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.