Views on the News

Perfect Game!

July 28, 2009

Over the last century, tens of thousands of major league baseball games have been played, and yet this past week we witnessed only the 18th "perfect game" in history.

A pitcher for my hometown Chicago White Sox retired all 27 batters in order; no hits, no walks, no errors. So rare and celebrated is this feat that the president (a proclaimed Sox fan) called the pitcher to personally congratulate him.

But this got me thinking: really, what is all the hoopla about?! Was it truly a "perfect" game? There were some poor pitches, some hard hit balls, and he actually needed a great play in the outfield to get through it. So why is it perfect?

The Rebbe once explained to a bar mitzvah boy that baseball is a lot like life. There is a field (your heart) and two teams (the good and evil inclinations) equipped with similar resources. Both teams are each fiercely competitive—and, at every stage in life, there can only be one winner.

Using this analogy, the perfect game takes on additional meaning. For if the pitcher gets one batter out, or even if he pitches a perfect inning, three up and three down, it's not considered a big deal. Fame and glory come when a pitcher succeeds at repeating that simple formula multiple times.

And a perfect game is not devoid of challenge; rather it reflects a consistent pattern of overcoming small battles. Success cannot be savored while the game is in progress, because new challenges immediately appear. The pitcher gets one out and right away the next batter steps in and poses a fresh challenge. This new opponent has been studying the pitcher and knows how he defeated his teammate, and thus he devises a new strategy. The pitcher's past successes don't get him any "credits" towards his next battle. And then fatigue sets in, adding to the challenge...

And you can be sure that the twenty-seventh batter was absolutely intent on spoiling the perfect game. His team's failure to get on base up to that point only served to further motivate him; he conceded nothing to the pitcher.

And so a "perfect" life is so much like a perfect game. Every day is filled with individual battles. Independently, each one seems routine and surmountable—it's the totality of them that so intimidates. But thankfully we're not in it alone. We have friends and support systems that will go all out to help us achieve our goal. And counting on them for help doesn't diminish from our "perfection."

And even when less than perfect in the process – maybe we go 3-0 on a hitter – we can still win the battle.

The key is to address the challenges in bite size pieces, one batter at a time.

So let's just rear back and fire!

Obama's Mom Jeans

July 24, 2009

Some considered it an affront to the presidency. Others were disappointed in the taste displayed by the leader of the free world.

Apparently, nobody failed to notice that this past week, at baseball's 80th all-star game, President Obama threw out the ceremonial first pitch dressed in a White Sox jacket and... a baggy pair of pants—dubbed "mom jeans" by the fashion police. Search engines reported an immediate surge in searches for "obama's mom jeans" and "obama wears mom jeans"—according to a recent search volume report I've seen, 360,000 in Google alone.

(Why this is an issue of concern to Americans at a time when the unemployment rate is the highest it's been in 26 years and fundamentalist nations are developing nuclear weapons is another topic of discussion.)

Obama's response to his critics was quick in coming. "Those jeans are comfortable," explained the Commander-in-Chief, and he was not about to sacrifice his comfort just to be a bit more in vogue.

Let's be honest, fashion also affords a certain measure of comfort. When you're dressed in style, you appear trendy and up-to-date and everyone sees that you have good taste. It feels good to look good. But at times it's just not worth it.

I guess it takes a frumpy pair of pants to remind me that finding grace in the eyes of the fashion police is not always worth the real discomfort it may cause me.

The Code of Jewish Law begins not with Judaism's Thirteen Principles of Faith, but with the following advice: "Don't be intimidated by mockers."

If you allow the laughs and jeers to demoralize you, you'll never have the courage to do that which you know "suits" you best. All the laws that follow in the Code then become kind of irrelevant.

Thank you, Mr. President, for pointing this out.

And, while we're at it, I hope that your administration's policies will echo this refreshing idea.

Sorry Doctors

July 23, 2009

"Whom are you fooling? You are not fooling me, you are not fooling your fellows; you are only fooling yourself. Is it a great feat to fool a fool?"

—Rabbi Shmuel of Lubavitch, fourth Chabad-Lubavitch Rebbe,
to a chassid who exuded less-than-honest pious airs

Yesterday, I was reminded again of this anecdote – yes, I admit that I've already used this saying in a previous blog post... – when reading a fascinating news story about a revolutionary approach adopted by the University of Michigan Health System.

Simply put, they decided to start owning up to their mistakes. The upshot? They're saving lots of time and money.

How's that?

When a treatment goes wrong at a U.S. hospital, fear of a lawsuit usually causes the doctors to clam up and vociferously proclaim their innocence.

A few years ago, officials at U of M changed all that. Health system doctors and officials now regularly meet with patients and their families, sometimes to explain that treatment was appropriate and sometimes to admit a mistake.

Their willingness to admit mistakes goes well beyond decency and has proven a shrewd business strategy, according to a 2009 article in the Journal of Health & Life Sciences Law. Malpractice claims against the health system fell from 121 in 2001 to 61 in 2006. Between 2001 and 2007, the average time to process a claim fell from about 20 months to about eight months, costs per claim were halved, and insurance reserves dropped by two-thirds.

The openness approach is catching on at places from Boston Medical Center to the University of Illinois to California's Stanford University hospital.

"Apologies for medical errors, along with upfront compensation, [reduces] anger of patients and families, which leads to a reduction in medical malpractice lawsuits and associated defense litigation expenses," according to Doug Wojieszak, spokesman for The Sorry Works! Coalition.

So, as it turns out, fooling a fool is more than foolish, it's very costly.

Who ever thought?

Life in a Bleak World--Is There Hope?

July 21, 2009

The world seems to be going through significant turmoil. Islamic fundamentalism has put everyone on edge, from New York to Jakarta and everywhere in between. The financial meltdown has not helped. And as Jews we wonder why the world is yet again ganging up on Israel. If the world's leaders are looking to make a difference, surely issues in North Korea, Iran, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe and Darfur can keep them busy.

Indeed how can we sleep peacefully in our beds at night with such storms brewing outside our front doors?

At the beginning of this week's Torah reading, the Parshah of Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22), Moses makes oblique references to a number of places where the Jewish people had grumbled against G‑d whilst traveling through the desert, thus rebuking the Jewish people for their behavior. While the commentators discuss why Moses did not openly refer to the incidents, perhaps the bigger question is why the Jews rebelled in the first place. Surely the generation that saw the Ten Plagues, the Splitting of the Sea and the Giving of the Torah should have been a bit stronger in their belief in G‑d!

It is instructive that many of the occasions that Moses refers to were connected to concerns over their food supply: a lack of water, discontent over the manna and a desire to eat meat. Apparently, the Jewish people didn't suffer so much from a lack of belief as much as from a lack of trust. It was unquestionable to them that G‑d could sustain them in the desert had He wished, their issue was whether He would.

Approximately one thousand years ago Rabbeinu Bachaya ibn Pakuda wrote a fundamental book on faith called Chovot Halevavot. On the issue of trust in G‑d he defines seven conditions that are necessary for a person to have complete trust in another: Knowledge that the one you trust in (1) loves and cares for you, and that he or she (2) is devoted to your needs and (3) is aware of your needs—factors that can be commonly found in good friends or family members.

Rabbeinu Bachaya continues, however, that to engender complete trust, the one in whom you trust must also be (4) fully capable of fulfilling your needs, (5) consistently have taken care of your needs in the past and will continue to do so as long as you live, be (6) the only one with the ability to help or harm you, and (7) his generosity must be non-dependent of your deserving.

While some of these later conditions may be found in family, friends or even government some of the time, they will only be found consistently in G‑d.

King David writes in the Book of Psalms: "Throw your burden unto G‑d." While we must do all we can in practical terms, King Solomon reminds us in Proverbs that "the hearts of kings and ministers are in the hand of G‑d."

It's not enough to believe that He could protect us from all the madness surrounding us, we must trust that He will.

"Think good and it will be good," the chassidic masters tell us. This is more than the power of positive thinking; it is the belief that through – and because of – our trust in G‑d, He will shower us with an abundance of blessing, health, wealth and prosperity.

The same message applies to those who maintain that "If Netanyahu keeps antagonizing America, Israel will be doomed," "Israel cannot survive without America's support," or any number of similar statements that are oft-heard comments these days.

These statements are incorrect. Yes, we strive to maintain friendly relations with all—when doing so doesn't pose a risk to our own security. Yes, we do our best to stabilize our world and make it a more safe, secure and economically sound place to live in. And we appoint the leaders who we believe will do the best jobs in these areas.

But we don't put our trust in anyone other than G‑d.

A Heartwarming Story

July 20, 2009

There are two kinds of chassidic stories.

There is the supernatural sort, stories about great chassidic masters who manipulated nature at will. Foreseeing events well into the future, curing the incurable, traveling great distances in the blink of an eye, etc. These stories teach us that there are individuals so in tune with the G‑dly essence of creation that they stand above it all.

Then there are stories about the simple folk. When I say simple, I'm talking relative to the great protagonists of the first type of story. Stories about people who helped others despite the tremendous personal cost or risk involved, people who demonstrated unflinching trust in G‑d in moments of intense travail, people who stuck to their principles despite tremendous temptations.

Personally, the latter genre of stories always spoke to me much louder than the former. After all, I'm pretty certain that I'll never reach the level of the Baal Shem Tov; I doubt that I'll ever hold influence over the forces of nature or that I'll ever be clairvoyant. But when I hear of an individual who faced pretty much the same kind of internal landscape and struggles as I do, and emerged successful... suddenly I look at myself and say, "So, Naftali, can't you do the same?"

Yes, I know that the books tell me that I can. But when I see or hear about someone who actually has, it all becomes so much more real to me. The books suddenly come to life.

This past week I came upon a news story that got me thinking in this direction:

A Massachusetts philanthropist is using five million dollars of his own money to restore the retirement savings of his employees who lost their nest eggs to Bernard Madoff.

Robert I. Lappin began restoring the funds to sixty employees of his company, and to his private charity, The Robert I. Lappin Charitable Foundation—a nonprofit that supports Jewish education and culture on the North Shore of Massachusetts. The employees' 401(k) plans, as well as the foundation's money and some of Lappin's personal wealth, were managed by Madoff.

What I find most amazing about this story is that Lappin's net worth is now less than ten million dollars, a tenth of what it was before the scandal. Nevertheless, instead of bemoaning his immense personal losses – some ninety million dollars! – he's focusing on helping others.

We currently find ourselves in the Three Weeks, a time of mourning for the destruction of the Holy Temples. Our Sages tell us that the second Temple was destroyed because of wanton hatred; the Jews at the time simply couldn't get along with each other. It is now nearly 2,000 years later and we are still in Exile; the Temple has yet to be rebuilt. All this because we have not yet rectified the original reason for the exile; we still have to improve in the area of Ahavat Yisrael, love for our fellow Jews.

I've always known that I should and could improve in this area. But this past week, the concept came alive for me.

Mr. Lappin, aside for the help you have given your employees and those who benefit from your worthy foundation, you're also serving as a beacon of light to so many others who have heard of your incredible deed. Myself included.

May G‑d amply reward you.

Retaining Gravity on the Moon's Surface

July 17, 2009
Photo: NASA
Photo: NASA

Wednesday morning, July 16, 1969, is a day many remember fondly.

At precisely 9:32am EDT, an enormous fiery cloud formed beneath Apollo 11, as NASA's Chief of Public Information Jack King proudly articulated the final countdown: "6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 0, all engines running, liftoff! We have a liftoff!"

The roaring sound of the liftoff overwhelmed the screams of a million spectators. Many cried and many prayed, all hoping for the success of the first ever manned mission to land on the moon.

Millions more worldwide watched in awe as the lunar module raced through space. People held their breath at what was seen as the almost impossible mission. Tensions were high, with the lunar landing viewed by many as a tight space-race between Communist Russia and the free world.

Could the heavens be reached so easily? Was it overextending human bounds? Could G‑d allow this?Many religious people felt disoriented. This latest scientific achievement befuddled them. Reaching the moon was in some way a breach in their security blanket. Could the heavens be reached so easily? Was it overextending human bounds? Could G‑d allow this? Was it possible?

Jewish leaders scrambled for explanations. Stunned by the unfolding events, some rabbis suggested that ideological changes were necessary to suit the current events; while others simply denied that reaching the moon was possible.

Shabbat afternoon, July 19th, while Apollo 11 was still making its historic voyage to the moon, the Rebbe convened a special gathering, due in part, he said, to discuss the ever popular events of the previous week.

The Rebbe's tone was almost surprised, "In this past week people are going around completely confused regarding the voyage to the moon," he said, but why would this cause Jews to lose balance? There was nothing to be apprehensive about, no reason to feel intimidated.

In fact, almost a decade earlier in 1962, shortly after President John F. Kennedy's speech given before a joint session of Congress expressing his goal of reaching the moon by the end of the 1960s, the Rebbe clearly agreed that landing on the moon was foreseeable.

In an article entitled "With which other Chasidic Rebbe could you possibly discuss landing on the moon?" the well known Israeli journalist Shlomo Nakdimon penned a conversation he had with the Rebbe.

"Will man ever be able to reach the moon?" asked Nakdimon.

"It's surely possible" replied the Rebbe.

"What will they find?" asked Nakdimon.

"What they will find, is something we will find out when they reach the moon...."

"How does Torah view these types of experiments?" Nakdimon pressed on.

"The discovery of the atom, its particles and laws are more crucial in the Jewish view than the 'conquest' of space," said the Rebbe.

"The conquest of space is the advancement of science and technology, while the discovery of atoms corrodes the very foundations of science. Until now, science was perceived as a stable entity while Torah was no more than belief. Now, we see that all the assumptions of science and technology are not unequivocal truths. And this happened with the discovery of the atom.

"The discovery of the atom is more crucial in the Jewish view than the conquest of space...""Thus, all of science's questions on Torah are reduced, since science truly needs to be reevaluated.

"We shall see that with every advance in understanding the relation of atoms to each other, there will be greater need to reevaluate science as we know it today," the Rebbe predicted.

"And Torah doesn't withhold or prohibit exploring space?" Nakdimon persisted.

"Torah has no opposition to continued research," replied the Rebbe.

Almost a decade later, what had began as a dream had become a reality. Neil Armstrong, Michel Collins and Edwin Eugene Alderin traveled 380,000 kilometers to reach the moon's surface.

While the world was mesmerized, the Rebbe seemed complacent. Sure, there was what to learn from every event that occurs, and this event too was not different. "In fact," said the Rebbe in the Shabbat talk, "the only justification and possible logic for this bewilderment was to bring the attention of man to ponder and understand important messages this flight contained."

One rabbi had actually proposed a change in the wording of the "Blessing on the Moon" liturgy, which includes a Talmudic-era passage: "Just as I leap towards you [i.e. the moon] but cannot touch you, so may my enemies be unable to touch me harmfully." Now that man had made his footprint on the moon's pumice-like surface, wasn't this passage "outdated"? The Rebbe negated this view, explaining that the passage was simply saying that a person jumping up from the earth, from where he is reciting the blessing, cannot touch the moon—not that the moon was in essence unreachable.

Scientific findings would not and could not shake our Torah's foundations. Not because we need to deny the advancements of science, but because these are in truth no contradiction to the truth we hold from the days of Moses.

"Even questions as to whether there is life on other planets has been addressed two thousand years ago in the Talmud," said the Rebbe.

But lessons were certainly to be learned, so the Rebbe touched upon three areas of interest.

The first lesson was of the amazing team work needed for the spacecraft to achieve success. "Every individual is responsible for the other," gleaned the Rebbe. Indeed Neil Armstrong once commented on the pressures of getting the job done as best as possible given the fact that the flight to the moon "was a culmination of the work of 300,000 or 400,000 people over a decade."

The second point was how every detail counted. In the cockpit alone hitting the wrong switch of which there were almost 400, if you included plungers, ratchets, handle and knobs, could be disastrous.

The Rebbe preceded Armstrong by one day with his version of "one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind."The third and final point was how the finite man could invent something so much larger than himself: "A small finite man created the giant, almost infinite device." The Rebbe preceded Armstrong by just one day with his version of "one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind."

But more important than making these instruments, said the Rebbe, was realizing that they were not to play-up the person's ego, rather they were made possible so that man could come to admire G‑d's fascinating creations. To their credit, the astronauts did exactly that. "On their way up they quoted verses from Psalms that discuss mesmerizing on the greatness of G‑d as seen through His awesome creations," said the Rebbe.

After 102 hours 45 minutes and 40 seconds of flight, on the evening of July 20 at 10:56pm EDT, Armstrong made his descent to the moon's surface. The iconic photo of Armstrong's silicone boot imprint serves as an everlasting testimony to the historic voyage.

So sometime in the future when astronauts reach Mars or maybe even other galaxies, we will surely have lessons to learn as well—with one caveat: "there is nothing new under the sun."

See also The Astronaut

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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