Friday, December 29, 2006

What Goes Around

This Table Talk is dedicated to the refuah sheleima (healing) of Rachel bat Miriam.

+ + The Story + +

Last night Rav Frand told an uplifting Holocaust story.

The story came to him via email, from a Dr. Zacharowitz in New York. The story is about the Dr. Zacharowitz’s wife’s grandfather, who was a rabbi in Poland named Yosef Lichter. Rabbi Lichter and his sons survived the war by disguising themselves as Polish peasants. In all those years of Nazi occupation, they were never captured. There were many factors that enabled their survival, but the rabbi used to cite the tradition that the mitzvah of sanctifying the new moon each month gives a person karmic “merit” and protection. So he was extremely diligent about performing this mitzvah. Throughout the war, regardless of the apparent danger, he went outside when the moon was waxing in order to make the bracha.

When the Nazis were defeated, the Russian occupation began. Now, in those days (it seems like ancient history) the Russians were Communists. For them it was like a religion. In fact, part of the communist religion is to make fun of other religions like Judaism which they considered stupid. If you were not a card-carrying communist, then you were suspicious. It is interesting that from the early days of communism, many Jewish people believed in that religion.

Well, when the Russian occupation began, they imposed a strict curfew, dusk to dawn. Anyone who was found outside after dark would be arrested. You can guess where this is going.

When the new moon came, Rabbi Lichter stuck to his beliefs and went outside to sanctify the moon. He was seen and he was arrested. The police took him to an underground interrogation room where he found himself in front of a Polish communist judge. The judge told him:

“You have been accused of violating the curfew. How do you plead, guilty or not guilty?”
“Not guilty, your honor.”
“How can you plead not guilty when these good policemen found you outside your home after dark.”
“Your honor, I’m a Jew, and we have an ancient custom of sanctifying the moon every month. It is my religious duty, and I was fulfilling it as I have my entire life.”

Now, how do you think a card-carrying communist would react to this Jew telling him he broke the law for his ancient religion?

He asked the police officers to step outside, and when they had closed the door, he smiled at the rabbi and started speaking to him in Yiddish. He said, “Rabbi, do you remember when you were about fifteen years old and walking home from school one day and stopped some boys from beating up a smaller boy named Chaim? That’s me! I’m Chaim! I don’t believe in that religious stuff but I’ll never forget how you stuck up for me.”

He called the guards back in and told them, “This is a good communist man, please escort him home and make sure he arrives safely.”

Kindness is the most important thing we can cultivate and teach. When you have a guest in your home or your city, make sure they get home safely. Walk them at least halfway to their car, make sure they have everything they need to get home safely.

Not only is it good for others, it will come back to help you one day when you need it. And it will take you by surprise.

+ + Advanced philosophical food for thought + +

The first chapter of Pirkei Avos (the Talmudic book of ethics) states:

The world stands on three things: on Torah study, on meditative practice, and on acts of kindness.

Rabbi Yonah (13th C Spain) explains:

In anticipation of humanity’s future performance of three activities – Torah study, meditative practice, and acts of kindness – God determined to create the universe.

OK, so those three things are pretty important. How do you make sure you’re doing your part to keep the world on its feet?

Torah study is pretty straightforward. Meditative practice I wrote about a few months ago here. What about acts of kindness? Obviously, any act of kindness is important, but Maimonides (12th C) asks us to put extra energy into four:

The Torah mitzvah to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) teaches us to behave toward other people in the same manner in which we would like them to behave toward us. The Sages established certain acts of chesed (kindness) as standards of fulfilling this mitzvah. These acts are: visiting the sick, comforting mourners, burying the dead, and escorting guests.

Shabbat Shalom.

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Friday, December 22, 2006

Chinese Food on Xmas

I’m happy to announce that my non-profit organization – JSL – is today completing our first week in our first office space outside my home. I’ve hired staff for the first time in order to try to scale my work to many more people. Thank you to all those who have made contributions to help us in achieving our mission. We continue to send out books and to teach around the country, and is almost live.... The added financial burden has been manageable thanks to your support. Most of all, thank you for reading the Table Talk and sharing it with others. Like Time Magazine, I solute you.

This week’s edition is dedicated to the loving memory of Bert Walker, whose Yartzeit falls this week.

Incidentally, Bert’s grandson recently sent me an email:

Hey Rabbi,

This is me playing a song I wrote back in college.

Chinese Food on Christmas


Now if you are a regular Table Talk reader you know that I occasionally send video links. Some people confess that they don’t take the time to view the videos. That’s unfortunate because I’m sending you only the best of the best. Certainly true in this case. This is the #2 “Talked-About” music video right now and for good reason. It also tops the charts in other categories, such as “most viewed”.

So watch it, learn it, and sing it at your dinner table. Here are the lyrics:

Santa doesn’t come down my chimney
Or leave presents under my tree
He’s made his list and he’s checkin it twice
But nowhere on there is me.

It’s not that I’ve been naughty
I’m a real good kid, I swear...
There’s just something you should know about me
Something I’d like to share...

I eat Chinese food on Christmas
Go to the movie theater too
There just ain’t much else to do on Christmas
When you’re a Jew

When you’re out with the family
Getting ready for the Big Day
I’m at home playing dreidel
And eating latkes that Bubbe made

No, I’m not “dreaming of a white Christmas”
It’s not that I don’t like snow (I love snow)
It’s just that if we were all snowed in on Christmas
I’d have no place to go....


© Copyright Brandon Walker, all rights reserved.

It’s a fun song, catchy tune. But who would have thought that it would rise to #2 on youtube?. With over 360,000 viewers?

If you go to the youtube link you will see that there are also over 2,000 written comments (some people even created video comments). While most are favorable, it shocked me how many anti-Semites came out of the woodwork. (Ahh, the power of the internet....)

After you get everyone at the table singing, a few questions:

1. Does this song describe anyone you know?
2. Xmas is an official American holiday – good or bad for the Jews?

+ + +

What’s the connection to Hannuka?

It’s all about how you answer Q1 and Q2.

Hannukah is not anti-Xmas per se. The meditation of Hannuka is to recognize that for a Jew, the day-off on Dec 25 is value neutral. Extra time is like any material gift, be it an iPod or even your body... Is it for increased self-indulgence and self-gratification, or for more wisdom and kindness?

(That said, it sure is fun to hit those slopes when there are no lines...!)

It all depends on what you fill it with and what you do with it.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Hannukah.

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Friday, December 15, 2006

Tis the Season

Dedicated to the memory of my grandmother Yehudis bas Alexander Ziskin, who always lit her Hannukia in the window and whose 95th birthday would have been this week.

With that dedication, I suppose I ought to write about Hannuka....

Links to my Hannuka class in San Francisco this week:

Part1 – intro (10 min)
Part2 - (51 min)

Part3 – the deeper stuff (30 min)

2005 class (1:45)

5 questions to stump your table:

Q1: Which parts of Hannuka are the actual mitzvah, and which parts are custom?
The only mitzvah is to light one light per person per night. All additional lights are bonus-points. But if a person has only enough candles to light one per night, he has done the mitzvah. The rest of the things that people do is commentary.

Q2: Why one per person? What’s the connection between the light and a person?
It says in Proverbs 20:29 “The lamp of God is the soul of a person”. Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer of Vilnius (the Vilna Gaon) explains that the soul – neshama – has the same root letters as oil – shemen. Just like oil is contained in the wick and rises up, the soul is contained in the body and rises. The flame of the candle is like the light that a person brings into the world when learning Torah or doing a mitzvah. This model gives you the essence of Hannukah; the rest is commentary.

Q3: What’s the best way to “do” Hannuka?
If you want to use the holiday for spiritual growth, the main thing is to light the candle(s) and use them for meditation or conversation for a half-hour or so. Forestall the presents till later. Stop running around, cooking etc for that half-hour and find a way to get yourself and anyone with you involved in the moment and to think about how your learning Torah (a little more or a little better) and doing mitzvahs (a little more or a little better) makes you a brighter light in the darkness of these times.

Q4: What language must a Torah scroll be written in?
Everyone thinks that the answer is Hebrew. According to the Talmud, a Torah scroll would be kosher if written in Hebrew or Greek. It appears that the latter refers to transliteration – i.e., Greek letters spelling Hebrew words. In other words, Judaism holds dear – even holy – the aesthetics of Hellenism, as long as the content is sufficiently holy by Jewish standards. Greeks exposed unwanted babies, Jews upheld the sanctity of life. We embrace the greatness of the arts and sciences as long as we can maintain our ethical framework.

Q5: How are you supposed to spell (C)han(n)uk(k)a(h) anyway?
Your guess is as good as mine.

The rest – the latkes, doughnuts, dreidel and all that – is, as we say, commentary....

Hanukah sameach!
...and Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Thicker Than Water?

This week’s Table Talk is dedicated by Todd and Calla Samuels to the loving memory of Todd’s father Avraham ben Leib, whose 19th Yarzeit is observed this week. Avraham ben Leib was a remarkable person who never got angry or upset, with one exception: when his family’s safety was threatened.

OK, imagine you suddenly find yourself in downtown Tehran.

You hear a clamor and turn a corner, and happen upon a small anti-Israel rally marching towards you, a few hundred thousand people shouting, “God is great! Death to the Jews!”

You’re thinking, “Hmm...maybe I’d better try a different street.”

You turn around and pick up the pace. Faster and faster. But the din is getting louder and louder. There’s an alley – a short cut!

Suddenly you’re in the alley but it’s nighttime and you find yourself surrounded by a crowd of menacing youth wearing loose-fitting clothing and wielding knives....One of them is reaching out to grab you....

How do you feel?

Now...just as the menacing teenager reaches out to grab your arm, you notice that he and his friends are all wearing yarmulkes! The leader is looking into your eyes and saying to his friends, “It’s OK guys, its one of our own.”

Now how do you feel?

+ + +

What is it about family? Why do we do things for family members that we wouldn’t do for someone else? Why can people wipe their own kid’s nose with a smile but find someone else’s kid’s nose repulsive?

Human nature? Genetic survival technique?

Jewishly-speaking, this truism of human nature applies to adults in an interesting way.

There is a mitzvah of returning a lost object to its owner: You find a wallet or watch or anything of value that has identifiable marks on it (as opposed to, for instance, finding lost money), you have to return it to its owner.

However, ask the rabbis (try asking this at your table): granted that if someone’s property inadvertently comes into your possession, you have to return it. But what if you see someone’s wallet lying across the street: are you ethically required to go out of your way to pick it up and find the owner? What if you’re in a hurry?

The Jewish answer is: in general you’re not required to go out of your way to retrieve a stranger’s wallet in order to return it. But if it belongs to a fellow tribesman, you are indeed required to.

Think about it: If it were your mother’s wallet, would you hesitate to go out of your way? (some people better think before they answer that!)

But we don’t always treat non-family members with that kind of effort. In fact, our tendency is not to treat people outside our family with the same concern, and the Torah is telling us that we need to do so, even if the other person is a total stranger.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Nathan's Gift

Dedicated to Natan ben Yosef Weinberg, by his loving family in his memory.

Here’s a question for your table: Would you like to know when you are going to die?

The Talmud says that certain righteous people die on the day of the week that they were born. King David, for example, was born and died on Shabbat.

This does not mean that you can judge someone by the calendar. What it means is much more interesting.

A day represents spiritual orientation. “The day you were born” refers to your spiritual potential when you were born. “The day you will die” refers to your spiritual orientation at the end of your life.

So the claim that “a righteous person dies on the day that he was born” means that a righteous person lives up to his or her fullest spiritual potential.

For example - let’s say that Monday represents money.

And let’s say that there is a person named Nathan who was “born on Monday”. This means that Nathan is a person with the potential to do great things with money (Monday=money-day – I’m making this up). If he lives a life of giving 10 percent of his income to charity, then at the end of his life, Nathan might be said to have “died on Monday”. However, if Nathan lives a life of greed and stinginess, he will not be said to have “died on Monday” - he will not have lived up to his spiritual potential.

Even though I made up that example, each day of the week actually does represent a spiritual potential.

What energy does Shabbat/Shabbos represent?

The answer is kedusha.

What’s kedusha?

Some people translate it as holiness. (OK, so what’s holiness?)

Kedusha/holiness is a sense of separation or special designation. Marriage is called keddushin because the couple are separating themselves from other potential mates. We make kiddush on Shabbat and holidays in order to separate them in our minds from the other days of the week. It’s all about the meditative experience.

Jewish People are described as a “holy people” and we cultivate kedusha by being extra mindful in five areas:

+ Thought
+ Speech
+ Action
+ Space
+ Time

How we talk, how we treat others, how we eat ... In many ways we have the potential for kedusha every day.

But in order to cultivate kedusha of time, that is to sanctify time, Jewish tradition gives us something called holy-time. That’s Shabbat.

Try this at your Shabbat table:

“God grant me the capacity to let go of the business, the busy-ness
of the world. To accept my life as a gift. To create the tenderness
and understanding that allows my family to be close and loving. To
enjoy the light and warmth and not be afraid of the darkness. To
cherish those who love me. To settle into peace with joy. To emerge
from Shabbat refreshed and rededicated to making the world a better

We don’t know who wrote those beautiful words. We do know that they were said every Friday night for many years at the Shabbat table by Nathan Weinberg of Baltimore, who passed away last Shabbat. Many people who knew him as a hard-working, family-oriented WWII vet; his grandson Ben remembers his grandfather admonishing him to eat a healthy breakfast in order to live a full, energized day. But we learned something new about him at the funeral, that the younger generation may be just starting to appreciate: that he had this enlightened orientation toward the kedusha of Shabbat.

Every day of the week is associated with a special energy, and the energy of Shabbat is kedusha. So someone who “dies on Shabbat” is someone who reached his potential for holiness.

In Nathan’s memory, I invite you to print out his meditative prayer to use tonight - become a disciple of the seventh day, the day of kedusha. Maybe that was his ultimate gift to us (Natan means “he gave”), for we each have the potential to bring a unique wavelength of kedusha into the world and our trouble is we get distracted. That’s actually the entire point.

Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Is it Jewish?

Is Thanksgiving Jewish?

That's the question that millions of Jewish Americans have been asking themselves this week as they go through the rituals of the turkey offering, cranberry sauce libations and football exegesis.

Or not.

In case you're more practical, and would prefer a discussion of "something that matters" instead of trivia, try this historical question:

If you were one of the fist Europeans to visit America and you saw this strange, chicken-like bird for the first time, what would you call it?

Since you think you're in India, you would probably call it an "Indian chcken."

Are you with me so far?

So French explorers dubbed this new bird "poulet d'Inde" (Indian chicken) later shortened to "dinde".

English settlers and Continentals called the bird "turkey" because it looked like another type of fowl that was imported from Turkey.

Jewish explorers (in a remarkable agreement with the French) called it tarnegol hodu which means "Indian chicken" and was later shortened it to simply hodu (as in Hindu).

What's interesting for us is that the Hebrew word HODU also happens to mean "give thanks."

Similarly, we ourselves are called "Jews" because most of us (aside from the Cohen and Levi clans) descend from the remnant of the 12 Tribes who survived the repeated pounding from Assyria and Babylon 2,500 years ago. The one remaining landed tribe was Yehuda or Judah. And that name - Judah - means "thankful".

Wait a second (I know you're thinking this)... Did you say "Jewish explorers"??

I did.

In fact - and this is a juicy one for your table - when Columbus famously came to the New World, who among his crew was the very first to spot land? Obviously, it must have been the man working in the upper mast on the front ship, right? And we know who this was: Roderigo De Triana, a Jewish sailor.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Stop the Frenzy

Dedicated to the memory of Yehudis bas Alexander Ziskind, who enjoyed life to its fullest but also knew how to take a break.

A riot last night in Palmdale, California.
Pandemonium yesterday on the streets of Boston.
Hundreds of people camping out for days outside toy stores to be the first on the block to own a new $500 video game machine.

You missed out? Couldn’t find your tent?

That’s OK, you can still get one of these stocking-stuffers. Some of those campers were entrepreneurs who are reselling their machines on ebay. I personally saw markups of $7-10,000 (see photo below), and at least one machine resold for $31,000. (It makes you wonder why Sony decided to sell them at a $300 loss....)

When a person has a craving, it seems, he will do almost anything to satisfy it.

Question for your table: What is the solution to this madness?

There is a Jewish antidote to this human condition. You’ve heard of it, it’s called Shabbat or Shabbos.

If you ask at your table if anyone knows what Shabbat means, I'll bet that most people will say “day of rest.”

That’s sort-of right.....

The Hebrew word Shabbat actually means STOP (or “day of stopping”).

That is, in order to combat the material frenzy of this world we live in, once a week just....stop.

Stop running around.

Stop jumping up every time the phone rings.

Stop checking your email every ten minutes.

The pace of life can be so frenetic that we feel guilty taking a break. So I hereby give you permission to....stop!

Here’s how to do it. Ask yourself and everyone at your table: what’s one thing that you could stop doing for 24 hours that would take your mind away from the weekly rat race?

A businessman recently wrote me that he has stopped reading the financial section on Saturday morning. It works for him. For one day, he stops thinking about earning money. He has in fact liberated himself from a certain kind of slavery.

So ask yourself and your table, what’s one thing that you do all week that you would like to liberate yourself from? (Please let me know what you come up with.) Then give yourself and each other permission to stop doing that activity for 24 hours, sunset Friday until sunset Saturday.

Shalom means peace. Shabbat Shalom means the peace of mind you get when you stop.

Shabbat Shalom

Friday, November 10, 2006

November Fireworks

Dedicated to the memory of Morris (Moshe) Sisgold, who learned how to live a harmonious life.

Question 1: What’s the difference between compassion and kindness?

After you’ve thought about that, please indulge me to share a recent awe.

On our street, something truly amazing began last week. Tree after tree are shedding their green clothing and showing their true colors.

I return from the sunrise meditation session when the sun is still low in the sky. As I drive down our street, that warm, happy light has lately been directly behind me, creating the impression that these autumn trees in front of me are bursting fireworks of red, orange and yellow. The visual experience is unexpectedly thrilling – I’m like a child watching a fourth-of-July display. It’s even better, because these fireworks don’t dissipate after five seconds. It’s a super-slow-motion event.

Even better, after the show is over, we don’t have to go to bed! Instead, the experience continues on the tactile, olfactory and audio levels. We rake and jump in piles of leaves. We smell that faint and not yet unpleasant aroma of decay. We tread on dried leaves with an ever-so-pleasing crunch (it sells breakfast cereal and it sells a weekend walk). And there is the moral pleasure of composting the leaves to use for next year's garden. Wow! The only thing that can beat that is raking your elderly neighbor's leaves, unasked.

And the sun sets so early...!

Which means that Friday night begins early, and we can now plan for a long, drawn-out dinner with more courses and more story-telling.

Question 2: Which trait is more important, kindness or discipline?

(If there are kids at your table, ask them: What’s more important – following rules or helping others?)

In Jewish thought, it’s a little bit like asking what’s the more important part of a car, the engine or the chassis.

In this analogy, the rules are the chassis and the kindness is the engine. The rules give necessary structure and the kindness gives you power.

There is a story in the Talmud of Rabbi Akiva’s daughter. Her father had been told by an astrologer that she would die on her wedding day. Although we’re not supposed to pay attention to astrologers, he couldn’t forget such a terrible forecast.

On her wedding day, at the banquet, she absent-mindedly removed a hair-pin and stretched to stick it into the wall behind her. In so doing, she accidentally killed a viper about to strike.

When her father saw what had happened he asked her to recount every detail of her activities for the past few hours. It turns out that when she had entered the wedding hall she had noticed a homeless person sleeping in a doorway. While everyone else was eating, she had taken her plate of food and brought it outside to this man. Immediately afterwards she killed the snake.

Moral of the story: Kindness can save you from premature death.

November can be a cold month, and a month of anxiety. I know a lot of people are relieved and some even elated at the changes in government. But when a country is so divided, election week is depressing for about half of us. It's like watching a fireworks display when you're depressed. It becomes heart-wrenching rather than uplifting. I wonder if anyone who is uplifted with Tuesday’s shakeup ever paused to sympathize with those who lost. That kind of compassion is necessary if we desire to walk a path of unity.

Compassion leads you to say nice things from the heart. Kindness means doing something about it.

- - -

So kindness seems more important than discipline...? Actually, the discipline is built into the story. It limits the kindness.

For instance, we are not supposed to cause needless suffering even to an animal. But if you see a scorpion – step on it! Those who are kind to the cruel often wind up being cruel to the kind. Kindness has limits.

This philosophy helps explain one issue that seems to perplex many modern Jews who have cultivated kindness par excellence:

How do we justify initiating a little boy at eight days with an act of painful surgery? Wouldn’t it be more reasonable to let him grow up uncut so that he can decide on his own as an adult whether or not to give up his mila (foreskin)?

There are numerous Jewish reasons and benefits for circumcision (by the way, none of them are medical; however, here is a newly discovered medical benefit).

From a Jewish perspective, one of the benefits of circumcision (although not the primary reason) is that it starts a boy’s life in the framework of rules: “No, life is not about mere self-expression and self-gratification.” Well-adjusted adults had the right balance as children of Children who have rules and structure on the one hand and kindness on the other. Too much of one or the other fuels the therapy industry. Sometimes a husband and wife can balance each other in this area, but ultimately each one of us should develop our own internal balance that is independent of other people. That balancing is called tikkun nefesh - fixing the soul, and is the ultimate purpose of all Jewish practice, without exception.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Headline Brews

This Table Talk is sponsored by a generous donation from Dr. Robert Kane in honor of Nellie and Joseph Blackman.

Any idea what the word “Hebrew” means?

It’s actually a secret. But it shouldn’t be.

To explain, I would like to ask you a different question: What’s wrong with the following picture?

Yesterday’s BBC website featured the following two headlines juxtaposed:

'Only 50 years left' for sea-fish
There will be virtually nothing left to fish from the seas by the middle of the century if current trends continue, according to a major scientific study.
"The way we use the oceans is that we hope and assume there will always be another species to exploit after we've completely gone through the last one," said research leader Boris Worm, from Dalhousie University in Canada.
Steve Palumbi, from Stanford University in California, one of the other scientists on the project, added: "Unless we fundamentally change the way we manage all the ocean species together, as working ecosystems, then this century is the last century of wild seafood."

Pollock work 'earns record price'
A work by Jackson Pollock has become the most expensive painting sold, at a price of about $140,000,000, according to the New York Times. (Here’s the link to the original NYT article.)

Here's a photo of the most expensive painting in history:

That’s a lot of spare change.

Enough money to put 400,000 Tutsi children refugees through 18 years of school. (The Congolese I met in 1993 told me that they can typically afford to send one child to school at a time, and the average family had four or five children.)

Does this Malthusian picture of fiddling while the world is being destroyed bother you?

It doesn’t bother me.

Yes, of course we all care about the oceans yada yada yada. Let’s elect some people next week who will do something about it.

But if someone wants to spend a fortune on a painting, that’s his business. I’m not judging that. Au contraire, maybe the seller will use the cash to do some good. It could turn out to be a very positive transfer of assets.

What is disturbing is the next paragraph of the latter article:

The experts spoke on condition of anonymity, saying they did not want to be perceived as betraying the confidence of the seller or the buyer of the Pollock, “No. 5, 1948,” or jeopardize future business.

Um, what was that again? The experts wanted to betray the confidence of the buyer and seller without being perceived as betraying the confidence of buyer and seller? And the reporter aided and abetted this betrayal without compunction.

Maybe I’m making a mountain out of a molehill. Am I the only one bothered by this public betrayal? In case you missed it, what the article is saying is that the “art experts” violated the confidence of the buyer and seller of this painting, but they didn’t want the Times to print their names so as not to sully their own reputations. Never mind their clients’ reputations and privacy.

To their credit, our media have good intentions. Today’s Ted Haggard sex-scandal was initially treated with caution. But that’s because the rules of journalism don’t let you report a scandal based on one man’s testimony, especially so close to an election. The problem is that there are no rules against betrayal of confidence.

If this casual disregard for ethics doesn’t outrage you, what does?

You can ask your table: Does something outrage you but you feel too outnumbered to do anything about it? “Can’t fight City Hall” syndrome?

If so, it’s time to be a Hebrew. “Hebrew” comes from “Ivri” which means “one who is willing to cross over to the other side of the line and oppose the entire world on an ethical point”.

Easy for me to say? Maybe you can find a way to teach that definition to everyone at your table, and get them to figure out how to become better Hebrews. Then please let me know, and I’ll share your wisdom with others.

Are you scratching your proverbial head thinking, “I don’t see the outrage here”? Then what does outrage you?

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, October 27, 2006

To Be or Not To Be

There are many ask-the-rabbi sites. I volunteer for one, and about half of the questions I receive come from non-Jews.

Of these, about half sound like they want to convert me (to Christianity or sometimes to Islam) and the others have genuine questions about Judaism. Some sound like kids looking for free homework help (they get a friendly no). Some, surprisingly to me, ask how they can convert to Judaism.

Now most people know that we Jews don’t look for converts. There is nothing in the Torah that says that the 613 mitzvas (which include the so-called 10 Commandments) have anything to do with Gentiles.

Few people know, however, what the Torah actually does say to Gentiles.

According to the Torah, there are specific guidelines for the nations to follow in order to be righteous. Ask at your table if anyone can guess how many rules there are for Gentiles.

The answer, like many things in the Torah, is seven. These seven universal laws apply to every non-Jewish person in every place in every time without exception. Intentional failure to uphold one of them is bad news.

Ask at your table: Can you guess which seven rules are the most important for all of humanity to follow?

Here they are:

1. Monotheism/idolatry – understand that there is a single source of all creation and no other power exists in the world should lead naturally to an aversion to idolatry; however, idolatry is seductive because its so tangible. This would include praying to an actual idol or the sun or moon or any object or force that does not have volition. Lucky rabbit’s foot? Relying on money or technology to save you?
2. Blasphemy - Sort of follows naturally from #1. This includes saying things like “G-ddamn” or even “Adios” which, when uttered casually are a secularization of the Holy. In any language.
3. Murder – People are created in “Divine image” - we’re not allowed to murder them. That would include indirectly killing such as throwing someone to the lions (as the Romans did) or starving someone to death.
4. Taboo relationships – When talking to kids, I say, “marrying someone you’re not allowed to marry, like your sister or brother”.
5. Stealing – this means even the smallest amount. Someone who uses someone else’s pencil without permission is guilty of stealing. Maimonides (Rambam) says this includes a farm laborer who eats from the produce when not in the middle of working. What are the implications for using the company phone, internet or even just your time for personal use? Better to get explicit permission.
6. Ever min ha-chai – eating a limb of an animal that is still alive. This is the one kosher rule for humanity. Basic decency and humanity requires that if you’re going to eat an animal, kill it first. There is some debate as to whether or not this rule applies to shellfish. Maimonides does not think this applies to birds.
7. Justice – a society must have a fair system of justice to be good.

Maimonides concludes that one who accepts upon him or herself these seven mitzvas and is careful to do them is a “Gentile Chasid” who is building a palace in Eternity. But like all mitzvas, these seven require intentionality (kavana), so that someone who does them out of habit or social conditioning does not have such a spiritual status.

Question: which of the seven do you think is hardest for people to do?

For further reading:

Seven-mitvah Gentiles have started to organize themselves into “seven-mitzvah” groups. Check out the Bnai Noah website. And here is one thoughtful Jewish take on the question.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Pair-Adam Shift

In trying to please all the people all the time, Table Talks are divided into two sections, the first is short and sweet, the second perhaps something to print and read Friday night when things slow down. Appropriately, this week there are two dedications. The first is by Robin Kavall to the memory of her father Chaim ben Moshe, whose 10th Yartzeit is remembered this week. Please see his remarkable story below. The second is by a friend in Baltimore who has an amazing home a few blocks from ours that went on the market yesterday. For more information, please call 410-578-0573. (Update on the child mentioned last week: he and his sister are thankfully improving slowly but still have a difficult way to go.)

Pair-Adam Shift I

One of the hardest things to do for a person who wants to study the Torah is to get beyond the way other non-Jewish groups have warped the story and the beliefs.

Here are ten questions to test your warp-level. Try them at the table.

1. The first word of the Torah is “Beraisheet” - what does it mean?
2. Who was Adam?
3. How was Chava (Eve) created?
4. What kind of fruit was the forbidden fruit?
5. What was their error that caused them to be kicked out of the Garden?
6. Adam and Eve’s first children were Kayin (Cain) and Hevel (Abel). Why did Kayin kill Hevel?
7. How did Kayin kill Hevel?
8. Later Kayin gets married. Whom does he marry?
9. What does the word “Torah” mean?
10. Why, Jewishly-speaking, does the Torah include the Book of Genesis?

Ready for some answers? (Don’t peak until you’ve tried to answer the questions!)

1. It means “in the beginning of”. This causes a translation problem, because “of” should be followed by a noun. But the next words are “created God” (or “God created” because verb order in Hebrew is the opposite of English). Together that reads, “in the beginning of God created....” That doesn’t make any more sense in Hebrew than it does in English. So translations usually take one side or the other: “In the beginning God created” or “In the beginning of God’s creating....” Neither is precise. The Kabbala explains that both meanings are correct, along with 68 others. In fact, one major, multi-volume work of Kabbala, the Tikunei Zohar, consists of seventy different interpretations of the word “Bereishit”. The last is about as long as the first sixty-nine put together.

2. Adam in the Torah is “Ha-Adam” - best translated as “the human”. “He” represents both male and female together.

3. Chava was created by splitting the Adam into two halves, male and female. No ribs please!

4. The Talmud gives three opinions about the type of fruit: fig, grape (or wine) or wheat. No apples, thank you!

5. Their error was not owning up to their violation of the ban on the forbidden fruit. God gave them a chance to admit their mistake and apologize, instead they blamed someone else.

6. Kayin was born with two twin sisters and Hevel with three. Kayin, the materialistic one, was jealous of Hevel from a very young age.

7. They had a fight and Hevel out-wrestled Kayin, pinning him down. Kayin begged and pleaded for Hevel to let him go, feigning hurt. Hevel, feeling sorry for his brother, helped up to his feet, whereupon Kayin stabbed Hevel all over his body (he wasn’t sure where he needed to strike a fatal blow, after all TV hadn’t been invented yet).

8. One of his sisters.

9. It means “instructions” and is short for “Torat Chayim” - instructions for living.

10. So that when we get to the main meat of the Torah, the vision of how to build a utopian society in the Land of Israel, and other nations call us robbers for taking a piece of real estate that belonged to someone else, we will understand this real estate as a parcel within a world that is a work of art belonging to its artist, who is ultimately the only one who can decide who gets to live where, and when.

Pair-Adam Shift II

This week, after several months’ hiatus, there were more of the calls. In fact, there were three in a row. I felt like I was in a Twilight Zony thingamajig, as Homer Simpson would say.

What is happening, as far as I can tell, is this:

There is this businessman I know in a different city (don’t worry, it’s not you - he’s not on my mailing list). He is by American standards extremely successful. He has a multi-million dollar salary, several homes, a wife and children, good health. What more could a person hope for in this life? And he hasn’t even reached forty.

Now, even though he stopped responding to my emails years ago, he evidently – perhaps inadvertently – keeps my number stored in his phone. Because every once in awhile, and it happened again this week, his phone calls my phone.

On its own.

I’m not making this up.

I can hear him in the background having a conversation: sometimes it sounds like he’s in the car talking to his wife, other times I can’t make out the words. But every time it is clear that he doesn’t know the phone line is open. I try shouting his name into the phone, but get no response. Finally, I just hang up.

Is this an omen of something wonderful or ominous?

This week when his phone called mine, it was late at night. It was one of those cold, quiet nights. Really quiet. I couldn’t sleep, and at 2 am or so I went down to the kitchen for a drink of water. “Quiet night,” I thought.

Too quiet.

Suddenly, at that late hour, my cell phone rang. I looked at it long and hard across the room. That’s a very late call, and possibly an emergency. But when I saw in the caller ID who it was, I didn’t even bother calling his name. After saying “hello” a few times, I just hung up.

Then it called me back. I hung up again. When it called me a third time, I thought, “OK, so maybe I’m supposed to pay attention to this,” and I just listened for a few minutes.

What I heard sounded reminded me of an outdoor café. There were no café sounds, nor street sounds, but the voices were a bit over-stated, as you would talk if there were a bit of noise around you. The businessman, I’ll call him Adam (not his real name) was talking to someone but I couldn’t hear the other person. It was like listening to someone talk on the phone. It reminded me of Mark Twain’s comment about hearing one end of a phone conversation, "that queerest of all the queer things in this world."

They were having an intelligent conversation, discussing current events. Adam sounded well-informed and concerned, and he responded to the hidden voice in ways that made his interlocutor appear intelligent.

At the moment I tuned in, Adam’s voice was rising and accelerating:

“The problem is with religion itself. Religion breeds fanaticism. They are all the same. You can’t reason with them. They will stop at nothing until they’ve converted you or killed you.”

There was some static and I missed his next few sentences. Then I heard, “The problem is that they are more than religion, they are social movements. They gain followers by feeding people and meeting unmet needs” His friend agreed, but wondered what can be done about it. Adam suggested a secular counter-movement: “We’ve set up a non-profit organization that is creating training and jobs for homeless people in the city. You don’t need religion to do that. But you have to have an alternative to the ‘faith-based’ programs.”

Two things strike me about Adam’s argument.

First, he sounds so Jewish. I wonder if he realizes that. It’s refreshing to me, actually, to hear that 4,000 years of Jewish history that started with Abraham’s pursuit of kindness and moral excellence could arrive to 2006 undiminished and undiluted in the form of this guy Adam.

Second, it strikes me that the content of Adam's perfectly rational analysis has a flaw that plagues many sociological theories: false starting assumptions.

The questionable assumptions that I’m thinking of include: that “religion” is a false god, that there is something called “fanaticism” that is always bad and that all religions are basically the same in their irrationality.

By the way, this is the same businessman whom I mentioned some time ago who had said to me, “The problem, rabbi, is that I don’t believe in God”, to which I retorted (sincerely) “That’s all right, I don’t either.”

The punch line was: Whatever you mean by “God”, I’m sure I don’t believe in that either.

Our worldview is informed by many things, but the only way to get a “Jewish” view of God, creation, Adam and Eve, ethics, kindness, marriage, and so on is to pick up some Jewish books other than the Bible. Think about it. Until you do so – as an adult, I might add, because many people make the excuse, “Oh, I had plenty of Jewish education as a kid” - you don’t even know what you’re missing. Any single issue of life that you have not studied from a Jewish perspective you are almost guaranteed by our society to have a non-Jewish view of it, because the classical Jewish vision has become so distorted. The Torah does not say “thou shall not kill” nor does the Torah say “be a fanatic."

But it does say to be zealous in the pursuit of three things: wisdom, spiritual humility and acts of kindness. This is what it means to be an “Adam” or a “ben Adam”.

Figure out where you’re deficient, and start to compensate.

Shabbat Shalom

Chaim ben Moshe
My father Chaim was a man whose childhood was strongly affected by the death of his mother when he was just 6 six years old. His father Moshe, an observant Jew, chose single fatherhood for all but a very brief period of his remaining adult life. Together, Chaim and Moshe became exemplary models of how to compensate for missing feminine energy in the household. Moshe was both a talmid chachom (scholar) and an excellent parnassa (income) producer. Chaim became a fabulous cook and manager of the physical details of daily living. Chesed for both each other and the people in their community was the cornerstone of their lives.

Not surprisingly, Chaim earned his living as a waiter, which was a natural fit for a man who loved to serve people. His work schedule required many late evenings and weekends, but that did not stop him from making the time to model his most cherished value, Honor Thy Father. In the final years of his life, Moshe lived in a nursing home, and I have very fond memories of visiting him with my father. I learned by extraordinary example how truly important it is to keep the elderly in our lives and to attend to our responsibilities to them.

In my growing up years, Jewish learning and observance were not a part of our lives. My mother came from a very business oriented family, and my father was happy to change his lifestyle to marry the beautiful girl who shared his love of horses. Interestingly, they also shared the tragic childhood loss of their mothers. Amazingly, these two wonderful people who grew up without a model of married life built a 42 year marriage together, often working out male/female roles in very unconventional ways.

May my father’s memory be for a blessing for all of eternity, and may enlightenment come speedily in our time.

Robin Kavall

Friday, October 13, 2006

No News is Bad News

This Table Talk is dedicated to the speedy and complete recovery of Dovid ben Brocha, a seven-year-old boy in St. Louis and his siblings. Please have them in mind.

I have some bad news, good news, bad news, bad news, and good news.

The first bad news is last week’s news. Last week while I was sitting here composing the Table Talk it began to rain.

That was bad because I still needed to finish our sukkah, not to mention going into it. Going into the sukka is supposed to be the epitome of joy (simcha). But the Talmud says that if person goes into the sukka and it rains, it’s as if a servant brought the King a glass of wine and he threw it back in his face.


Needless to say, it was challenging to erect the sukka and try to decorate it during a storm, all the worse knowing what rain means during the holiday.....

Does that sound petty? Read on:

The good news is that for the past week and through this weekend, there is a special mitzvah of being happy. That’s true every day of the year, but it is especially important right now. So I’m giving you permission: go ahead and be happy. Go ahead...!

What’s the matter? Not so easy? Well, let me tell you the bad news, maybe that will make it easier.

The next bad news is personal. Rabbi Elazar Grunberger of St. Louis, one of the most tireless Jewish educators in America, was in a serious car accident with his children on Wednesday. Besides the numerous broken bones, seven-year-old Dovid lies in a coma. What can they do? A global network of rabbis are organizing the study of Mishnas in Dovid’s merit. That must seem like a strange reaction to someone on the outside.

What would you do?

The next bad news is not news to you: we humans are in so much trouble that there doesn’t seem much we can do about it.

They’re building nukes in North Korea and Iran and they want to hurt us.
The oceans are rising and about 1/3 of humanity live near the coasts.
Every single day, some 15,000 children under age 5 die from starvation and malnutrition. Try to wrap your mind around that. (Source: FAO). That was true on 9/11 and that is true today.

What are you doing about it?

I’m going to go out on a limb and say something that may make you feel uncomfortable: The fact that you may be well-informed about current events is not helping avert a worldwide catastrophe. (OK, it’s better than sticking your head completely in the sand, but not much.) There needs to be some major action, not soon, not next year, but now!

“Wait,” you object. “No fair! What more can I do? I didn’t vote for these guys running the country!”

Well, for starters, you could plant trees to offset some of the carbon that you’re responsible for dumping into the atmosphere every time you take a flight or long drive. Here’s a site that calculates the number of trees.

Tell your friends about it. Make a public campaign to encourage or shame people into going green. Don’t wait for someone else to do it, because they might not.

And I’ll even give you a site that will plant trees for you.
And if you want to help starving children, you might start here.

There, I’ve done the homework for you. What excuses do you have left?

Now, after you do those things, don’t feel smugly that you’re now pulling your weight. These are good bandaids, and I don’t see how any reasonable person cannot take them seriously, but they’re not going to help us much with the short-term crises such as the nukes and the hurricanes. If your grandchildren are being raised in an underground nuclear fallout shelter, they may ask you, “So how did you not foresee this happening? Was it such a surprise? Why did you guys mess up the world?” So you gave a little bit of money to some charities – and you thought you were doing enough?

Question (this is a good one for kids): What does it take to get all of us to start changing our patterns of behavior?

+ + + +

I promised some more good news, but in order for you to appreciate it, please consider this quote:

“When it happens, there will be a day that is neither bright nor dark; it will endure for a whole day, and then will finally be understood as light.
The enemy army, an international coalition, will experience their flesh rotting while they are standing, their eyes rotting in their sockets and their tongues in their mouths.....In great confusion, one soldier will grab his comrade’s hand and overpower his comrade’s hand. The ground will shake, cliffs will topple and a fire will spread around the world.”

What does that sound like to you? Something that could happen or science fiction?

The source of the quote are the Biblical prophets Zechariah and Ezekiel, respectively (abridged). They both foretold the above scenario as a possible outcome for humanity at the end of days. Zechariah for one stated that he didn’t fully understand his vision, but he was reporting what he saw.

Sounds real bad, right?

OK, now I’m really going to go out on a limb. If you have a tendency to think of rabbis as a little crazy, please don’t read on, because what follows will only reinforce that. If you think that a rabbi’s job is to ruffle a few feathers, then read on.

Let’s just imagine for a minute that Al Gore makes a comeback, and leads us to solving these three huge crises: global warming, nukes and Islamic terrorism. I’m just asking you to suspend disbelief and imagine that outcome that I think we all agree would be positive.

So here we are, in a peaceful world.

Now what?

Now we are free to pursue our consumptive pleasures to our heart’s delight, or is there something else in your vision?

Tradition maintains that you and I are spiritual beings who were put in this material universe for a reason, a spiritual mission, and that we are given exactly the right tools and challenges that we need in order to succeed.

Every challenge – without exception - is custom-made to help us on our mission. Here this well. This means that no news is bad news. Even bad news is ultimately good news (however, it may take a long time to perceive it that way).

Besides our bodies and our faculties, one of our primary tools life’s little instruction book. No, not the Bible. I mean the real Torah – the Oral Torah, which includes Mishna, Midrash and Kabbalah.

In the Bible you find lots of things that incur the death penalty. In the Oral Torah you find the statement that “a court that sentences someone to death is like a gang of terrorists”.

In the Bible you find, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” and in the Oral Torah you find “it means you pay someone the value of the eye or the tooth.” In the Oral Torah we have the foundation of universal value of human life, of free public education, recycling useful materials and many of the social institutions that we take for granted today but were unheard of in the ancient world outside of Israel.

We also find there many principles that the world has yet to learn, such as the antidote to urban sprawl and how to rehabilitate non-violent criminals.

Even more important: how to create strong, blissful marriages; how to raise well-adjusted kids.

And most important: how to be holy. That’s the real key: to create a universal spiritual consciousness. A transcendent enlightenment (as opposed to a humanistic one).

Now you can understand why, once we’ve tried all medical, military, scientific or diplomatic solutions (ie, all material solutions) to a crisis, the Jewish next-step is to bring more light of Torah into the world. Maybe we can bring enough more to benefit seven-year-old Dovid. Maybe we can even bring enough to help turn the course of the entire world. If we choose not to, if we shirk our duty, then there may be consequences that are more and more painful until we wake up.

Here is an exercise to meditate on your own next step:

What’s your level of Jewish literacy compared to where you want to be or could be?
If you could influence the curriculum of every Hebrew School in America in one way, what would you add or change?
What are the three most burning questions you have about Judaism: Jewish history, theology, philosophy or culture?

The really good news is that it’s not too late. But I’m asking you to rise to the challenge. Find yourself a JEWISH GURU – a competent rabbi who can guide you on a path of spiritual growth. We all need one. I’m no exception. Don’t put it off even for a day.

+ + + +

I didn’t tell you what happened with our sukkah. Do you recall the point about what it means when it rains while you’re in the sukkah? Well last weekend it rained a lot, but every time that we were ready to go into the sukka to eat, it stopped raining.

Do you hear that? That’s as loud a message as I’ve ever heard, and a source of great simcha.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Simchat Torah.

(Table Talk is a product of Jewish Spiritual Literacy, Inc, a 501c3 non-profit organization, and is made possible thanks to generous support from readers like you. This is shareware - if you find it useful, please become an official member or dedicate one week’s TT.)

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Friday, October 06, 2006

The Jewish Dream

Dedicated in loving memory of Michael Roskin, who pursued the Jewish dream with zeal and a sense of humor.

Everyone dreams the American dream:

+ An awesome house
+ An awesome car
+ An awesome spouse
+ Lots of cash
+ To be in charge of something really big and important

Is there anything on this list that is not part of your American dream?

Is there anything missing?

Let’s focus on the house. You can ask this at your table:

Can you describe your dream home?


Try doing this before you read on.

How many people, especially children, focus on the physical appearance and comforts of the home?

How many would include people being nice to each other?

How many would include “a spirit of wisdom”?

What would you rather have:

A collection of mansions on several continents with well-paid support staffs, maximum security technology and total financial security, where family members are well-informed and deal with problems and disagreements by yelling at each other, slamming doors, and much worrying....


A single, modest home in an average American town where you’re a little cramped and you don’t subscribe to the New York Times, but everyone reacts to problems and disagreements with lovingkindness and a spirit of a shared pursuit of wisdom?

Good character is like the roots and trunk of a tree; knowledge is like the branches.
Someone who pursues the latter without the former can be blown down in the wind.
Someone who develops the former can’t be budged even by “all the winds in the world.” (Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, Talmud)

+ + + +

A recent article in the Atlantic described a new industry to serve the needs of the wealthy (defined as someone with disposable assets of a mere $30 million or more; there are 30,000 in the USA). According to the interviewees, one of the primary concerns of the wealthy is the maintenance of one or more homesteads.

When I was reading that I thought, “that doesn’t sound much different from me!”

Worry is not a class-based emotion. George Foreman, worth hundreds of millions, said that he envies the longshoreman because even though he makes a lot less money, he has this satisfied look in his eye. “I have lots of money, you know what I mean? But I haven’t found confidence like that longshoreman I told you about. I will never feel secure again. I’ve got to earn, earn, earn, earn.”

The coming world crisis is going to pit two kinds of people against each other: those who put their stake and hope in the quality of roof over their heads and those who recognize that no material roof is any guarantee of anything, that true security comes from within rather than from without.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Sukkot (the anti-roof festival).

(Table Talk is a product of Jewish Spiritual Literacy, Inc, a 501c3 non-profit organization, and is made possible thanks to generous support from readers like you. This is shareware - if you find it useful, please consider becoming an official member or dedicating one week's TT.)

Friday, September 29, 2006


Dedicated in honor of Jeff Asher, a ready friend and righteous advocate.

Question for the table: Why fast on Yom Kippur?

A. To cleanse ourselves via suffering.
B. To tell God that we’re really, really sorry.
C. Because we’re supposed to, stop asking questions.
D. Tradition!

Answer: (E) None of the above. Read on.

What are the three things every Jew needs to know about Yom Kippur?

Before I tell you, I have a request and a story.

Here is the request:

The reason that my wife and I decided to stay in America rather than return to Israel in 2003 was because of the crazy idea that the Art of Amazement book and seminars could help more people if we stuck around to promote it.

So far, it has been a success. The first two editions sold out, and the new Penguin edition seems to have reached a lot of people.

The problem is keeping it in print and on the shelves. How useful will the book be if it goes out of print? Or even if it's in print, if it's not available in the bookstores?

In order for Borders and Barnes and Noble (or any bookseller) to stock the book, it has to generate a certain threshold of sales. No one knows what this threshold is. According to one expert I consulted, selling a few copies per month in a given store is enough to keep it on the shelves. Another expert opined that a national chain may require only 5-10 copies a month in an entire region to consider a book viable.

Where you come in: would you help me and your fellow tribesmen by buying one copy a month from a local bookseller and finding someone to give it to? I assure you, I will not benefit financially from this. But keeping this book afloat is a major facet of my non-profit mission, and I am asking you directly to help make it a success. (If you agree and would like a separate monthly reminder, please email me at bookclub (at) jsli (dot) org.) Thank you.

Now here is the story.

When I first arrived in Israel years ago to study, it was the night before Yom Kippur. I showed up at the door of some old family friends in Jerusalem. They were, by our standards, very religious, although I’m pretty sure they didn’t see themselves that way. I didn’t have a clue what they were doing, but they handed me an English-Hebrew prayer book and said, “Listen, this is what we’re going to be doing; if you want to participate, here’s your guidebook.”

The anthropologist in me went gung-ho into the experience. I did everything they did. I didn’t eat for 25 hours, nor did I bathe or even wash my face. That was the easy part. The hardest part was not drinking for 25 hours. That was really hard – I don’t think we ever fasted from water when I was a kid. But completely abstaining from all food and drink is essential to a great Yom Kippur. It’s hard to transcend your body when you keep feeding it. Only after about 23 hours of complete fasting does that transcendent feeling kick in.

Since it was my first time, I didn’t know what to expect, and at the very end of the day, just before sunset, I completely forgot about my hunger and thirst. My parched mouth became an asset rather than a hindrance as I felt myself detaching from it. The “Aveenu Malkeinu” prayer vibrated from my feet to my head. I felt like I was floating.

Then, after sunset, something totally unexpected happened. Somebody in the synagogue blew a single sustained note on the shofar that lifted my heart even higher than I thought I could go. That sound carried my deepest aspirations upwards to infinity. I was parched, but in tears. They weren’t even Jewish tears. Just simple human tears of joy from self-realization.

Three steps to a great Yom Kippur:

1. Start with the bottom line.

The bottom line for Yom Kippur is that you want to end up with a new or improved behavior. You need to identify one mitzvah that you know you could be doing better. Maybe it’s controlling your anger. Maybe it’s giving tzedakah (10% of your net income to charity). Maybe it’s being on time. Make your list of what needs to be fixed. Your list should include things that other people are doing that you may have the power to work against (exploitation, gossip, etc.) You’re going to use this full list on Yom Kippur.

(Someone told me the other day that she had a disappointing Rosh Hashana. That’s too bad, but if so, it’s important to try to get the message of Rosh Hashana in your mind before Yom Kippur. Try this short propaganda film about Jewish ID).

The bottom line is that that area or those areas where you are finding it most difficult to change are possibly the main purpose of your being put back on this planet, to fix them. This is the purpose of your life!

2. Say “I’m sorry” to everyone who needs to hear it.

Here is a better (and funnier) explanation than I could ever make, from Stephen Colbert:

3. Commit to a serious change.

If one of the things that a person is trying to change is to quit smoking, or to stop shouting, or to stop any particular behavior, it’s not a serious commitment unless you have a plan. What are you going to do differently in order to avoid that behavior. If you’re serious about improving yourself, you won’t wait until the challenge comes – you’ll make a plan for steering away from the challenge. I would limit my plan to one or two areas. This is a great exercise to do with kids, to get them to find one area of improvement and make a plan.

4. Give Tzeddaka

“Hey – I thought there were only supposed to be three!”

Well, you know, the world needs more tzeddaka. You need to give more tzeddaka. It’s good for you, and it’s good for the world. These days before Yom Kippur are the final chance to fix your karma for the coming year. A few extra rubles in the pushke are good for you. Try it, it actually feels good, especially if you’re helping someone who is hungry for food or spiritual connection. Give generously these last few days and it will come back to you manifold. Giving generates good karma. Don’t hold back. Write those checks to those charities. They need it, but you need it more.


The goal of the fast is to help us transcend our bodies. For our bodies are the source of most of our regrettable choices. If you want a meaningful meditation to get you there, try getting a good Yom Kippur book, such as the Artscroll books Machzor, Yom Kippur, or Jonah (ask at your local Jewish bookshop or go to Spend as much time as you can engrossed in these texts. Read them, chant them, contemplate them, interspersed with contemplating your list.

Here’s another YK film, upbeat and musical:

(That thing he does at the end - “tekia gedola” - that means the long shofar blast at the end of Yom Kippur that I told you about above.)

By the time you get to the late afternoon, you will be ready for some serious movement. Get up on your feet and declare your regret for the shortcomings on your list and your desire to wipe the slate clean.

Measure of success?

How you behave immediately after YK, starting with how you break the fast. Be deliberate, be mindful, be thankful, be joyful, be generous.

If I have offended you this past year in any way, please let me know so that I can apologize. Better yet, hit me with a pre-emptive forgiveness and save us both some time. My toll-free hotline (you'll get it only if you watched the Colbert film) is 650-799-5564.

Wishing you an uplifting Yom Kippur and beyond!

Shabbat Shalom.

PS: tips for an easy fast:
Stop drinking coffee for two days prior.
1. Hold off on eating Saturday and Sunday until mid-day. When Monday morning comes, your body won’t pine for food so early.
2. Have a satisfying meal Sunday around 4 pm that is not too salty and no alcohol.
3. Make sure you are fully hydrated by 6 pm Sunday. Load up on grapes that are cut in half and swallowed without chewing.
4. Get a very good night’s sleep if you can.

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Friday, September 22, 2006

Staying Awake on Rosh Hashana

This Table Talk is dedicated in honor of Marc and Lily Sarosi of Mill Valley, California, who have done so much to bring Jewish learning into their lives and their community. To dedicate a future Table Talk, please write tabletalk at (change the "at" to an "@".

What's Rosh Hashana?

It's the Jewish New Year, right?


That's actually a lie.

First of all, according to the Talmud, it's not just for Jews, and moreover, there are four "new years"....

So what's the Rosh Hashana that is happening this weekend all about?

It's the day when our karma is fixed for the coming year. That means that how we think and act on Rosh Hashana (from tonight through Sunday) will affect us the next 12 months.

So ask at your table: What kind of year do you want to have? Happy? Then act happy. Patient? Then act patient. Mindful? Then act mindful. Zealous? Then don't take a nap. Thankful? Then make a bracha on your food. Prosperous? Then be generous of spirit and pocket (now you know why there is a universal Jewish custom of increasing charitable donations from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur).

Everything you do should be oriented towards this positive thinking, which is why we eat sweet foods on Rosh Hashana.

So in the spirit of the day, try teaching this song to your table that I learned from my kids:
    Dip the apple
    in the honey
    make a bracha
    loud and clear
    Shana tova
    have a happy
    sweet new year.
    (sung to the tune of "Oh My Darlin' Clementine")

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Every Jewish holiday commemorates something, right?
  • Passover – going out of Egypt
  • Shavuot – Mount Sinai
  • Hannukah – the Maccabean War
  • Rosh Hashana - ??
What seminal event marked the first Rosh Hashana?

According to a popular misconception, Hebrew tradition claims that Rosh Hashana marks the origin of the cosmos 5,767 years ago. Based on this answer, it’s easy to dismiss the entire Torah (which is the foundation of all of Judaism) as fable, because it claims that only 5,767 years have passed since the first Rosh Hashana.

In fact, Jewish tradition states categorically that our 5,767-year-old calendar begins not with the cosmos but with primordial "Adam" and “Eve”. It’s easy to get the number: the Torah mentions everyone’s lifespan and how old they were when their children were born. Second-grade math.

Now, according to Judaism, who were Adam and Eve? Nowhere does the Torah say that they were the first homo sapiens. All that we know from the Torah is that they were the last creatures created. Moreover, according to Medieval rabbinic sources (who claim to be transmitting ancient tradition), upon the advent of Adam and Eve there were other human-like creatures running around.

Thus, it is entirely consistent with Jewish tradition to understand Adam and Eve not as the first people but the first people with a certain kind of awareness or mental capacity – we might call it “Divine” or “transcendental” awareness: that is, an ability to conceptualize and relate to an Infinite Creator.

To reiterate: Rosh Hashana commemorates the advent of God-conscious humans some 5,767 years ago, according to Jewish oral tradition. It’s interesting that that number coincides with the approximate advent of civilization in the Middle East. That coincidence is enough food for thought for Rosh Hashana. But there’s more.

A year ago, the New York Times reported a remarkable discovery (”Researchers say human brain is still evolving,” September 9, 2005). It seems that there is new scientific evidence that a human genetic change occurred in the middle-East about 5,800 years ago which enhanced higher brain functions. Interesting coincidence.

What makes the dating coincidence even more interesting is recent research upholding the veracity of oral traditions in oral cultures. It's easy for a modern literate society to dismiss such legends as mythological, but it seems that ancient minds were far more adept than we at retaining information accurately via oral transmission. If so, then it should not at all surprise us that the descendents of the genetically enhanced humans would have retained an accurate tradition about the historicity of their genetic line.

How does this view of history and Judaism affect our understanding of Rosh Hashana?

First of all, Rosh Hashana is not the Jewish New Year. It’s humanity’s New Year. (When I first learned that I started wishing my Gentile friends a Happy New Year around Rosh Hashana time. I got a lot of blank stares and quickly abandoned the practice.)

But the Talmud makes an explicit point: what happens on Rosh Hashana affects not just Jews but the entire world.

What happens? The first day of the year, like other first steps, is an opportunity to set the course of the next 12 months’ journey. Like sending a rocket into space, getting the initial coordinates right is crucial to the long-term goal. You get that liftoff wrong by one degree and a few months later the rocket will be millions of miles off-course. Rosh Hashana is a unique day in the annual cycle of life to check the compass and make adjustments. How we conduct ourselves on Rosh Hashana will, according to the Talmud, fix our karma for the entire year.

That’s heavy. It’s an awesome opportunity, and worth a few minutes of preparation. Here’s what to do.

Before the holiday begins, try to define what you’re living for. What are your greatest aspirations? What gives your life the most meaning? Work it out. Get it clear. But don't think that this clarity will happen automatically. You have to set aside some time to THINK.

Then, on Rosh Hashana itself, whether or not you go to synagogue, spend some serious time contemplating and internalizing your life mission. The more you can get it ingrained in your brain, the more you will be able to live and work toward that mission in the coming year.

Wishing you and yours a happy, healthy, peaceful, sweetly challenging year to come.

(For a copy of my flyer, “20 Questions to Ask Yourself on Rosh Hashana”, send an email to RHQ at - change the "at" to an "@")

Here is a link to my Rosh Hashana / Yom Kippur classes this week:

Mill Valley, Calif., 60 min.

(Table Talk is a product of Jewish Spiritual Literacy, Inc, a 501c3 non-profit organization which is made possible thanks to readers like you. This is shareware - if you find it useful, please consider becoming an official member with a tax-deductible contribution at one of the addresses below.)

Jewish Spiritual Literacy, Inc.
5814 Narcissus Ave
Baltimore, MD 21215

Friday, September 15, 2006

Fear (a Pre-Rosh Hashana Primer)

This week's Table Talk is dedicated by Gregg Jackson and family in memory of their beloved grandfather, Teddy Niad for his survival and perseverance through the holocaust, and being a loving father, husband, grandfather , brother and Jew. May his dedication and passion to these be examples and motivation for our family and all who knew him.

To dedicate a future Table Talk, or to make a small contribution to say "thank you" for the weekly message and to support the work of Jewish Spiritual Literacy, please see below.

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There once was a king who had a castle that he wanted to give to his son. But this castle was very special: it was at the center of the kingdom, and everyone saw it as the symbol of the kingship. So the king told the son that he could only live there if he followed certain rules, a certain decorum. The castle could not be used for wild parties or immoral behavior. It had to be a place of dignity and righteousness.

The king even warned his son that if he did not live according to these rules, he would have to leave the castle. And to help him remember the rules, the king added a rule that the prince should study the rules - even a little bit - every day.

Well, the son agreed, but after a few years something changed. One day he was very busy with his princely duties and said to himself, "I know all the rules already, I think I can skip one day of studying so that I can get my work done. After all, I'll pick it up tomorrow."

Can you guess what happened? It felt so good to have that extra time in the day that the next day he made the same excuse and skipped the studying. Soon, after not too many days, he had given up the studying altogether. But he kept telling himself, "that's OK, I know all the rules already".

Over time, someone asked the prince if he would like to hang a certain picture in the castle. He liked the picture and thought it would be nice in the castle, and he forgot that there was a rule against having exactly this kind of picture.

As time went on, little by little, he started to do things in the castle that the king had expressly forbidden. And little by little the castle became a less-dignified place where immoral and unrighteous things were happening.

The king knew what was going on, but he loved his son and wanted to help him stay in the castle. So he sent him a stern message that said: "Your stay in this castle is not a right, it's a privilege. If you don't shape up, you're going to ship out!"

The prince was scared, and for a short time, he thought seriously about his behavior, and for a short time, got seriously back into studying the rules again. But soon the memory of the comfortable times when studying wasn't so important came back to him.

What would you advise this prince? How can he get out of the cycle of laziness, warnings and fear?

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What are you afraid of every day?

Please rank your fears in order of greatest to least:

  • A speeding ticket
  • Global warming
  • Losing money
  • Gaining weight
  • Dying
  • A loved one dying
  • Other ______

Just a month ago or so, many of us were afraid for the future of Israel. It was a terrible time, and the effects are still being felt. The Jews I know in Israel were completely prepared to suffer for a few weeks for the sake of a decisive destruction of the missiles and the ammo supply-route from Syria. That did not happen, they rained rockets with the intent to murder civilians, and Israel was not able to stop them.

And so the people who hate us and want to destroy Israel and the Jewish People are still there with the capacity and desire to hurt us bad. And their blood-brothers across the Euphrates are probably building the capacity to carry out their leader's public wish to destroy the Jews.

What is the spiritual message in all this?

First of all, the world is divided into two kinds of people: those who do good out of fear and those who do good out of love of goodness.

For example, it is a fact that more Israelis have been killed in automobile accidents than all the wars and terror attacks combined. What causes all these accidents? The Citizens for Safe Roads are of the opinion that the primary cause is excessive speed.

However (typically), it was not enough to point to the wisdom gained in America about the benefits of enforcing speed limits. The Israeli government wanted to see an Israeli test. So the Citizens for Safe Roads worked with the police to set up a speed trap on a certain stretch of highway near Tel Aviv.

The fist week, they issued some 2,000 tickets. The second week, it was more like 200.

The lesson? People are most motivated by fear.

Now, please work with me for a minute. Let's pretend you're a parent of children whom you naturally care about very much. And the thing you care about most is that they grow into healthy well-rounded adults of sound judgment. But the world is full of truly harmful things, so you give your children strong guidelines to help them avoid truly destructive behavior, such as walking across the street without looking, drugs and alcohol, and so on.

What do you do when your child starts running into the street without looking?

If he's old enough to know better but too young to reason with, I hope you would give him you give him a very harsh response. If you care about him you certainly will. Something harsh enough to significantly diminish the chance of him doing it again.

I did this with at least one of our children. He was six years old, old enough we felt to cross our residential street on his own, and yet I saw him run across without looking. He got chewed out so strongly that it brought him to tears. And he got the message.

The source of our modern connection to the Land of Israel is the Torah. Besides idolatry, the Promised Land is probably the most prevalent theme. But that same Torah states at least twenty times that our privilege of living in the Land depends upon our behavior. If we behave morally and righteously, we get to stay. If not, we ship out. The Torah in fact mentions specific behaviors that we should cultivate and others that we should avoid. Many of these you can probably guess.

Let's go back to our prince in the castle. His problem is that he is only motivated by fear. The king's problem is that the prince is only motivated by fear. Fear means that as long as there is a perception of danger, then I change my behavior, but if the living is too easy, I easily get lazy.

The only solution to this problem is for the prince to return to the dignified model of princeliness that he was raised with. If he can envision the castle's potential and his own potential for dignity, and if he can cultivate the desire to get closer to the king in heart and mind, then that vision can motivate him to live according to the high standards and avoid the unbefitting behavior.

If he can reach that level in his mind and heart, then the king will have no reason to send his son harsh, threatening, painful messages. The son will have become worthy of his place in the kingdom.

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Rosh Hashana is not about dwelling on my mistakes. It is about envisioning my potential - the kind of person I want to become in five or ten years. I will say more about this next week.

In the meantime, please do this homework:

Write a short paragraph answering one or more of the following questions:

1. What kind of person you would like to be in five or ten years.
2. What are you living for?
3. What would give you more pleasure than anything else in the world?

4. What is missing from your life that you wish you had, or did?

When you finish this exercise, watch this short video on and then review what you wrote.

We've all had the wake-up call. The missiles fell, the planet is warming up, etc. etc. Does global warming motivate you to change your behavior? It probably does because you can perceive a direct connection between human behavior and the environment. What about falling missiles? What about anti-Semitism? If you're less sure of the connection, I wouldn't expect you to change your behavior so quickly. But I would expect you to investigate what it means to live as a dignified prince, and to do everything you can to help the entire Jewish People learn what that means.

If you do nothing else for Rosh Hashana, please do this: make a commitment to give ten percent of your income to Jewish education at any level, both locally and in the Land of Israel.

Shabbat Shalom.

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Friday, September 08, 2006

Will the Real Bat Mitzvah Please Stand Up?

I have two trivia questions for the table.

Question #1:

When does a girl have her bat mitzvah?

It's actually a trick question. Asking when a girl or boy has a bat or bar mitzvah is like asking when does a girl or boy have an adult. You don't have a bar/bat mitzvah, you become bar/bat mitzvah.

OK, so let's rephrase the question:

When does a girl become bat mitzvah?

The answer, like most things Jewish, depends on whom you ask.

In the olden days, and in traditional communities today, it was and is understood that girls mature faster than boys, so they reach the age of responsibility at 12, while boys get there at 13.

Then, in the modern world when some groups of Jews wanted to equalize everyone, they decided that girls should wait until they become 13 to celebrate, just like boys. I still haven't figured out why they chose to make girls like boys rather than vice-versa. Maybe they felt that modern girls aren't ready for the responsibilities of mitzvahs as early as they used to be. But if that's the case, perhaps boys should wait until they're 14...?

Question #2:

What is the appropriate way to celebrate a girl's becoming bat mitzvah?

Here is a newspaper story about one interpretation of this rite of passage. I daresay that most of my readers would shudder at this one.

In contrast to that story, my niece Kate is celebrating her bat mitzvah this weekend in real style. In lieu of gifts, she has asked her family and friends to make a donation to a local charity that cares for hungry people.

(I have to admit that we cheated. In addition to our charitable donation, we sent her a gift (I hope she's not reading this). We sent her a book set that I would recommend to anyone who wants to taste the monthly ebb and flow of the Jewish annual cycle. It's called Book of our Heritage by Eliyahu Kitov. It's written for adults, but I think that a bright 12- (or 13) year-old girl would be ready to sink her teeth into it.)

For the rest of us, even those who don't know Kate, her becoming bat mitzvah is a big deal. Because now - or ever since her 12th birthday - her mitzvahs count. Until children reach bar/bat mitzvah, they are "in training". As soon as they hit that magic birthday, their spiritual actions - such as lighting Shabbat candles, giving tzeddakah, making a bracha, loving their neighbor, honoring their parents - have spiritual or karmic consequences. This is serious stuff for those who believe in this stuff. A bat mitzvah - that is, any woman who is 12 years or older - can create spiritual tikkunim or reparations with her mitzvahs that a younger girl cannot.

So Kate's and her family's mazal tov is everyone's mazal tov...The world needs all the mitzvahs we can get. Mazal tov Kate!

Shabbat Shalom.