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.