Friday, January 26, 2007

The Right Stuff

Dedicated by an anonymous supporter in memory of Maisha Laibel ben Tilly.

In honor of my Uncle Lowell’s shiva this week, I’m inaugurating the Yiddish of the Week. This is an experimental section, please tell me if you like it, dislike it or are indifferent. It will be followed by a regular Table Talk on the same theme.

anee (“uh-nee”) — a poor person
koptsen — a professional beggar, a shnorrer
ballaboss — homeowner, community member

An anee found a wallet with ninety dollars in it. Also in the wallet was a name and address, and a note: “If found please return – ten dollar reward.”
The anee rushed to the address, a beautiful home, where a servant led him to the ballaboss. The ballaboss thanked him, counted the money and said, “I see you have already removed your ten dollar reward.”
“What? No! Never! I swear I didn’t!”
The ballaboss shook his head, “There were one hundred dollars in the wallet.”
“I swear to you on my mother’s grave!”
But the ballaboss wanted to do the right thing. He called the rabbi and asked him to come over. When the rabbi arrived, each told his side of the story. Then the anee appealed for mercy. “Please Rebbe, don’t punish me for doing a mitzvah!”
But the ballaboss countered, “Rabbi, who are you going to believe, me or that koptsen?
The rabbi stroked his beard and finally said, “I have the solution” and he promptly took the wallet from the ballaboss and handed it to the anee.
“But Rabbi,” protested the ballaboss, how is that fair?
“You said that your wallet definitely had 100 dollars in it. This wallet only has ninety dollars. Therefore it is obviously not your wallet. We shall just have to wait until somebody finds a wallet with 100 dollars in it.

+ + + +

That story leads to a question, another short story, and another question.

The driving question for the table is: What’s the bottom line for you? What’s the most important thing in your life? What are you living for more than anything else?

Here’s Uncle Lowell’s story:

“When I returned from the war in Europe, I was stationed at Ft. Lewis (near Tacoma, Wash). It was fortunate because my dear wife and two year old son whom I’d never seen were both living in Tacoma.

“Come the day of my discharge, I went to the sergeant to get the paperwork and he informed me that according to military rules, I was just one day short of an automatic pay raise. If I would stay in the army just one extra day, my pension would increase by a significant amount every month. I don’t remember exactly how much, maybe thirty or sixty dollars – back then, that was a lot of money, especially for a young man with a family and not even a job to go to.

“But I was so intent on getting out of there and being with my wife and son – and so sick of the army by then - that you couldn’t have paid me enough to stay an extra day. I didn’t give his offer even a moment’s thought. ”

(Did you ever regret not getting the extra money?)

“Not ever. I never looked back. My family was always the bottom line.”

Nice story right?

Only one small problem: It’s not true.

Wait – I don’t mean the story’s not true. As far as I know, the story is 100 percent accurate. What’s not true is the last line. Lowell’s family was not the bottom line. Neither is mine, nor is yours.

How do I know? Because if his family had been the bottom line, he would never have gone off to war in the first place. He would have found some way to get out of the service (he was 25, after all) and not risked his life and stayed with his family.

The reason that he served and risked never seeing his family again is because he knew what we all know: the real bottom line is doing what’s right. Knowing that you did the right thing is a stronger drive even than enjoying your loved ones.

It’s such a powerful drive, in fact, that no matter what we do, we typically rationalize and tell ourselves, “Under the circumstances, it was the right thing to do” or better yet, “There is no absolute right or wrong, it’s a judgment call.” I love that last one because then you can always decide that you’re doing the right thing.

Sadly, many people are only moved to do the right thing out of fear. How often do you drive the speed limit even though other people are driving faster?

Uncle Lowell by his own account enlisted in the army to fight the Nazis. Maybe he thought it was inevitable that he would serve. But that’s still a heck of a lot better than being drafted and dragged kicking and screaming.

Question – who/what are the Nazis/pharaohs to fight these days? How do we define “the right thing” so that we can all start doing it together?

Shabbat Shalom

Friday, January 19, 2007

Uncle Lowell

In memory of my great uncle Lowell Adelson of San Francisco, who died this week at 89. He liberated concentration camps with the 102nd Infantry and earned a Bronze Star. Before that he was the former international head of BBYO. He was sharp as a knife until the end, but his heart just wore out.

I would like to share a war story that he told me last summer.

If you ever want to get a senior to tell stories, ask them about about their childhood. He told me about growing up in Oakland. His parents were divorced and between the two of them, attended Conservative, Orthodox and Reform synagogues. Here is his summary of his Jewish education:

“My grandfolks were very active in Judaism, so I was stuck! I had to go to Talmud Torah from 8 until 14. A year after my bar mitzvah (I was abused!) – after school every day. Sunday too! I was president of the class or some damn thing. I used to bring the cookies, my mother had a grocery store, she gave me a whole bunch of animal cookies, I used to bring the whole thing, and I was in charge of distributing, that made me a big shot. Boy, I hadn’t thought of that in a hundred years.”

Somehow that Jewish education stuck with him and gave an unusual sense of Jewish pride for a mainstream American Jew that carried over into the war. I asked him if there was anti-Semitism in the army. Here’s what he said:

There was stupidity in the army then, not anti-Semitism – for instance, we were on the Rhine river, there was a guy there who sold coal. This Sergeant looks out the window and says, “Jesus Christ, look at that guy, Germans are throwing grenades and he’s selling coal. Must be a Jew!”

I didn’t care about anything, getting court marshaled or whatever. So I said, “Sergeant, you can kiss this Jewish boy’s behind.”

(Chuckles) It turned out, he was from some town in Texas. He never met a Jew. We got to talking, and we eventually became friends.

+ + +

I wonder how I would react if I were in a jeep in a war zone and my CO making such a comment. How would you?

Shabbat Shalom

Friday, January 12, 2007

Dark Matter

In honor of the birthday of Marc Sarosi - a walking example of the kind of human greatness portrayed below.

Have you ever been mugged? I hope it never happens to anyone. But if you were, how do you think you would react? If someone grabbed something of yours and ran off...would you shout? Call for help? Run after him?

The famous Chafetz Chaim (who died in 1933) was once walking down the street in Radin. Someone stopped him to ask for a handout. When he pulled out his wallet to give the beggar a coin, the beggar grabbed the wallet and ran off. The Chafetz Chaim ran after him and shouted, “I forgive you! You can keep it! I give it to you! It’s yours!”

When an onlooker asked the rabbi why he responded that way, he explained: “The guy is obviously in need, desperate even. Eventually, he’ll think about what he did and may regret it. So why should he then benefit from stolen goods? Let him enjoy what’s his!”

How was his attitude towards other human beings different than most of us that caused him to react in that way?

+ + +

That story is timeless, but not exactly news. Have you heard the biggest news this week?

No, I mean the BIGGEST.

The Hubble telescope team completed a 3-D map of the dark matter of the universe. They call it dark matter because they don’t know what else to call it. Maybe it’s not even matter at all. But something is pulling all of those stars and galaxies in ways that stars and galaxies are not supposed to move on their own. It’s like when your pants don’t fit as well as they used to; now, you don’t see any changes in your physique, in fact when you suck it in and turn at just the right angle, you can pretty much imagine yourself in good shape. But some invisible force is making those pants tight. The best candidate for that force, say the smart guys, is invisible extra matter.

Now, how would you feel if someone came along and took an X-ray photo of your extra matter and put it on the internet? That’s what happened this week to our poor universe. Not just a photo – a 3-D photo!

(Click here for small version)

Well, to be honest, it’s not an actual photo, what they did was like looking at the relative tightness of the pants at different parts of your waistline, and then made a guesstimate as to the shape of the hidden matter.

The moral is that things are really not what they seem to be.

That’s a very Jewish idea – maybe even the core idea of Judaism. The physical world appears real and the spiritual world appears imaginary. In reality, the spiritual world is real and the physical world illusory. We appear to be human beings trying to have a spiritual experience once in awhile, and in reality we are spiritual beings having a human experience. There appears to be a real attempt to win the war in Iraq. In reality, there is a real attempt to appear like we’re winning the war in Iraq (that appears to be a cynical political comment but in reality it’s an empathetic spiritual comment). There appears to be a need to amass great wealth. In reality, there is a great need to give.

This last one is the biggest one of all. The most fundamental spiritual act is to give something that I feel is mine because I made it. There is a kabbalistic teaching that this spiritual practice is so fundamental to our human experience that we are each given 10 percent more income than we deserve, just so that we can give it away to worthy causes. If we don’t give that 10 percent, it will be taken from us. But due to our human illusions, giving that full 10 percent is so hard for a typical human that it is a definition of true greatness.

Shabbat Shalom.

UPCOMING PROGRAMS – email linda at for details

Jan 22-24 – Chicago (four different venues)
Jan 29-Feb 12 (Mondays) – three-part advanced Art of Amazement series in Baltimore
Feb 13 – Mill Valley – The Tribe (with Tiffany Shlain)
Mar 9-13 – San Francisco Bay Area, Shabbat Scholar-in-Residence and other programs

Friday, January 05, 2007


This Table Talk is dedicated to the memory of Dovid ben Gershon, one of the great “shleimut” oriented people who ever walked this planet (explanation below). To dedicate a future Table Talk, send an email.


The question of the week is this: When you’re playing a football, basketball or baseball game (or any game), what do you want to happen?

If you ask that to an average person, especially a young person, he or she will probably look at you as if to say, “That’s the dumbest question I heard this week!” If someone reacts that way to the question, tell them this story.

This story has been going around the Jewish world for a few years.

It’s about a boy named Shaya. Shaya was “special”. He was slower than the other boys. His brain worked slower and his body worked slower.

Shaya attended a Jewish boys’ school and he played with his classmates on a Jewish baseball league. Their team was called the Allstars.

Shaya wasn’t very good. He couldn’t hit the ball, he couldn’t catch the ball, he always forgot which way to run.

But his classmates were nice to him, always gave him a high-five and he loved being part of the team, wearing the uniform and getting his turn at bat just like the other boys.

At the end of the sixth-grade season, the Allstars had made it into the championship game against the Whitesox. At the bottom of the ninth, with two outs, the Allstars were down by two points, there was one man on base and guess what....Shaya was up.

If I told you that they put someone else up in his place that would be untrue. His team put Shaya up in the normal batting order (rules are rules after all...). They all realized that they were not going to win the game, but they encouraged Shaya anyway, why shouldn’t he have fun? “Go gettem, Shaya!” Who knows, maybe there would be a miracle?

When the Whitesox pitcher saw who was up to bat, he smiled and walked halfway to home plate. Then he pitched the slowest underhand pitch he could. Shaya swung and missed.

“That’s OK, Shaya,” his teammates shouted. “Keep your eye on that ball!”

The pitcher took a few steps closer and pitched again, as gingerly as he could launch that ball. Shaya swung and missed.

Then one of Shaya’s teammates stepped up behind him and helped him hold the bat. The Whitesox pitcher tossed a third lazy ball, right over the strike zone. With help, Shaya made contact on the ball and it went in a lazy arch right towards the pitcher.

This is when the excitement started. The Whitesox pitcher dodged the ball and let it land on the ground. Seeing that it was a fair ball, Shaya’s teammates yelled, “Run, Shaya, run!!” Shaya started to run the wrong way and his batting-buddy steered him towards first base.

Meanwhile, the Whitesox pitcher picked up the ball and through it towards first base. But he threw it in such a high arc that it went way over the head of the firstbaseman and landed near the edge of the field. Shaya was still running, and his teammates were all yelling, “Run Shaya, run!!” When Shaya got to first, he hesitated but his coach pointed him towards second. Meanwhile, the firstbaseman had retrieved the ball and was throwing it towards second. But he, too, overthrew his teammate by a mile, allowing Shaya to make it to second. Already Shaya’s two teammates who had been on base made it home and the score was tied. By now, everyone, not only the Allstars but even the Whitesox, they were going crazy, yelling “Run, Shaya, run!” Shaya was running for his life!

The same thing happened at third – the outfielder who picked up the ball threw it over the head of the thirdbaseman and Shaya rounded third! He was on his way home and all of the parents in the stands were on their feet, everyone was yelling, “Run, Shaya, run!!”

When Shaya made it home, he was swarmed by both teams, the Allstars and the Whitesox, who lifted him up on their shoulders and chanted, “Shaya, Shaya, Shaya!”

Some people hear this story and they are put off, because sports is about winning, right?

Those boys reached sheleimut that day. Same root as shalom. Maybe you can define it. More important, can this value be taught? Or does it just happen?

By the way, in case you don’t believe that such a story would ever happen, watch this amazing newsreel from Rochester, NY:

Then ask yourself, again: Can this value be taught, or does it just happen?

Shabbat Shalom.

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