun in his eyes? Did he have only candy bars and Coke for lunch?

Or maybe there is an emotional trigger. Is she distraught because her parents are fighting? Is she hungry for love and attention?

The number one task of the master teacher (which obviously, we were all becoming): to remove impediments to good behavior.

A number of sentences rendered meaningless: "What a brat." "She's lazy." "He's an obnoxious kid." Instead: What is he eating? Is she afraid of failure? Does he have sensory integration issues?

I soon saw that I could treat myself like my own student and get better behavior from myself. It isn't only kids who are so much more charming after they've had a pretzel. I am also less likely to bite people's heads off when I have access to snacks.

It isn't only kids who have an easier time doing their homework when they are not suffering from ADD. I also get a lot more work done when there are no cute nieces or nephews tumbling into my lap (munching pretzels) and mispronouncing my name with so much adorableness.

But it is true about the more important things too, the things we normally attribute to whether or not a person is a reprobate. Environment counts. Back to the Governor of South Carolina.

From a recent New York Times article:

But perhaps the strongest risk factor for infidelity, researchers have found, exists not inside the marriage but outside: opportunity. "People tend to assume that bad people have affairs, and good people don't, or that affairs only happen in bad marriages," said Peggy Vaughan, a San Diego-based researcher… "These assumptions are just not based in reality."

Jewish law has long maintained this. That's the reason for the laws of yichud – the rabbinic prohibition precluding a man and woman who are not married to each other from being secluded together – and why Orthodox men and women won't even shake hands with a member of the opposite sex.

Is Mark Sanford a reprobate? Very possibly. But a more useful question: How can we arrange our environments so that we get optimal (NOT reprobate-like) behavior from ourselves – in all areas?

Ahmadinejad: The Fulfillment of a Prophecy?

June 23, 2009

When thousands of idealistic youth take to the streets in protest of an obviously rigged election, I find myself rallying to their cause. As a rule, I am pro idealistic youth, and anti rigged elections.

As the days pass, my pro-protester fervor only grows. I cheer on the Iranian people's seemingly unstoppable passion, and happily track the power of communication technology in action. Dictators these days simply can't silence their opposition the way they used to. Briefly, I consider donning a green head scarf and sallying forth in search of a cloud of tear gas from which to Twitter.

But then.

The New York Times reports:

On Monday, a group of as many as a thousand demonstrators at Haft-e-tir Square in central Tehran was quickly overwhelmed by baton-wielding riot police and tear gas shortly after the Revolutionary Guards issued an ominous warning on their Web site saying that protesters would face "revolutionary confrontation."


Iranian state media has put the total of protesters who have died since the election at less than 20, but opposition Web sites and protesters say the number is far higher.

It's hard to know for sure, since foreign reporters have been banned from Iran, but the protest seems to have been cruelly crushed, at least for now.

This is an ominous development. My reaction to this, in internet speak, is an inarticulate :-( .

But there is a silver lining.

Two of them.

One of them is that the occasional quote being emitted by Iran's leadership is ridiculous to the point of being funny.

"Sometimes the difference is 100,000, 500,000 or even 1 million," Ayatollah Khamenei said in his speech to the nation Friday. "In that case, one could say that there might have been vote-rigging. But how can they rig 11 million votes?"

I have to say, Mr. Ayatollah, that you are not making a lot of sense. But I understand, it's hard to be reasonable while tyrannizing an entire nation full of sophisticated, freedom-loving techies. The multi-tasking involved could tax anybody's speechmaking skills.

The other silver lining is a significant reduction in paranoia around the world.

Let us compare the two candidates.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a self-identified radical who has isolated Iran from the rest of the world and expanded the reach of Sharia (Islamic law) since his election in 2005. He has loudly denied the Holocaust and made venomous threats against the State of Israel. (The only discussion is whether he actually said he wants to "wipe Israel off the map," or whether that's a translation of a Persian idiom that means the same thing.)

Mir Hossein Mousavi, on the other hand, who officially lost the election, promises equality for women. He says he will eliminate the "moral police" and encourage a free press. He wants to improve ties with the West. And (though I am momentarily stunned that this even needs to be said) he has condemned the killing of Jews in the Holocaust.

Ahmadinejad: Widely acknowledged bad guy. (And even more so now that the world has seen what he did these past ten days.)

Mousavi: Folk hero and Facebook friend to many.

Easily ignored fact: Mousavi, like Ahmanidejad, has no intention of suspending Iran's nuclear program. On April 27, he told Der Spiegel, "We will not abandon the great achievements of Iranian scientists. I, too, will not suspend uranium enrichment." This is the very same nuclear development program that has had everyone so worried over the past few years.

In fact, this past Tuesday, President Obama told CNBC that the difference between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi "in terms of their actual positions may not be as great as has been advertised."

Now imagine the scene: Mousavi is allowed to take the victory that is fairly his. The world rejoices, excited by the new era of freedom and human rights in Iran that this portends.

A few lone voices continue to worry about Iran's nuclear development, realistically asserting that ultimately, Iran is controlled by unpredictable ayatollahs who continually profess their hatred of Israel.

Everyone else calls these lone voices spoilsports, and said lone voices are ejected from polite company. Lone voices become paranoid, as do other, silent voices who think maybe something worrisome is happening in Iran but are not sure, since everyone else is so happy about events there. General paranoia ensues.

On the other hand, the way things are now, voices of reason can do their thing, even when hobnobbing with the dreamiest of optimists. Everyone knows who the bad guy is – Ahmadinejad – and everyone can unite against him.

Like most silver linings, there is a relevant prophecy to bolster this one. The prophet Daniel tells us that before Moshiach's coming, Yitbareru v'yitlabnu hadvarim. "Things will become clear and distinct."

A student of history can observe that over the years, a series of philosophies have bubbled up that seemed at first glance to be beneficial, but turned out to be harmful. For example, communism, a cause that was advanced by idealistic and well-meaning people all over the world, brought about the deaths of tens of millions.

We are a pretty confused species. Good and evil are disguised as each other. But just before Moshiach arrives, Daniel tells us, good and evil will become distinct. (This is a preparation for the next step, which will be the complete dissolution of evil.) We will know for sure who our enemies are.

Perhaps Ahmadinejad's victory, even if it is the result of transparent fraud, is one of the fulfillments of this prophecy.

Convict Denied Access to DNA Evidence

June 22, 2009

This past Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that prisoners have no constitutional right to DNA testing that might prove their innocence. The 5-to-4 decision concerned William G. Osborne, who was convicted in 1994 of kidnapping a woman, sexually assaulting and beating her, and leaving her for dead.

Prosecutors have conceded that biological testing on evidence found at the Anchorage, Alaska, crime scene could categorically establish Osborne's guilt or innocence. Furthermore, Osborne has offered to bear the cost of the testing—but is being denied access to the evidence.

Chief Justice Roberts, while acknowledging DNA testing's "unparalleled ability both to exonerate the wrongly convicted and to identify the guilty," argued that "to suddenly constitutionalize this area, would short-circuit what looks to be a prompt and considered legislative response."

Justice Alito added that allowing Osborne to forgo testing at trial and then request it from prison, "would allow prisoners to play games with the criminal justice system. After conviction, with nothing to lose, the defendant could demand DNA testing in the hope that some happy accident – for example, degradation or contamination of the evidence – would provide the basis for seeking postconviction relief."

Alito was also concerned about the significant costs the states would incur were prisoners "given a never-before-recognized constitutional right to rummage through the state's genetic-evidence locker..."

To sum up the decision – or, to be more accurate, my interpretation thereof – the Court saw fit to uphold the integrity of the judiciary process, when flawlessly executed, even at the expense of losing an opportunity to exonerate a convicted individual.

In lieu of commentary, I'd like to contrast this decision with the way Jewish law handles post-conviction exoneration.

The following is a translation from Maimonides' Mishneh Torah, Laws of Sanhedrin 13:1:

One who is sentenced to death is taken out of the courthouse. A kerchief-bearing person stands at the entrance of the courthouse—together with a horse [and rider]. And it is announced:

"So-and-so is being taken to be executed via these-and-these means for this-and-this crime that he committed in this-and-this location at this-and-this time—based on the testimony delivered by so-and-so and so-and-so. Whoever has reason to exonerate the defendant, let him approach!"

If someone comes along and says, "I have exculpatory evidence!" the kerchief bearer waves and the horse-rider races [to the execution site] and the defendant is returned to the courthouse. If the exculpatory evidence is confirmed, he is exonerated; if not, he is again taken to be executed.

Even if the defendant himself says, "I have what to say to exonerate myself," even though it seems that there is no substance to his argument, he is returned to the courthouse a first and second time—perhaps it is due to fear that he can't properly express his case; maybe in the courthouse he will calm himself and state his argument.

If they returned him to the courthouse and found that, indeed, there was no substance to his argument, he is taken back to be executed. If a third time he says, "I have what to say to exonerate myself"—if there is substance to what he is saying, he is returned to the courthouse, even if this repeats itself many times...

Note: Although the above passage describes the procedure for capital cases, Maimonides explains (ibid. 11:4) that this all also applies to cases of manslaughter, which is punishable by exile to a City of Refuge, a punishment significantly less severe than incarceration in a prison cell.

Twittering Iranians

June 18, 2009

I do not Twitter. Ostensibly this is because I forgot my username, but the real reason is that I just don't want to. I am happy to be out of the loop when someone I hardly know eats cheerios. And I like the serene feeling of self-sufficiency I get from eating cheerios without notifying anybody.

(Facebook update: "Nechama Posner is NOT Twittering!")

But I am reconsidering my elitist attitude.

This is due to what is happening in Iran, something that has slowly arrested my attention over the past few days. On June 12, Iran held elections. But the winner was announced before the votes could possibly have been counted, and for the past week, hundreds of thousands of young men and women have been gathering in huge demonstrations to protest the apparent election fraud. A number of protestors have been killed in clashes with police.

The Iranian government has (intermittently) blocked Facebook and Youtube and banned foreign journalists from covering the protests. But they could not shut down Twitter. Twitter has become Iran's lifeline to the outside, a way for Iranians to tell the world what's happening and to coordinate among themselves.

This is extraordinary. When they talked about "free press" during the American Revolution, they meant newspapers. It was a pioneering concept in a time of dictatorship.

Benjamin Franklin famously said: "I hereby invite all Men, who have Leisure, Inclination and Ability, to speak their Minds with Freedom, Sense and Moderation, and their Pieces shall be welcome to a Place in my Paper." But despite the high-minded enthusiasm of all those CAPS, communication was still centralized, and resources were limited.

Now we have surpassed the earthbound printing press; Twitter does not even need web access to work. You can Twitter from a phone. Individuals – many of whom likely lack the winning combination of "Leisure, Inclination, and Ability" – are communicating with the world and making their plight known.

Why Twitter? According to Time Magazine, "It's free, highly mobile, very personal and very quick. It's also built to spread, and fast."

When you read a tweet, you are aware that there is a real person there, someone who possibly needs to pocket his phone for a minute and tie his shoelaces. The style of a tweet is idiosyncratic and un-grammatical; often it's all in lower-case. It's the kind of thing from which English teachers recoil in dismay. But there is no lag time – tweets are received by followers instantaneously.

As a result, "What can be seen is the web's collective consciousness on Iran being updated every second of the day."

This diffuse way of bringing about change is a perfect analog for what is happening when we do mitzvot. There is no mitzvah generator central, no polished, professional "them." We all do what we can. Most of the things we do are very small and non-heroic. The coins we give to charity are grimy, and sometimes the kindnesses are halfhearted. But as a result, the world's collective consciousness becomes G‑dly and good.

And the wonder of it is that real people are doing this. Not angels with perfect syntax.

Ed.'s Note: For more on this topic, see Tzvi Freeman's When the Twitter Revolution Began.

New and Improved

June 17, 2009

With increased government involvement in failing industries, we are hearing a lot about companies "reinventing themselves." The ad campaigns tout the redesigned, leaner and meaner corporate model. Many advertise their revamp by boldly adding the word "new" to their familiar corporate name. What, if any, substantive changes have actually been made will only be discovered in the future.

So what does the Torah say about renaming products: Is it remarkable or just marketing?

Perhaps a one-liner uttered by Moses in advance of the debacle of the spies sheds some light.

When the twelve spies are ready to be dispatched in advance of the Children of Israel's entry into the land, Moses senses something is amiss. Eager to protect his protégé, Hoshea, from the spies' harmful designs, Moses blesses him: "May G‑d rescue you [from the plot of your colleagues]." Moses employs a mystical technique to effectuate this blessing. He changes Hoshea's name, adding a yud prefix; his name is now Yehoshua (Joshua).

Chassidic thought is flush with commentary on the indicative aspect of names. What you're named is who you are. So Moses' name change is an effective technique to reconfigure his student's identity. The newly redesigned Joshua is not merely a repackaged Hoshea, he is transformed, a new person, as a result of the name change. He is protected from the seduction of fear that sinks the others.

There seems to be an obvious question: Moses is suspicious, so he blesses Hoshea, changing his name and uplifting him. Why not simply change all the spies' names and thus protect each of them and, by extension, all of the Jewish people? Is Moses playing favorites with his prized student?

But it is because Hoshea has developed an intense relationship with Moses that he is receptive to this name-changing/essence-altering blessing. Would Moses similarly bless all of the spies, it would not make any difference. They have not readied themselves to receptivity. They have not logged the time with Moses that Hoshea has.

Herein lies the key of effective blessing (transformation) via name change. Like rain, a blessing bears fruits on cultivated fields.

The fifth Chabad-Lubavitch Rebbe, Rabbi Shalom DovBer, once denied a chassid a blessing (!). Distraught, the man crumpled in tears. And then the Rebbe blessed him, explaining that the blessing would only have significance after the petitioner had done the introspection that made him eligible for divine assistance.

Simply hearing a blessing is not the same as being blessed, and simply declaring a product improved is not the same as improving it. Titles must reflect change, not be the change.

Simple proclamations such as "I try harder" or "We are the new (fill in the blank) company" that are not predicated on substantive enrichment are catchy yet vapid.

A new name can be a source of a new attitude or fresh start only when it is the result of genuine transformation. Joshua's yud addition is effective because of the hard work he has invested—it is due more to Joshua's efforts than to Moses' sanctity.

We are similarly on the threshold of Israel, waiting to go in, as we were in Joshua's time. We have paid our dues and developed our brand: "The Jewish People." It's time to change one letter to reflect our achievements, adding an aleph to golah ("exile") and transforming it into geulah ("redemption")!

Should Netanyahu Proclaim that Israel is our G‑d-Given Land?

June 15, 2009 2:00 PM

Ask the Rabbi sessions are always unpredictable. Any topic is fair game, and being thrown a curveball is not uncommon. Therefore last week when I participated in an Ask the Rabbi forum, I should not have been surprised by the first question: "Should Benjamin 'Bibi' Netanyahu announce that Israel is our G‑d-given land?"

Bibi's major policy address yesterday has left a lot of people unhappy. Did Bibi blink in the face of American pressure by accepting a (sort of) Palestinian State? Has he sent the ball soaring back into the world's court by insisting that Israel must be accepted as a secure Jewish homeland and that our claim predates the Holocaust, the British Mandate, Ottoman Empire and Roman conquest?

But I think that the question posed to me this past week is perhaps the most germane of all.

In this week's Torah portion (Numbers 13-15) we read about the Jewish nation's first attempt to enter their homeland. Here's the background: Ten spies returned from their reconnaissance mission in Canaan with a slanderous report, causing the demoralized Jews to doubt their ability to conquer the Land. Due to their lack of faith, G‑d decreed that that generation would indeed not enter the Promised Land. Realizing their mistake, a group of Jews made an about-face; they armed themselves and prepared to enter the land by force.

Moses warned this group not to go, "It will not succeed! Do not go up," he entreated, "for G‑d is not among you!"

But the group would not be dissuaded. A battle ensued and the would-be conquerors were mercilessly beaten back by the Canaanites.

From the contentious reference to the "Rock of Israel" in Israel's Declaration of Independence to Bibi's latest policy address, G‑d has been conspicuously missing in Israeli public discourse. Whilst happy to attribute minimal losses from constant attritional rocket attacks to "miracles," giving G‑d proper credit seems to be unthinkable.

As a Jewish nation in a Jewish land, G‑d and His values, as espoused in the Torah – and clearly expressed in the Talmud and the Code of Jewish Law – must be part of our national discourse. G‑d has much to say about who are the rightful owners of the Land and about how to defend Jewish life and live in peace.

After three thousand years, Moses' message must still resonate for us. Whether in our business dealings, personal relationships or the Arab-Israeli conflict, if G‑d is not with us, ultimately "it will not succeed." For this reason, since time immemorial the term b'ezrat Hashem, "G‑d willing," has been part of our vocabulary. A true peace must include G‑d in the agreement.

May it be speedily in our time. G‑d willing.

How to Become a Millionaire

June 15, 2009 12:00 PM

Just hot off the press... An Israeli woman who bought her elderly mother a new mattress threw out the old one unaware that it had one million dollars hidden inside it.

Israeli newspapers reported that the woman was left scrabbling through landfill sites in an, as yet, fruitless search for the mattress which contained her mother's life savings.

The woman, identified only as Anat, a resident of Tel Aviv, told Israeli Army Radio that she bought the mattress as a surprise for her mother and got rid of the other one without telling her. When she realized her mistake, she rushed outside to look for the mattress but found it had already been taken by the garbage collectors. Subsequent searches at three different landfill sites turned up nothing.

I thought to myself that this story has major relevance:

There are many young people out there who, with the best intentions, are recommending replacing our old Jewish mattress, namely our Torah. They claim that the mattress that we have been sleeping on for more than 3,300 hundred years is pretty worn out and ancient. They claim that the newer, modern philosophies are way more comfortable and relevant. Some will even take the liberty of throwing out Mamma's old mattress into the garbage dump of assimilation and intermarriage without finding out what really lies inside it.

To their total surprise, they then find out that the old dusty mattress was loaded with a million dollars worth of bills. In fact, the Torah, our treasure buried in the discarded mattress, is priceless. Can you imagine their frustration and disappointment in themselves when their mistake is discovered?

King Solomon writes in the book of Proverbs: "For its price is far greater than rubies." Our precious Torah is not only valuable because of its age, it is priceless because of its powerful relevant message to our generation. It is a book that brings meaning and value to every facet of life. Let us open its pages and discover how we all are heirs to its incredible spiritual wealth. It belongs to each and every one of us regardless of background or level of piety. We all can become millionaires—providing, of course, that we don't thoughtlessly discard it!

When Jews are Targets

June 15, 2009

So Holocaust museums are now targets. Holocaust museums are here to make sure that... Never Again? And Israel was founded that never again shall a Jew need to cower in a pogrom. Tell that to Sderot. The League of Nations made sure that there will never be a war again and yes, we have elected a president to ensure, well, change.

Delusions become dangerous not when we start to believe them but when we stop questioning. Did we really think that the SS were so effective because they had never been to a tolerance center? That if only they would have been clairvoyant that shooting Jews leads to dead Jews they would have never... Is it possible that from the hundreds of millions of Arabs and Muslims virtually none of them could care less if Israel collapsed? Is it possible they would even approve?

Why are we afraid to face the obvious facts? Because the facts hurt too badly. So we hide behind two-state solutions, and pullouts, and dialogue and bridge building — the ultimate silliness. I have never, ever heard of a credible, viable attempt to get the Freedom Riders to dialogue with the KKK's Grand Wizard; no one pooh-poohed Mississippi terror as "the inevitable growth of Confederate statelessness." Why do we insist on sympathy for the Arabs? They deserve better than that.

So do we. The hurt I see in too many eyes; eyes of survivors who saw Berlin in the Thirties—and now that their eyes have dimmed but their minds have not—they see déjà vu. I've seen the pain of kids who naively go off to school and encounter hate—hatred of them—in bastions of learning that their parents pay beaucoup mulla for them to attend. I see the look of soccer moms who realize their kids—their kids!, not there-but the-grace of G‑d go I, but their kids...

It has all happened closer to my family than I could ever wish on my enemies. My heart bleeds for the victims; my blood boils when I see my people suffering and not knowing why. Not knowing what hit them. Not knowing that hatred of the Jew has ebbed and flowed but never abated, that hatred for the Jews has been with us forever. That we have been here forever.

I cannot accept or even fathom this hatred and I have no patience for historian theorists who yak-yak about it. But this I do know that whatever it is that makes them hate us is something good. That the reason for hating us is the reason to love us. We stand for something, whatever that something is.

We are the light unto to the nations. Light illuminates; light disturbs. I know we're the chosen people, kvetched Tevye of Fiddler on the Roof, but can you choose someone else? That line gets a grunt of a laugh, but never a vigorous nod. Here is a dreadfully abridged story to go with it.

In the Old Country on Simchat Torah, in a small synagogue, there was a man who, after the dancing had already gone on for a while, took off his shirt and danced bare-chested with the Torah. His back was scarred with whiplashes; three of his fingers were missing. He was a Cantonist; as a Jewish boy of eleven the Czar had kidnapped and held him, trying to force him into the church. But he survived. And on this night as he danced with the Torah, he sang, "Torah, Torah! This body never left you!"

My father was my fifth grade teacher and he told this story to our class slowly, over several days. And so I weep for all those who are being whipped and don't know that story. They are being shot at and don't know why. For whatever reason it may be, they have not gone to synagogue early on a frosty morning to recite "Ashreinu," how fortunate I am to be a Jew.

I am supposed to exercise every day; my doctor told me. The repetitive discipline will prime my body for when I need it primed. So too my Judaism. And so I'm frustrated that I've never been able to get the guys into synagogue in the good days, when the golf course beckons. And because I failed in that attempt one time too many, too many are feeling the whip and the pistol for the first time (and the second time) and not knowing Ashreinu; not having absorbed the legacy that goes with the story of "Torah, Torah this body never left you." The story of dancing on Simchat Torah.

One evening in the yeshivah some thirty years ago, Rabbi Mentlik was trying to make a point and had no one's attention. Suddenly he burst into tears and said in Yiddish "I don't know how to explain it but it's got to be different." That is all I remember of what he said. That is all I have to offer.

Who Gets Credit for the Rebounding Economy?

Answer: Not the Party that Could've Prevented 9-11!

June 14, 2009

So, it seems that the economy is finally crawling out of this dreadful slump. Thankfully, it appears that those who predicted that this recession would become a depression were overly pessimistic. The upward momentum has been continuing for a while, and its start coincides more or less with President Obama's taking office.

(Disclaimer: I’m aware that many claim that this is only a blip, and the economy is far from real recovery. I’m not an economist, so I have no opinion on the matter—I’m just writing based on the vibes I’m getting from news reports over the past few months. And, of course, I sure hope that we are on the road to recovery!)

Wow! He did it! His stimulus packages, combined with his strong leadership qualities, have steadied the nation's nerves and restored confidence in the markets. Let's punch him in for a second term... now! He is the one our nation has so desperately been waiting for!

"Not so fast..." my conservative friends interrupt my gush-fest. "This has nothing to do with Obama. Government spending does not cause growth. Obama's spending package is filled with pork and will most certainly bankrupt the country in the long term. He's saddling the next ten generations of Americans with unbearable debt!

"And by the way, the economy failed under Bush only because of Clinton's irresponsible policies! And Reagan... look how he revived the economy that Carter destroyed!"

"Hmph," I think. "So perhaps my exuberance about Obama was misguided. Too bad that Dubya couldn't run for a third term..."

But when I mention this to a so-Left-that-he-refuses-to-drive-a-British-car friend, his umbrage is frightening. "Bush is the one who was caught sleeping at the wheel. He did nothing to regulate the sub-prime loan industry that got us into this mess!

"Look at when Clinton was President—those were truly days of prosperity, which, of course, Obama will reintroduce..."

On a similar note, who's to blame for not preventing 9-11? Clinton for not tenaciously pursuing Bin Laden when he was in Sudan? Or Bush for not addressing the Al-Qaeda threat as soon as he assumed office?

Depends on whether you ask an elephant or a donkey, of course...

That's what's so interesting about the American system: the electorate never allows one party to remain in power for long enough to be able to give it indisputable credit or blame for anything.

I think that many of us can find applications of this idea on a personal level, especially in our relationships. How often do we blame others, especially those whom we don't respect, for all ills (including perhaps some we are responsible for...) and take credit for achievements (that just maybe really are attributable to that guy we can't stand...)?

But I think that this idea can also be applied in terms of Judaism, and specifically our endeavor to guarantee the perpetuity of our beautiful heritage.

There's a philosophy that has been in place for more than 3,000 years. This philosophy has ensured that, in spite of all odds, despite those who used hate (and sometimes enticing warmth) to make us disappear, we are still very much here. Miffed sociologists notwithstanding, we've been through it all, and we still read every Shabbat from a scroll that is identical to the one read by our ancestors millennia ago. We still eat the same matzah on Passover, and have the same mezuzah on our doors.

And throughout these millennia, there have been Jews who thought that they could improve upon the system given at Sinai. They tried their hand; they failed. Nothing remains of these groups or their adherents. Whoever identifies him or herself as a Jew today invariably has a parent, grandparent or great-grandparent who followed the "Sinai philosophy."

There comes a time when whether we agree or disagree with a certain view, we have no choice but to accept the fact that it works—while others don't.

So I may not know who gets credit for the resurgent economy, but I sure do know why I, a proud Jew, am here today.

The Invisibly Improving Economy

June 8, 2009

The fox was hungry. On top of one of the trees in the forest sat a group of birds, plump and delicious—but completely out of the fox's reach.

With foxy slyness, the animal struck up a conversation with the fowl: "Have you heard the great news?" he asked with a huge smile. "The Messiah has just come! No longer do you need to fear hitherto dangerous predators like myself—all now live without fear; global harmony prevails! Come on down from your high perch, together let us celebrate this historic moment..."

The naïve birds were about to take the fox up on his offer when suddenly the forest was filled with the sound of barking dogs.

"What's the matter?" asked the birds, noticing the fox's startled and frightened expression.

"Those are hunting dogs," the fox huffed. "They're conducting a fox hunt."

"So, why are you panicking? The Messiah has arrived; surely no one will harm you!"

"True," responded the fox before rushing off, "but the dogs have not yet been notified of this very recent development..."

The economy is slowly recovering. The stock market has modestly rallied. It's back up where it was five months ago, and job losses last month were half what they were just half a year ago. A few months ago, the economic news was black; every report, every indicator, was negative. Now, while newscasters still talk about bankruptcies and national belt-tightening, glimmers of light appear in every broadcast. This sector is doing better, this company is stabilizing, people are starting to buy more of this product, etc.

Nationally, the picture is improving—but go tell that to any of the 345,000 people who lost their jobs in May. They are the proverbial hunting dogs who have not yet heard the good news...

Such is the nature of the beast. It takes time for a national recovery to trickle down to every affected individual. That's why an accurate assessment cannot be made looking through the lens of any one individual, region or sector. To properly assess the situation, one has to look at the larger picture, compare trends, examine consumer confidence indices, etc.

Nearly two decades ago, the Rebbe began proclaiming: "The time of Redemption is upon us. We are the last generation of galut (exile), the generation that will experience the Redemption."

As a nation, this was not the first time that we've heard a tzaddik (righteous person) convey such an assurance. Sadly, however, to this date, none of the prior declarations have actualized, for reasons known to G‑d alone.

But the Rebbe's declarations contained an element that was never heard before. The Rebbe insisted that he wasn't speaking of an event that would transpire, but of an event that was already in the making.

Don't trust me on my word alone, the Rebbe entreated. Look around and see what's happening in the world around us. Open your eyes and you'll see that this era of G‑dliness, unity and harmony that we've awaited for thousands of years—it's happening! The world is slowly becoming a better and holier place.

(For more on this, see The Anti-War Movement, Is the world really getting better? and Technology of the Redemption.)

But, we ask, if the world is getting better, if we are approaching the Messianic Age, why is there still disease? Why is there still war?

Here's where we need to look at the larger picture: How many diseases have been eradicated? How many cures have been discovered for illnesses that a short while ago were considered certain killers? Was there ever a time when so many nations were committed to peace and human rights? Look at the cooperation between so many nations—all for peaceful purposes that benefit all of humanity! Has there ever been a time when G‑dly wisdom – the Torah – has been so readily available to all? When was the last time that nearly 100% of our brothers and sisters lived in lands where they were free to serve G‑d as they wished?

Perhaps the birds in our story were naïve. But if we were to climb up to the top of the tree and take a bird's eye view of our forest, perhaps we would see that the foxes are changing their dietary habits after all.

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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