Friday, August 25, 2006

Airports and Their Discontents

This Table Talk is dedicated in memory of Yehudis bas Alexander Ziskin.
To dedicate a future Table Talk, write

Do you have an airport nightmare story?

Who doesn’t?

Delayed flights, lost baggage, missed connections... Anyone who has traveled has been there. How many times have I heard, “I’ll never fly on X Airline again”, when all of these problems occur on every airline.

When we had to cut short our Israel trip after two days for my grandmother’s funeral, my mom’s suitcase didn’t make it to San Francisco and the airline knew where it was but, maddingly, couldn’t figure out how to get it to us. But every time I found myself feeling the slightest twinge of frustration, I thought of the next woman in line at the lost baggage claim, who was weeping.

“What’s wrong,” my mom asked her. “Did you lose something particularly valuable?”

“Yes,” sobbed the woman, “My daughter!”

It seems her unaccompanied-minor daughter didn’t show up, and an airline rep had sent her to lost baggage for help!

No matter how bad it seems, there’s always someone who has it worse.

Not only that, but the fact that we have a functioning air transport system is a wonderful thing. If I plan ahead of time for contingencies, I don’t mind the delays. I’m puzzled by the fact that while 100 of us waited at baggage claim for 45 minutes, I appeared to be alone in opening a book. Everyone else seemed to prefer watching the pot boil.

Anything as complex and human as an airport is bound to have snafus. So many people responded favorably to what I wrote on June 9, it maybe bears repeating here.....

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.

Here’s an interesting question to ask: did you ever feel sorry for yourself and then get over it?

* * * *

This morning, synagogues around the world blew the shofar, a daily 30-second practice to start getting into the mood for Rosh Hashana, only four short weeks away.

If you ever thought about learning to blow the shofar, it’s easier than you might think (what’s hard is blowing it 100 times on Rosh Hashana). The key is to get a shofar that is easier to blow. Since they are hand-made, there is a great deal of variation in quality. At your local Judaica store, try out a few different shofars and choose the one that is easiest. The general rule is bigger = easier. If you would like a free copy of my Shofar how-to flyer, please ask.

Here is an online guide to buying a shofar:

Although nothing compares to hearing it in person, here are links to online shofar blasts: Live and Studio.

Afterwards, try taking a look at Psalm 27, a meditative poem-song that is said after the four shofar blasts wakes you up.

Only four short weeks...

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, August 18, 2006

The Chosen

Are you chosen?
Are we?
For what?
By whom?
Have you ever revisited an activity from your childhood with adult eyes?
Have you ever searched for something and discovered that it was right under your nose?

I was camping in the woods of Western Washington State with my son Avrami yesterday, where we took a long “hike” down an old trail. He was so overwhelmed by the beauty and and newness of it all that he had told me upon arrival, “Abba, I just want to camp and cook out and hike and find things and see things all at once!”

We walked in brisk early morning air, with faint hints of sea breeze wafting from the Puget Sound, looking at interesting, gnarly old trees, insects, and so on. This walk felt so familiar, something I did umpteen times in woods as a child.

Suddenly a particular shrub jumped out at me, striking me as something particularly familiar... Of course, this is a huckleberry tree. This is what my own father showed me how to identify in some forgotten dreamlike memory. But where are the berries? Have we missed the season, or is it too early?

Having made the ID, Avrami now joined the search for ripe huckleberries. Tree after tree was found, none of them with fruit.

Finally, as we neared the less-overgrown coastline, to our great enthusiasm, we started to find ripe huckleberries. Avrami got lost in the moment, a moment of wonder and delight. He helped me do the same.

The word “fruit” comes from the Latin for “enjoy” (as in Spanish disfrutar) but some suspect that it comes from the Hebrew cognate, peirot. When you eat a fruit for the first time in the season – all the moreso the first time ever – it gets elevated by 2 brachas - “borei pri ha-ayts” (”creating the fruit of the tree”) and “shechianu” (thanks for bringing me to this wonderful seasonal moment). That tradition made the disfructation sublime.

Here’s the punchline: when we returned to camp, we discovered that our tent was literally surrounded by huckleberry bushes, each one bursting with ripe fruit. Had we opened up our eyes, we would have had them for breakfast.

So we enjoyed them for lunch.

The Torah which teaches how to elevate an experience with a bracha calls the bearers of this wisdom “chosen”....for what?

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Biggest News of the Week

This Table Talk is in honor of the two Israeli soldier’s whom my family has “adopted”: Tovia Baruch ben Rachel Frayda and David Shlomo ben Rachel Frayda. To adopt a soldier, send an email to For more info, send me an email.

Biggest News of the Week

While I was out of town this week, my wife called to report that our two-year-old had decided to potty-train himself, and simultaneously learned how to climb out of his crib.

Out goes the crib, in comes the bed.

While she was setting up the bed, he watched with terrific appreciation: “Bed for me, Mommy? Thank you, thank you!” he said over and over. He was so pleased.

When do people stop appreciating and start each other for granted?

So many people do things for us. One could argue that the woman at the Safeway check-out is just doing her job. But one could say that about your mother too. In both situations, here is another human being who is doing something for me that she doesn’t have to do. Even if she doesn’t need to hear thank you, I need to feel it, and to say it.

One family I know has an uplifting custom every Friday night: each person mentions something that someone did for them this week that they appreciate. We call this “giving hakarat ha-tov” (some say “hakaras ha-tov”) which means recognizing the good. Even better, ask each person to give hakarat ha-tov to two people, one in the family and one from outside the family.

The word “Jew” comes from “Judah” or “Yehuda” which means thankful.

- - - - -

Up in occupied Lebanon (now who’s the occupier and who’s the occupied?), there are as you read this thousands of Israelis who have left their families in order to try to help the rest of the world by checking, if not destroying, a terrible scourge. We owe them and their families a tremendous hakarat ha-tov for their personal and national sacrifices.

If you have any lingering doubts about Israel’s current mission, please see the following links:

Photo Fraud

Lebanon Myths
New York Times Magazine (this NY Times link expires Sunday; if you miss it, email me as I’ve saved a copy)

Other ways to help:

1. Rambam Hospital in Haifa: http://WWW.RAMBAM.ORG.IL
2. For displaced children:
3. To help displaced families:
4. Tell the White House what you think: 202-456-1111 or

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Jewish Meditation

In memory of Yehudis bas Alexander Ziskin. To dedicate a future Table Talk, please send an email.

The world has changed a little bit since we returned to America from Israel six years ago. One of the changes that I am sensitive to is the increase in existential challenges to the Jewish People (some would say that this is not so new).

Soon after I had arrived to Silicon Valley in 2000, I found myself in the office of a certain prominent venture capitalist. My goal was for him to study with me, and thereby become a role model for others.

His objection: "I don't know what we have to talk about, Rabbi, you see, I don't believe in God."

"That's OK," I retorted with a straight face, "I don't either."

His nonplussed expression told me that this was not what he expected to hear from a rabbi.

I explained: "I'm sure whatever you mean by God I don't believe in either."

A similar common objection to studying that I often hear is this:

"No thanks, Rabbi, I'm frankly not interested in organized religion."

To which I have the same retort: "That's OK, I'm not either."

Let's face it: most Jews have had at best a cursory Jewish education. If you are one of those, how can you make an intelligent choices about anything Jewish? Is it possible that a 3,300-year-old tradition has something for you? If you decide not to study as an adult, you are effectively choosing not to peek inside a room that may contain....?

Here's an example. Try posing this quiz at your table:

What's the main reason to go to synagogue?

A) to pray
B) to socialize
C) to be a good Jew
D) to meditate
E) to give the kids a Jewish experience

In my humble opinion, the correct answer is D (see Ch 1 of my book).

One small example is the Shema Yisrael (Ch. 6). This little piece of liturgy is by all measures a meditation, not a prayer. When you learn the details of how the Torah says to use it, I think you will agree! (maybe I'm wrong; let me know).

The Torah doesn't say anything about going to synagogue. If that helps you in a meditative way, all the power to you. But if you can accomplish that level of kavana (mental and emotional focus) better at home, then that's the best place for you to practice your Judaism.

Of course, the first thing to do is to study. I would like to challenge you and your dinner table to find out what the Shema really means (Ch. 6) and how it is used meditatively.

It is also something like the Jewish People's mission statement. In this day and age, when we are under fire around the world, whether you are wearing your Judaism on your sleeve (or head) or not, the Shema is a private way to declare that you're a member of the Tribe.

Shabbat Shalom.

(Our condolences to the Seattle Jewish community on the not-random murder of one of their beloved leaders last week; in Baltimore, a molotov cocktail thrown at the JCC-Baltimore Hebrew Univ. complex on Wednesday, but has not grabbed national headlines because the police haven't labeled it a hate crime.)

If you would like to help Israelis in dire need, there are many opportunities. See last week's Table Talk. There are also organizations housing refugees from the North in hotels, getting their kids into summer camps, etc, and funds are badly needed.