Friday, June 30, 2006

Burying Bubbe

This Table Talk is about a sensitive topic relating to death, and may not be appropriate for all readers.

In memory of Yehudis bas Alexander Ziskin

My mom and I had been in Israel for a day and a half when we got the urgent phone call.

What could be urgent? “I have some bad news.” What could it be? It never dawned on me that my nonagenarian grandmother might have died. We had just spoken the day before, and she had sounded fine, always happy to hear a cute story about the kids.

Flurry of phone calls. Airlines, doctors, uncles, funeral homes, cemeteries, rabbis. A 3 a.m. rush to the Western Wall to tear my shirt and touch the stones.

And now she is to be laid to rest today, June 30.

Or is she?

You see, my grandmother’s wish, stated in writing, was to be placed in a crypt next to her late husband. In case you have never seen one, a modern crypt is wall covered with rectangular doors, each one about the size of the cross-section of a coffin. They look something like a bank of very large post office or safety deposit boxes, each one bearing its resident’s name and accompanied by a small shelf for the bereaved to leave flowers.

My forward-thinking grandparents purchased their boxes thirty years ago at a fraction of today’s market. And so Bubbe lived her years of widowhood comforted by the knowledge that she would eventually rejoin her beloved husband with no more than a few layers of wood and steel separating them for eternity.

This belief is comforting as long as one sees life as primarily physical (with a spiritual dimension): once the spiritual dimension has parted, let’s let the two sets of physical remains be close together.

If, however, you see the world as the Kabbalists do, as a spiritual place with a physical dimension, then you understand death not as the body’s loss of the soul but as the soul’s loss of the body.

When that occurs, an average person’s materialism is strong enough that the body’s disintegration actually helps the soul to detach itself fully and to go to where it needs to go. The process happens most rapidly when a person is buried directly in the ground. The more we do to keep that person out of the ground – such as hardwood or laminated coffins, embalming, crypts – the more we may be hindering that soul from going where it needs to go, to rest in peace.

Well, that was Bubbe’s wish, after all, wasn’t it? How can we not honor that?

It seems to me that my grandparents’ real goal was to be truly together for eternity – that is, in spirit not in bone. Thus, the truest way to honor her request to be with her husband is to help her join him in spirit. It wasn’t the crypt that they cared about, it was each other; if they had known the Jewish teachings about death, they would have surely chosen the most expeditious and reputable means.

With Bubbe’s passing, Yiddish has left the family. But the twinkle in the eye, the love of books and conversation, and the zest for life are already growing in her great-grandchildren.

Question for the table: Have you ever known someone who passed away, who was so spiritual that they probably didn’t need the experience of bodily disintegration in order to detach and go to the world of souls?

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, June 23, 2006

My friend Dan

This week’s Table Talk is dedicated to my friend Dan.
To dedicate a future Table Talk, write

Wednesday was the first day of summer, and my friend Dan went to jail.

Last we spoke, he was on an upward streak. He was interviewing for jobs, had a friend who was recommending him for a dishwashing job. In fact, there are plenty of entry-level jobs in his area, as a quick search of craigslist shows. He sounded so upbeat, looking forward to getting his life on track. What happened?

Evidently, his problem wasn’t the lack of a job. He simply made one too many poor choices.

His mother told me this morning, "I hate to say this, but he needs to spend six months in jail."

Every adolescent dreams of leaving home. But sometimes it’s a shock to find out that adult choices have adult consequences.

Now, imagine we prepared a group of adolescents with the best education money can buy – a warm, nurturing environment that appealed to each child’s unique learning style and gave them all the tools they need to live. Then, just before graduation, we explain to them, “The world you’re about to enter is a wonderful place, with every opportunity, but watch out – you’re going to have to take responsibility for all of your actions.”

How should they react? We would hope with enthusiasm.

But what if they said this: “We want to send a couple representatives out into this world first, to check it out and come back to tell us the best way to go about it.”

We might think, Well what’s the point? You’re prepared to go, just go. But if they insist, there’s not much else to do.

What happens next? The best possible outcome: The scouts come back with a mixed report. One says: “It’s a big world out there, with tough people and challenging situations, we shouldn’t go.” The other says: ““It’s a big world out there, with tough people and challenging situations, let’s go!”

A mixed report is the best outcome because it forces the graduates to decide for themselves.

If they choose to stay at home, then they are denying the purpose of the entire education we’ve given them. Life is meant to be lived!

It seems like for most people there are two motives for good choices. Either fear of the painful consequences of the wrong choice or the great pleasure for making the right choice. If either consequence is delayed, a young person will tend to choose based on short-term pain and pleasure and more mature people choose based on long-term pain and pleasure.

The problem is that meaningful “right” choices by definition require effort. That is to say, if you are facing a choice between two paths and one requires more effort than the other, that one is likely the right one. Most of our wrong choices happen because we don’t want to make the effort required. That effort is as much emotional as physical.

Dan is a "good" Jewish kid who has made some poor choices. How do I know he is a good Jewish kid? Anyone who talks to him knows, he’s really sweet, caring and appreciative. And, his mother pointed out, he didn’t wait to get caught, he turned himself in. He has a good heart and is still learning to use his head.

Ultimately, if your heart is in the right place, you don’t need the scouts. All that they can do is confirm what is in your heart. If you have a good heart, the scouts will confirm what you believe. If your heart has even the slightest bit of negativity, the scouts will confirm that too, and then you’re stuck: you can either flip a coin or use your head....

Evidently a good heart won’t keep you out of jail, but a using your head always will.

Question for the table: Did you ever say no to something that sounded good because it sounded too hard or say yes when you weren’t sure you could? What happened?

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, June 16, 2006

My Bad

This week’s Table Talk is in memory of my grandparents, Lester and Sylvia Seinfeld, whose yarzeits were last week.

Sometimes is should be obvious that whoever is running this world is sending us messages, but we’re not always listening.

Why is it so hard to say, "I was wrong" ?

Back in New York yesterday, I was supposed to teach a class on this very topic: how to live ethically. My basic premise is that an unexamined life cannot be ethical.

Beforehand, I was supposed to meet landsman Stanley. We didn’t set an exact time or place, but we made up for around 5 or 5:30 at 72nd and Broadway and then to go to dinner. Since he had warned me that I’d likely arrive first, I didn’t rush. I lingered downtown, finishing a cup of coffee. After all, there was a direct train.

Well, not exactly.

As the initiated know, there are two kinds of trains in New York, the “local” and the “express”. The express, obviously, doesn’t stop at every station. You can guess where this is going – I was on the express and should have been on the local. Don’t think that I’m so green that I didn’t know the difference. I’m sure it can happen to anyone, right....?

Now, I thought I was being very conscientious – I studied the map and counted five stations until 72nd. That should be enough time to get through a few lines of the Gamara (that is, the Talmud – a travel size that I carry around for these occasions), and I was pleased to find an open seat on the train.

The trouble began after the first stop. A woman boarded dressed perfectly appropriately for June in New York. I wouldn’t have even noticed her except for the fact that she kept leaning over me, almost on top of me, and it became impossible to ignore her. What is the problem? It dawned on me that she was straining to read a subway map on the wall behind me. That alone was probably a sign from Heaven that I should be paying more attention to the map, but I buried my nose deeper into the book.

Then, at the second stop, a sweating, heavy-set man came on board carrying a placard as large as himself and plopped himself right on the seat beside me. The placard had a larger-than-life photo of a fetus and said something about equating abortion to murder. I thought, that’s an interesting ethical question that really depends on your definition. I heard him strike up a jovial conversation with the woman to his right, chuckling, “Is this express or local? I didn’t even check” but I didn’t hear her answer. “Clever ice-breaker to proselytize her,” I thought.

I just wasn’t getting the signals.

Third stop was Columbus Circle, where I should have de-trained to switch to the local. But no, I was oblivious, still counting my stops and working through the page of Gamara. It was a difficult passage, one of those long, intricate sections of Talmud that require you to connect ideas together that are scattered across several pages. It’s hard to hold onto the thread of thought and tricky to know when to come up for air.

After some success deciphering this never-ending passage, I started to sense that the train was taking a really long time. It seemed to be going and going....I looked up and the people around me didn’t appear bothered by the fact that we were obviously headed into some kind of cosmic wormhole or New Jersey. Everyone had that dull, stupefied end-of-the-day subway look. I didn’t really want to engage Anti-Abortion Man in conversation, so I sort of wondered aloud, “Where are we?”

“One twenty-fifth,” he chirped, helpfully. But then added without discretion, “Where do you need to be?” Like it was his business. I wasn’t about to tell him the truth and get a lecture on the difference between local and express trains. If I mentioned 72nd street, he and everyone else would know that I screwed up. That would be embarrassing. The question remained, however, how to rectify the situation. Do I return on the local, or backtrack on another express, and redouble the journey on a local from Columbus Circle? Then there is the third possibility of ditching the train altogether and taking a cab to make up for lost time. But what if there are no cabs? Then it would be a waste of time.

Absorbed in these complicated thoughts I eventually made it to the rendez-vous spot, only not to find Stanley. I wasn’t sure I’d remember what he looked like. So I tried to make myself conspicuous and assumed that he’d find me. No such luck. When we eventually found each other an hour or so later, I wondered if I should tell him the subway story. Did it matter? Was that an excuse for being late? Was I really so late to start with? Maybe he should have waited longer? Maybe he should have called me? Maybe maybe maybe. Maybe these are all great excuses to let myself off the hook. Because the last thing I wanted to do was to admit that I had made a mistake.

Why is it that some of us have such a hard time saying, “I was wrong” and “I’m really sorry” ?

It seems to me that there are a couple answers. The most basic one is because we’re so concerned about looking good. How awful to look bad. But a spiritually-oriented person cares about being good rather than looking good. To err is human, but errors still have to be fixed. The only way to fix something I did to someone else is to own up to it.

This desire to look good has made all of us experts at rationalizing: “It’s not so bad because...” as in “It’s not so bad because everyone does it” or “It’s not so bad because the ends justify the means” or “It’s not so bad because no one really got hurt.”

Sound familiar? How many times did you let yourself off the hook this week with such a thought?

The only way to be good is to take full responsibility for my choices. I’m so out of practice that it’s hard to do, and so sometimes I practice when no one is looking: “I’m sorry. I blew it. I was wrong. My bad. My mistake. I’m really sorry. I goofed....”

Try this at your dinner table: see how many ways you can come up with for saying, “I was wrong.” Send me your list (or post it to the blog), and whoever has the most will win a free copy of my upcoming CD, The Art of Amazement Part 3 – Being Good.

Sorry Stanley, for blowing our plans! I was wrong. And it hurts to know that I was getting the signals all along, I just wasn’t paying attention. If I can pay more attention, maybe I’ll do better next time.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Late for the train

This week’s post is sponsored by a generous donation in memory of Bertha and Joseph Kane.

Sometimes - but not always - the way to compensate for a shortcoming is to go to the other extreme. When you've overeaten, diet. When you’ve been hasty, slow down. When you’ve been lazy, get up and run.

I was teaching in New York last night and ended the evening with a l’chayim with an old friend from my Israel trip last summer. It was good to see him but hard to understand how someone can work an 80 hour week and still look like he just came from a day at the beach. “Youth is wasted on the young....” We were talking relationships, and (he doesn’t know this) he gave me a new insight, despite the fact that I teach classes on the subject.

Now, we were sitting in a bar “just a few blocks” from the train station, and that deceptive distance (New York blocks are looong) made it possible to linger just a little more than I should have. The last train out of New York leaves at 10:05. The next one after that is at 5 a.m. I was soon sprinting through central Manhattan with my heavy bag. I really did not want to miss the train and it occurred to me that this might be a good time to pray.

I prayed.

My legs were beginning to ache and the station was still a block away. At least, I figured, I was burning off that beer. I dashed into Penn Station at 10:04. Maybe there is a long line and they’re delayed. I searched the reader-board but it was too late! my train had already been bumped off!

Quite breathless, I interrupted some cops engaged in obviously pressing discourse: “Where’s the Washington train?”

Visibly annoyed, one answered, “I think it’s track 14E, but it’s gone now.”

I ran to the 14E entrance. The down escalator was going up. Really not a good sign. Another officer sat in a booth there. “Has the Washington train left yet?”

“It’s gone.”

“Are you sure?” I peered down the escalator, thinking maybe I could see if the train was still in the station.

“She already called up, said they’re pulling out.”

I was facing the unacceptable prospect of being stuck in New York for the night with no backup plan. What would my father have done? Look for a solution!

“Well maybe it’s still here. Maybe it hasn’t left the station! Can I go down this, do you think?” I was preparing to leap down the up-escalator like a kid in a department store.

“You can go down over there,” he said with a shrug, pointing to a staircase.

I charged down the stairs so fast that people and objects whizzed by in a blurr.

What joy: There were two trains on the tracks! One surely had to be mine. The one on the left had a conductor in a doorway arguing with a lady on the quay. He paid me no attention but leaned slightly for me to squeeze in.

Then I noticed something terribly wrong: the train was dark. The inner doors to the cars were locked. Maybe this is the wrong train, I thought. Maybe it’s the other one. But why did he let me on? Maybe he was absorbed in his argument, maybe he thought I was coming back to fetch something forgotten.

I tried squeeze my head out the door past him and verify that this was the right train. He got angry in a New York type of anger – “What’s your problem!” He worded it like a question but yelled it like an accusation.

I was contrite but still in panic-mode - “I’m sorry! Is this the Washington train?”

“Yes! Jeez Louise!!”

“OK, great, sorry. I just couldn’t get the door open.”

The train departed seconds later. Do you think I was thankful?

I said thanks.

The same conductor walked through to collect tickets while my ankles were still throbbing. This time he was the contrite one - “I’m really sorry, that lady was giving me a hard time. She was mad because she wanted to go to Aberdeen but this train don’t stop in Aberdeen. She was acting like a big shot, telling me that she works for the Port Authority. I told her that I work for Amtrak, different company! Some people. I’m sorry I over-reacted, she was just pushing me to my limit. Here we’re past time to leave and she’s giving me a hard time. Some people!”

So we both apologized to each other profusely and shmuzed a bit more. He seemed happy to get this incident off his chest.

It then occurred to me that this lady’s argumentativeness had probably actually helped me. I told the conductor, “I really feel for you, but maybe her doing that helped me to make the train.”

He said, “You know, you’re probably right” and on his way back through, he stopped to say, “I’m glad you made the train.”

Every experience and every person in our life has a purpose in our life. It seems to me that the purpose usually falls into one of three categories:

A. To make you wise
B. To get you to ask for help or to say thanks
C. For you to give or to receive an act of kindness.

Sometimes a single experience can have more than one purpose.

Question for the dinner table: What happened to you this week that gave you wisdom, or that should have caused you to ask for help or say thanks, or that allowed you to give or receive kindness? How did you do?

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, June 01, 2006

A Star is Born

Today is the start of Hurricane Season and tonight is the festival of Shavuot/Shavuos.


Sure, you know, the holiday where we.... ??????????????????

Why do Jews celebrate some holidays and not others? Why, for instance, is Passover such a draw while Shavuot has fallen by the wayside? It’s as if to say, we can celebrate being Jewish but we have no appreciation for the Torah that makes us Jewish?

Those of us who do celebrate Shavuot have a secret: there is something highly uncommon about the Torah and rumors of its demise have been greatly exaggerated. Nor is it a mere cultural expression of one tiny group of ancient people, so numerically small that we reminded Mark Twain of a “nebulous dim puff of star dust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way.”

One reason for the under-appreciation of the Torah is the misperception that Torah means the Five Books of Moses only, and that Torah means “law”. In fact, “Torah” is short for “Torat Chaim” – instructions for living – and includes both written and oral traditions. To examine the written without the oral would be like trying to drive a car with the chassis but no engine. That includes the Talmud, Midrash and Kabbalah — they are all Torah.

Another reason for the Torah’s under-appreciation is the view that Torah is inconsistent with the conclusions of Science. Yet one of the most astonishing points of agreement between Torah and Science is precisely where one least expects to find it: the number and distribution of stars in the universe.

In order to appreciate the Talmud’s estimate, bear in mind that the telescope was invented in the 16th Century C.E. and the number of stars visible to the naked eye is approximately 9,000. In ancient times, when the skies were more visible, it is easy to imagine a common familiarity with those 9,000 stars (really fewer than that, because most people did not travel far enough to see all 9,000). 9,000 is not an ungraspable number. It is perfectly within the reach of the ancients and within the vocabulary of classical Hebrew.

It is therefore altogether remarkable that the Talmud’s estimate is far greater than 9,000 stars. Bear in mind that the Talmud never claims to be a scientific document. It does include certain statements and anecdotes that we might label “scientific”, such as R Simeon's investigation of ants (Talmud Chullin 57b). Nevertheless, the vast bulk of Talmudic wisdom is putatively received tradition, from Moses to Joshua, to the prophets, to the Elders, to the Great Assembly and then to a chain of individual scholars until the completion of the Talmud ca. 500 CE.

What did these Sixth Century scholars say about the number of stars? Page 32b of the Talmud Berachot records a tradition, in the name of Rabbi Yehosuha ben Lakish, that there are roughly 10^18 stars in the universe. This number is remarkably big and much closer to the current scientific estimate of 10^22 than it should be.

Now, although it is interesting for an ancient people to have such a large estimate of the number of stars, this one coincidence could be merely an extremely lucky guess (never mind that no other ancient people had an estimate anywhere near this order of magnitude, nor was there even a simple way to write such a number.)

However, the Talmud relates more than a raw number. The passage explains that the distribution of stars throughout the cosmos is neither even nor random. Rather, they are clustered in to groups of billions of stars (what we call galaxies), which themselves are clustered into groups (what astronomers call galactic clusters), which in turn are in mega-groups (what we call superclusters).

To describe the stars as clustered together, both locally and in clusters of clusters, is far beyond the imagination and even the telescopes of scientists until Edwin Hubble’s famous photographs of Andromeda in the 1920s. Galactic clusters and superclusters have been described only in the past decade or so. Moreover, the Talmud states categorically that the number of galaxies in a cluster is about thirty. What do the astronomers say? Our own “local cluster” – by consensus – contains 30 galaxies!

In fact, the Talmud adds that the superclusters consist of about thirty clusters each, and that superclusters are themselves grouped into a bigger pattern of about thirty (megasuperclusters?) of which the universe has a total of about 360. Thus, the Talmud appears consistent with the prevalent theories that the universe’s overall structure is shaped by the rules of fractal mathematics.

Could it be that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Lakish was taking an extremely lucky guess? That might be possible if he used a number that had symbolic significance in Judaism, such as seven, ten, eighteen, or forty. What is the significance of the number 30? To my knowledge, there is no spiritual/religious reason for choosing that number and so it comes across as a conscientious oral transmission of a received tradition, rather than simply one person's guesstimate.

Moreover, Rabbi Yehoshua had a reputation for impeccable honesty; it is highly unlikely that he would have made up these numbers or guessed without telling us so. The clear intent of the passage is to convey an oral tradition.

This Talmudic passage is a mere five lines in the Talmud, about as significant as a puff of star dust in the Milky Way. Imagine the treasures available to those who make the effort to seek them. Shavuot is a great time to begin.

How to celebrate with your family or on your own? Take a little time tonight or tomorrow – maybe five minutes, and study a little Torah, just a little more than you ordinarily would on a Thursday night.

Chag Sameach.