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.

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Anonymous said...
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Suzanne said...

Kudos. You outdid yourself this week.

Here are my three most burning questions:

1) The Amidah on weekdays and Shabbos is different. From what I've read, the reason is that on Shabbos you shouldn't ask for your everyday needs, because on Shabbos those needs are taken care of. However, at the end of the Shabbos Amidah you're still asking for things. I think guarding my tongue from evil is pretty much an everyday need. Also, if it's not ok to ask for the everyday Amidah things on Saturday, how come it's ok to say tehillim and ask for people to get well and for personal stuff?

2) Yizkor. What does it really do for the souls you're saying it for? Is there a time limit? How come we don't say yizkor for great-great-great-great-great grandparents?

3) How do you get access to the oral Torah? Is there a Website? Because if we don't have access, how are we supposed to know the fine points and the true meaning of things we read in the Torah?

Rabbi Seinfeld said...

Suzanne, thank you for the compliment. Each of your questions requires a full-page reply (at least)'s my stab at a nutshell. You might try posting #2 on and you will likely get a more comprehensive answer. Here is a short but sweet answer. Here is an article by the expert, Rabbi Lamm.

1. OK to ask for things needed on Shabbos.
2. Helps us have proper awareness of them. No time limit, and in my siddur it includes a paragraph for any ancestors. See articles linked above.
3. Need to get yourself to someone who can teach it to you orally. Where do you live? Maybe I can help you find some options.

Thanks for your comments/questions. Feedback always welcome.

Suzanne said...

I live about a half-hour from your neck of the woods. I'm taking your class next week.