Views on the News

Let's Storm the Town Hall Meeting!

August 30, 2009

Ladies and gentlemen, though I usually don't utilize this platform to make personal requests, allow me to make an exception. This due to the magnitude of the issue at hand and all that is at stake.

It is our right and duty to make our voices heard. We must let the power-that-is know that we are highly dissatisfied. I ask of you all to go in droves to the local town hall meeting and vent. Scream and rage, beg and demand, and make it abundantly clear that this is not what we signed up for.

Pay no attention to those who say that we must be civil, courteous and reserved; ignore those who maintain that we should let those who are wiser and more experienced make the big decisions.

We've had enough already, and we must make our disgust clear.

Unfortunately we can't all secure private audiences with the decision maker. This is precisely why we have town hall meetings! So that we "commoners" can be heard. Let us not waste this golden opportunity we are being afforded.

No, I'm not referring to the universal healthcare brouhaha, but to something else entirely. Let me explain:

We are currently in the month of Elul, the month of preparation for the upcoming Days of Awe. The mystics teach that during this month G‑d is especially accessible to each of us. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi gave a parable to illustrate this idea:

When the king is ensconced within his palace, it is extremely difficult for the average citizen to secure an audience with him. There are times, however, that the king leaves the capital city and ventures out into the field. While there, every one of his subjects has the opportunity to greet him. The king graciously and radiantly receives every single one of them and grants their requests. All that is needed was the courage to approach the king...

Similarly, Rabbi Schneur Zalman explains, during the month of Elul, you don't have to be a special person to have G‑d's ear. He's there, in the proverbial field, waiting for you to approach and state your business.

In today's mostly non-agrarian society, the king (or president, senator, mayor, etc.) needs to find a venue other than the fields where he can touch base with the average soccer mom or hockey dad. Which, I presume, is how the "town hall meeting" in its current incarnation came to be...

So, if I can be allowed the impertinence of bringing Rabbi Schneur Zalman's parable a bit closer to home, I submit that during this month G‑d is in town hall meeting mode... And even if your campaign donation to His cause (i.e. Torah and mitzvot) was negligible you can make your case.

He won't call security on you, even if you shout; He actually wants to hear what you have to say.

Which leads me back to my original request.

We desperately need reform. A complete overhaul of the system. A universal one. Way too many people are sick, dying, oppressed, impoverished and in all sorts of pain. Way too many swim in an ocean of darkness, desperate for a glimmer of bright G‑dly affection.

Best of all, we know that G‑d can easily pull off this reform—without raising taxes.

So why doesn't He?!

So, if you share this frustration, please let's utilize this opportunity.

Let's make our voices heard.

Tweet 4 Shalit

August 25, 2009
IDF Staff Sergeant Gilad Shalit
IDF Staff Sergeant Gilad Shalit

Dear Reader,

I want to bring to your attention a grassroots campaign to raise awareness about the plight of Gilad Shalit, an IDF soldier cruelly held hostage by Hamas terrorists for more than three years now. The more folks get involved, the more effective we can be in accomplishing the goal of exposing this issue to millions of people who most likely do not know who Gilad Shalit is.

The tactic is simple:

Tomorrow, Wednesday (two days before Gilad's birthday), thousands of Twitter users will sign on and tweet Gilad Shalit's name (using the #GiladShalit hashtag) as often as possible, so that he becomes a top ten "trending topic" on the popular networking site.

If everyone does this all at once in a coordinated fashion, hopefully we can accomplish great things online.

Can we count on you to unify with us in this effort?

Religious Jews Don't Launder Money

August 12, 2009

We in the Orthodox community have been very badly hurt of late. Five rabbis were arrested in New York and New Jersey for allegedly laundering money and another for organ trafficking. The fact that rabbis, who must be held to a higher standard of morality and ethics, have been accused of such crimes is deeply troubling.

Let's start with the "religious" facts. The Talmud explicitly states that that the law of the land is binding upon the Jew (Baba Kama 113a). This means that a Jew has a religious duty to follow the domestic laws of a gentile country. While halachic authorities debate the scope of this precept, all are in agreement that the rule applies to taxes and tariffs (unless blatantly discriminatory).

According to most authorities this rule has biblical backing; one who transgresses it is thus transgressing a biblical command. People who are truly religious don't transgress Biblical commands.

Simply stated, according to Judaism if you don't like the law of the land you live in, you have one of two choices: move to another country or get used to it. Contravening civil law is not an option.

And I know that the overwhelming majority of Torah-observant Jews have great integrity. I've looked up to many of my teachers, prominent rabbis, as the most honest people I have ever met.

If you don't like the law of the land you live in, you have two choices: move to another country or get used to itAs for the rabbis arrested, are they guilty of the crimes they are accused of? I don't know. They certainly are innocent until proven guilty, and I do hope that they will be proven innocent of all charges. Nonetheless, it does seem that a small segment within the Orthodox community seem less than concerned about crime directed against the government.

Which raises the obvious question: Why? Why would a Jew who would never consider eating pork or turning on a light on Shabbat consider swindling the government? After all, the same Torah, the same G‑d, has determined both to be absolutely forbidden.

I believe that the reason for this is historical. Jews living in Eastern Europe prior to and during the 19th century were subjected to tough tax laws. The same is true of many of the native lands of Sephardic Jews.

In Poland, for example, as late as the 1920s, forty percent of all tax revenue was raised from Jews. This despite the fact that Jews only constituted ten percent of the population. At the same time, the Jews were the recipients of less governmental services than their gentile counterparts.

Because of the unfair tax burden imposed upon them by undemocratic governments, as well as the fairly rampant government-sanctioned anti-Semitism, Jews often felt that tax evasion was perfectly ethical and legitimate. To them it was the government that was immoral, not them. As such, yeshivah boys were taught not to eat pork, not to transgress the Shabbat, not to steal from their fellow citizens.... But they were never taught the evils of cheating a (fair) government.

Unfortunately this attitude towards government and taxes has lingered in the minds of some despite the fact that we now have a fair system of government and Jews are not unfairly taxed.

Old habits die hard.

Now clearly none of us is perfect and anyone who ever exceeded the speed limit or illegally double parked has broken the law. This is only human. However, when breaking laws becomes something that is tolerated, that's another story. It's not enough that most people in the Orthodox community have tremendous integrity and would never lie or act dishonestly. We need to expunge the sympathetic attitude that exists towards those who commit white collar crime.

There is no excuse for complacency here; a stand against this type of behavior needs to be takenThese arrests must serve as a wakeup call for us all. The rabbis and teachers are the ones who must lead. There is no excuse for complacency here; a stand against this type of behavior needs to be taken.

Jews who take their religion seriously and truly fear G‑d don't cheat; and when they hear about others who do they are outraged and do all they can to put a stop to it.

I conclude with the following story. While I was a young student studying in Canada, I needed to visit a doctor. A Canadian friend offered to give me his medical card so that the appointment would not cost me money. When I mentioned this to my revered teacher he invited me over to his house. In his living room he severely admonished me. To him using another person's medical card was one of the worst crimes a Jew could commit. He then paid for my doctor's visit from his own money.

The lesson my teacher taught me on that day must be the lesson that all yeshivah teachers impart to their students.

Market Timing

August 11, 2009

With the stock market on an apparent upswing, market timing – the strategy of making buy-or-sell decisions by trying to predict future market price movements – is once again all the rage.

The strategy is simple, a fundamental application of buy low and sell high: never buy before it bottoms out and never sell before the zenith. Time the market, and you'll make a bundle.

Of course, if it was that simple, we'd be billionaires and spend our days reading blogs.

When someone does "get out just before the crash" he writes books and goes on Oprah, only to stumble at the next market correction.

Seasoned and successful investors say it over and over: you have to stay in during the ups and the downs. It's long-term endurance, not short-term speculation, that, with G‑d's blessing (okay, not all seasoned investors use that clause), leads to success.

It's a lot like life. Sometimes we are tempted to "market time" our relationships with our families, communities, or G‑d. We think we can choose the right time to get in, get out when it gets tough, and sit on the sidelines until it's the perfect time to reenter. But as when trying to market time a stock, it's haughty and foolish to presume we know when the right time will be and how the friend or G‑d will react to our sudden entry.

Jewish history is filled with times when it seemed smart to bolt, and, thank G‑d, many times when it was advantageous to dive in. If we try to hit only the highs (including the High Holidays), thinking we can abandon ship during the downtimes and then predict when to re-board, we could find ourselves regretfully looking back on a whole list of woulda, shoulda, couldas. G‑d is eternally welcoming of any participation, but it makes it a lot harder if you have to reintroduce yourself every time.

Whether my child got an "A" or I got another phone call from the principal, I am there. Whether my spouse was kind or grouchy, I am committed. Whether celebrating the miraculous salvation of Purim or mourning the tragic events of Tisha B'Av, we are in.

We've stuck it out for 3,300 years; we have seen the complete gamut of this roller coaster. Hey G‑d, it's time for the payoff: Moshiach!

Why Twitter Went Down

August 10, 2009

Two things happened this past week. Or, to be more accurate, one thing happened, the other didn't. One of them made national headlines, the other, for reasons that aren't clear, didn't. I have a feeling, though, that the events are related. I'd love to hear what you think.

a) Twitter was out of service for much of this past Thursday as it worked to defend itself against a "denial-of-service" attack. Many of Twitter's 45 million legitimate visitors were unable to use the service for hours, while hackers overwhelmed the site by orchestrating the sending of a deluge of junk requests.

At about 10:30 a.m. EST, millions of people worldwide received spam e-mail messages containing links to Twitter. When recipients clicked on the links, the site was overwhelmed with the requests to access its servers.

Interestingly, Google and Facebook were also targeted by these hackers. But they managed to fend off the attacks while sustaining minimal damage. Analysts quoted in The New York Times maintain that this is due to Twitter's relative "immaturity." The more established and older sites were able to distinguish between junk requests and legitimate traffic.

b) That important editorial project that I was supposed to complete three weeks ago, and to which I promised to devote time this past week, got shelved again.

I wasn't wasting my time, honest. Every day, things just came up. I was deluged by perfectly legitimate tasks. I'm pretty sure they all constituted "legitimate traffic." This blog post, for example: Can I really hear such fascinating news about such a major web-related event and not sit down to write up my thoughts?

This week will be different, I think. This week, I will act like a mature website. I will even get started on that Talmud class I planned to start last week. Really.

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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