Friday, December 31, 2010

Knowledge v. Wisdom

Congratulations to our friend Eric Swergold who is going solo as of January 1, 2011 in a new venture called Firestorm Capital. There's nothing harder, nor more rewarding, than "hanging out your shingle". More on this topic next week.

This week, an anecdote, 2 questions, and a story.

The anecdote:

One reader of last week's blog complained that the question, "Is this weekly Table Talk worth a nickel?" wouldn't really go over well at their Friday night dinner table, as not everyone there reads it.

I pointed out that they should consider last week like pledge week on NPR - you know, diminished content in order to remind you to send in your nickel.

Well, thank you to everyone who contributed a nickel (or more) to our non-profit mission, which is described here. Total Table Talk contributions for the end-of-the-year have reached nearly $2,000. Your generosity is quite literally making this and other programs possible.

Look at these two emails we received recently, the first is from someone less connected:

The Art of Amazement has resonated very well with me as its contents are directed at a number of principles I have already sought to incorporate into my life, and by citing Judaism as one of the greatest ways of achieving these goals it does a great deal to ease my hesitation in becoming a more connected Jew.

The second comes from someone who describes herself as "religious":

My friend and I were searching for a meaningful book on prayer. Your book "The Art of Kavanah" opened our eyes to the spiritual potential of our Judaism - the very spiritually that had pulled us into the fold, but gotten lost on ritual and rote.

Thank you for your publishing and your work in this area, your books have forever changed our relationship with Hashem.

(If you still want to put your nickel in the pushkeh (that's Yiddish for collection box), click here.)

Also, thank you to everyone who completed the 2-minute annual Table Talk reader survey, which is extremely helpful to us in creating this and other services. You can still find it here.

This reader's question (above) prompted me to wonder about the following question...

Question 1What's the difference between knowledge and wisdom?

Try asking that at the table, and see what people say.

It seems to me that knowledge is information and wisdom is the ability to process information and make decisions.

What's interesting is that most people are willing to pay for knowledge but fewer seem willing to pay for wisdom.

For example, people will pay a lot of money to learn how to make money. But every year I find that only a minority will contribute a nickel a week to learn how to live a meaningful life.

This observation leads to...

Question 2 - Why is that?

(I have two theories, but would like to hear yours.)

Shabbat Shalom

...with blessings for a happy, healthy and fruitful 2011!

PS... we are now putting an amazing-video-of-the-week on our homepage - you'll love this one!

PPS - I'm sure I mentioned my new iphone/ipod/ipad app, right?

The goal of this blog is to give you a conversation-starter for your Friday night dinner table. Please print and share.

Friday, December 24, 2010


Happy Birthdays this week and next to Lily and Suzanne - neither of you have hit your prime yet, but keep up the great work - you're getting there! (;-)>
Two amazing things for you this week:

When the Arab Street rises up, the Jewish Street looks for somewhere to hide.

We shall cower no more.

Background: People frequently ask me about the compatibility of Judaism with Eastern traditions, including Buddhism, Yoga and the martial arts.

As you may know, the first two I deal with in The Art of Amazement and in several classes such as this.

Today, for the first time, here's something about the martial arts.

Some believe (based on passages in Tanach) that King David's soldiers practiced a form of martial arts.

There is a small but growing movement to restore or recreate an authentic Torah martial arts (Torah-do?).

And we're not talking IDF here. Check this out:

See more here:

This leads to 2 questions for your table....

1. After looking at that link and those videos, do you buy it?
2. Do we need a "Jewish martial arts"?

Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Reader is Always Right

Dedicated to the loving memory of Bert Walker and Avraham ben Leib Samuels, whose Yahrzeits were recently observed. They were both men of high moral character and both deeply devoted to their families.

This week, 2 things: Something from you to me and a treat from me to you.

From You to Me

It's that time of year again, time for me to ask for your anonymous feedback on this blog. It means a lot to me to hear from you, please take a minute or two to complete only 10 questions:

While we're on the subject, I would like to invite you to a behind-the-scenes look at what Jewish Spiritual Literacy is doing lately....

In addition to spending our Friday mornings crafting and delivering stories and questions for your nourishment, this non-profit organization spends the rest of the week bringing this Table-Talk type of Judaism to individuals and groups around the country.

Some pay their way and others – notably college programs – don’t have the funds to cover our costs. We also train teachers teach Judaism in a hands-on, spiritually rich pedagogy ("Art-of-Amazement style").

AND we give away thousands of books every year. Technically, we sell them at a loss, otherwise they don’t have a budget for them.

Check this out:

"Being able to walk away with a physical copy of the ideas you presented was a great opportunity, as most speeches that inspire me seem to slip out of reach when I get caught back up in the hustle of life. The Art of Amazement has resonated very well with me as its contents are directed at a number of principles I have already sought to incorporate into my life, and by citing Judaism as one of the greatest ways of achieving these goals it does a great deal to ease my hesitation in becoming a more committed Jew.” - Univ. of Maryland student

We are enabling teachers to inspire their students of all ages and parents to transmit a Judaism that works.

On that vein, our pilot "Love Your Neighbor" program is organizing and training volunteers in Jewish communities to visit senior living facilities on Shabbat, so that the residents can enjoy kiddush and the feeling of being connected to a community and so that the volunteers and their children can feel connected to the seniors.

Next week I'll send you our winter newsletter with the details of these and our other programs.

Simply by reading this blog, you are part of a national effort to uncover and promote this kind of engaging, down-to-earth, spiritual Judaism.

But to close out 2010, I would like to ask you to transform your participation into a partnership.

Maybe you don't read the blog/email every week. Maybe you only enjoy it on occasion. What's it worth to you? A quarter? A nickel?

There’s your question of the week: Is the thought-provoking Table Talk worth a nickel to you?

If so, please use the address or link below to send in your nickel. But if you want, I’ll offer you something on top of partnership just to sweeten the relationship. 5¢ a week comes to two-and-a-half bucks a year. If you are willing to double that – 10¢ a week or $5 for the year, I’ll send you a thank you gift that I know you’re going to enjoy. I’ll send you an exclusive podcast from the JSL archives, "From Hangnails to Hurricanes - An Ancient Approach to Suffering".

Please send your tax-deductible donation to:

Jewish Spiritual Literacy, Inc.
3700 Menlo Drive
Baltimore, MD 21215-3620
A 501(c)3 organization.

On-line (credit card, paypal, google):

(If there is an honoree or dedication, please let us know. All gifts will be gratefully acknowledged.)

All of these programs, including this blog, incur costs. Someone is paying for them (and none of them are meeting the full demand due to funding realities). For those who are already partners in this effort, thank you. For everyone, I so appreciate your occasional feedback (both enthusiastic and critical).

But if you have been enjoying this blog (even on occasion) for free, or if you find any of our projects meaningful, please become a member today for 5¢ or more a week.

But whether or not this is a good time for you to become a member or renew your membership, please do help by completing a the one-minute anonymous on-line survey.

This week, I'm asking you to step up to the metaphorical plate. Next week, an amazing new way to step up to the physical plate. Stay tuned....

From Me to You

Now that that's behind us... the "From Me to You" section of this email....

Remember the two dedications at the top of this email? Both of those men have grandsons who are making this world a better place through music.

Here's Brandon Walker's classic music video, "Chinese Food for Xmas".

And here's a Bobby Samuels beat-hiphop sample: "Keep Walkin'". Enjoy.

Shabbat Shalom

PS – want to help without spending a dime? This video will show you how to support your favorite non-profit just by searching the web:

Or go straight to their site:

Business as Unusual

Mazal tov to our friends Ben and Lindy Sovin of London on the birth of a baby boy this week.

Thank you again to all those who contributed to our successful pledge drive in December. We raised nearly $2,000 in small (under $500) contributions and about as much in large contributions. Your support makes this Table Talk as well as our other programs possible.

This personal account by Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz is a great conversation starter for your dinner table....

"A Blanket of Trust"

At the end of the day, when business is really good, it's not about building a brand or making money. That's a means to an end. It's about honoring the human spirit, honoring the people who work in the business and honoring the customer.

When I was in Israel, I went to Mea Shearim, the ultra-Orthodox area within Jerusalem. Along with a group of businessmen, I had the opportunity to have an audience with Rabbi [Nosson Tzvi] Finkel, the head of a yeshiva there [Mir Yeshiva]. I had never heard of him and did not know anything about him. We went into his study and waited ten to 15 minutes for him. Finally, the doors opened.

What we did not know was that Rabbi Finkel was severely afflicted with Parkinson's disease. He sat down at the head of the table, and, naturally, our inclination was to look away. We did not want to embarrass him.

We were all looking away, and we heard this big bang on the table: "Gentlemen, look at me, and look at me right now." Now his speech affliction was worse than his physical shaking. It was really hard to listen to him and watch him. He said, "I have only a few minutes for you because I know you are all busy American businessmen." You know, just a little dig there.

Then he asked, "Who can tell me what the lesson of the Holocaust is?" He called on one guy, who did not know what to do - it was like being called on in the fifth grade without the answer. And the guy says something benign like, "We will never, ever forget." And the rabbi completely dismisses him. I felt terrible for the guy until I realized the rabbi was getting ready to call on someone else. All of us were sort of under the table, looking away - you know, please, not me. He did not call me. I was sweating. He called on another guy, who had such a fantastic answer: "We will never, ever again be a victim or bystander."

The rabbi said, "You guys just do not get it. Okay, gentlemen, let me tell you the essence of the human spirit.

"As you know, during the Holocaust, the people were transported in the worst possible, inhumane way by railcar. They thought they were going to a work camp. We all know they were going to a death camp.

"After hours and hours in this inhumane corral with no light, no bathroom, cold, they arrived at the camps. The doors were swung wide open, and they were blinded by the light. Men were separated from women, mothers from daughters, fathers from sons. They went off to the bunkers to sleep.

"As they went into the area to sleep, only one person was given a blanket for every six. The person who received the blanket, when he went to bed, had to decide, 'Am I going to push the blanket to the five other people who did not get one, or am I going to pull it toward myself to stay warm?'"

And Rabbi Finkel says, "It was during this defining moment that we learned the power of the human spirit, because we pushed the blanket to five others."

And with that, he stood up and said, "Take your blanket. Take it back to America and push it to five other people."

Question for your table: What's your "blanket"? What could you do that you are not already doing?

Shabbat Shalom

PS - Have you seen our amazing video of the week?

The goal of this blog is to give you a conversation-starter for your Friday night dinner table. Please print and share.

Friday, December 17, 2010


Happy Birthday to our daughter Devorah who turned 5 this week (on the Hebrew calendar).

Two questions for your table:

1. What's the single most effective way to motivate yourself, to get yourself to focus?
2. What's the single most effective way to motivate children?

I'll answer the second one first, with a story.

As you probably know, we got a bit of snow yesterday here in Bal-more.

Newly and proudly five-year-old Devorah is always the first child home from school.

She races in yesterday and blurts out, "Where's the snow shovel?" After a somewhat lengthy process of getting her fitted with boots, gloves and pink snow pants, she saunters outside and begins shoveling the walkway. No one asked her to do this. Her orange kiddy snow shovel is about 1/4 the size of a regular shovel. Try to picture this. After she finishes the walk, she lays down in the one inch of fresh powder to make an angel (takes one to make one?).

Where did she get this from?

Now, for question #1...

Sit down and write out - don't just think it or say it, actually write it out - what you hope they will say at your funeral.

Dream big. Pretend you were living at your fullest potential, and give yourself a long life (120 years, let's say).

Try presenting this challenge at your dinner table. People who are living for a meaningful life purpose are happier and more successful than everyone else around them.

If you find that exercise too morbid for the dinner table, try asking everyone to comment on these two quotes:

"If I have a why, I can suffer almost any how." - Nietzsche
"Better to go to a house of mourning than a house of feasting." - King Solomon

True or false?

Shabbat Shalom

PS - did you know that the JSL website has a list of recommended books for all types of readers? Click here:

PPS - I'm sure I mentioned my new iphone/ipod/ipad app, right? Now you can get it for a friend, even if you don't have an iphone/ipod/ipad...Here's the link:

The goal of this blog is to give you a conversation-starter for your Friday night dinner table. Please print and share.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Wikileaks - the Diaper Edition

Mazal tov to our daughter Tehila Yehudis who turned 1 this week. She celebrated the day and the season by springing a major wikileak in her diaper during the shul Channuka party (meaning, other were able to participate with her)....

It seems to me that the mixed reactions we're hearing to Wikileaks comes from the feeling that some types of speech are more ethical than others.

Ethical speech (lashon tov) is helpful, unethical speech is harmful (lashon hara).

Without a doubt, some of the recent leaks were harmful and hard for anyone to justify. Therefore, the entire enterprise is called into question.

But let's turn the spotlight onto ourselves, for our Table Talk question of the week:

Question 1 - If somebody you know has a secret that becomes publicized, is it then OK to talk about it?

Question 2 - If you knew a secret that you were sworn to keep but believed it would be helpful to publicize, would you keep a diaper on it, or would you spill the beans?

Shabbat Shalom

PS - Beans Song on Youtube

Friday, December 03, 2010

Channuka Fire

As you read this, the worst forest fire in modern times is raging in the Carmel Mountains in the Land of Israel. 40 people have been killed and thousands evacuated from their homes in Haifa. Today's Table Talk is dedicated to the firefighters from Israel and neighboring countries who are grappling with this epic blaze, and to everyone living there who haven't had a drop of rain since the spring.


I walk into the house on the first night of Channuka and declare joyfully, "Happy Hannuka". Yosephi (1st grade) looks up from his coloring project and says, "Hannuka, what's Hannuka? I've never heard of Hannuka. It's Channuka!"

Sounds like the makings for a dispute....

Question for your table: How many famous disputants can you name from history?

Let's see, there's

* Socrates and Protagoras
* Lincoln and Douglas
* Bert and Ernie
* Siskel and Ebert

Hmmm.... is this a decline or is it just me?

In the Talmud, the most famous pair are Hillel and Shammai, and their academies, "Beit Hillel" and "Beit Shammai".

Among all of their disagreements, the most colorful Hillel-Shammai dispute is about Channuka. Beit Hillel (who wins the argument most of the time) state that the Channuka menorah should be lit with one additional candle each night, until on the last night there are 8 candles. Sound familiar?

Can you guess what Beit Shammai say?

Start with 8 candles on the first night, then 7 and so on until you have only one on the last night.

Question #2 -
What are the advantages to going like Beit Shammai? What are the advantages to following Beith Hillel?

This video from Charlie Harary in my opinion is a Beit-Shammai video:

While this video from yours, truly is a Beit Hillel video:

Happy Hannuka and Shabbat Shalom

PS - has featured my iphone app on the home page - check it out here (you can also read all about the fire there).

PPS - Need a last-minute holiday gift? My iPhone/iPad app can now be gifted - click here: The Amazing Jewish Fact-a-Day Calendar.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Picture of a Fall

Dedicated to my mom, Chaya bas Yehudis, a speedy and complete recovery from her fall. Go figure - the one chapter in the entire Torah when someone is wounded on their hip and walks with a limp, and that's when it happens to her. Fortunately, like Jacob after wresting the angel, she is only temporarily lame, and on the mend.

Did you ever see a painting that was so compelling, you just wanted to step into it?

Once-friendly once-green giants saying farewell,
their grande finale competition
flamingly yellow, pumpkinly orange, shockingly red
their paint splatters crunch
in a proverbial way
and crisp oxygen revives your crusty brain
but the the gloves, for the moment, lie in the winter box.

Here's the question for your table - What's more beautiful, spring or fall?

(Sorry.... just trying to distract you from being driven mad by your inlaws....;-) Send in your favorite fall impressions and appreciations, I'll post them next week and we'll make a random drawing of all submissions for a special Hannuka present.)

Speaking of Hannuka....

If you have a local Jewish bookstore or shop, PLEASE patronize it. But if you don't, use these links to get the goods:

Dairy Chocolate Gelt -
Parve Chocolate Gelt -
Big Adult Channuka book -
Book for toddlers -
Book for kids -
Book for adults -
Stickers -
100 dreidels -
Silly Bandz -
Noah’s Ark Menorah -
Safe-T Oil Menorah -
Sterling Menorah -
Artscroll Channuka Page -
Channuka Blessings Puzzle -

Here is a link to my previous missive on the Jewish take on Thanksgiving.

Happy Thanksgiving, Chappy Channuka and.....

Shabbat Shalom

PS, have you seen my amazing new iPhone/iPad app? (it can now be given as a gift, even if you don't have an iphone)

PPS - Have long been a fan of Dennis Prager; here's a good one from him:

Friday, November 12, 2010

It Is Personal

In honor of Lawrence and Amy Gallant, who were married last week in Boston and planning to live in San Jose.

In honor of my sister, Tzipora (and family) who welcomed a baby boy into the world this week, in Jerusalem. Mazal tov!

A strange thing happened to me a few days ago.

Perhaps you or someone at your table can explain it.

Maybe my confusion is because I'm biased.

I'm biased because I believe my own PR. The PR says that this book has changed many people's lives and helped them find what they were looking for. I get emails from Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform, Orthodox, Orthodox-Hasidic, Conservadox, Reformative and even plain ol' Jews, even from non-Jews, telling me that the book has helped them. After awhile you start to believe this stuff, know what I mean?

So here's what happened.

There is a certain rabbi who runs a certain educational program with hundreds of participants every year. Months ago I asked him if he would like to use the book as a follow-up tool, for his participants to take home after the program. We sent him a sample book, and I showed him how the book dovetails perfectly with his programming.

But he hemmed. He hawed. Via email and phone calls, he would not commit.

Then I heard he was going to be in New York. So last week I made a one-day drive to New York and back (actually New Jersey, so the train was not an option). I found him in his hotel five minutes before he was about to leave for the evening. We talked for those five minutes, and closed the deal. He will use the book for his next program.

This is my question for your table: What is it about the face-to-face meeting?

Shabbat Shalom

Meeting Franklin Roosevelt was like opening your first bottle of champagne; knowing him was like drinking it. - Churchill

PS - have you seen my amazing new iPhone/iPad app?



Wednesday, November 03, 2010


Happy birthday to 3 friends in San Francisco this week: David, Harmon and Stuart. May you live to 120 in health and radical amazement.

Want to create an animated discussion anywhere in the country this weekend? Ask the following question:

Besides the fact that they happened to have concluded the same week, what do elections and the World Series have in common?

I can think of a few things....

- They both result in winners and losers
- Winners rejoice and losers feel bad
- Some people work themselves into a frenzy over them, while others yawn.

Q2: But why the frenzy, why the yawn?

I'll be interested to hear what answers you get from the Table.

It seems to me that the common denominator is that in both cases, some people feel that the outcome is terribly important, while others feel that the outcome will not affect their lives too much.

And what's really interesting is how people who are passionate (about baseball or politics) can't really understand why anyone could be apathetic, yet the apathetic folks can't understand why anyone could be so passionate about something that "doesn't really matter".

This failure to communicate leads us to Q3:

Does passion around a contest REQUIRE that there always be winners and losers? Is there any way to choose leaders or to enjoy baseball without making half the participants feel like losers? And even if there is such a way, would that necessarily be desirable?

(Soapbox alert: I ordinarily like to leave these questions open, but some people always ask for MY answers....)

Here's what I'm thinking on this issue. In both politics and sports, during the process our news media have for some reason always focused on the outcomes rather than the substance.

Think, for example, is how much we have heard in the weeks leading up to the election about what the polls are saying. I ask you: how does reporting on polling assist the democratic process one iota? Should I cast my vote based on the polling? Or should I vote based on issues? If the latter, then I need to hear as much reporting as time will allow on the issues. Hearing the latest polling data may help the candidates, but it doesn't help the voters. Yet the pollsters have somehow wrested control of the news.

Moreover, in races that technically have more than 2 candidates, the news media routinely ignore minor-party candidates. They would rather portray a race as a simple 2-person match than a more complex dialog that it really is. This is because they want to make their reporting as sensational and entertaining as possible, and complex issues require the hardest of human efforts, thinking.

Sports are the same - the entire media focus leading up to and during the World Series is on forecasting the outcome - “Who's going to win?” as opposed to helping the public appreciate the beauty of the game and the skill of the players.

Perhaps if our news media shifted their focus to substance rather than winning and losing, both politics and baseball would create fewer "losers" and enjoy more people participating in and sharing the pleasure of the game.

Shabbat Shalom

PS – speaking of grappling with issues of passion, check out this innovative new book on Israel:

PPS – here’s a video of the SF victory parade:

Shabbat Shalom

Friday, October 29, 2010

Little Box of Horrors?

Got a couple interesting replies to my iphone app announcement.

One was from a guy I had met in 2003. I’d forgotten all about him, and he isn’t on this mailing list, so he’d forgotten all about me.

He wrote to tell me that after his flirtations with Judaism in 2003 he got burned out, and moved to Bali, where he produces art and poetry.

But, he writes, “I'm in New York because my mom, z'l, passed away last week. I'm doing Kaddish for the shloshim and them back to Bali. She was a holocaust survivor and inspirational woman. Nu, what's happened to you in the past 8 years besides the gevaldik iPhone app?”

First question of the day – we can understand why he went back to NY for the funeral. But why is he staying there? Why not do the Kaddish and shloshim back in Bali?

This week, Baltimore’s Jewish community hosted a man named Phil Rosenthal.

Phil has a very difficult job: to teach parents and teachers what they don’t know about their kids.

Specifically, he focused on “technologies” – computers and smart phones. These things have infiltrated our lives so quickly that we haven’t really integrated them into our values-system.

Therefore, they are thrusting into our living rooms and pockets the values of those who control the technology.

Most new phones and every ipod touch (and it goes without saying a computer) comes with the ability to surf the web, and if you don’t disable that feature, you’re giving that child the keys to a candy store.

You’re giving yourself the keys to a candy store.

So this leads to my first question: Do you agree that something’s wrong here, that we (many of us) have had our souls over-saturated with not only the best but also the worst of the Web?

My second question is, to the extent that this is true, what’s the antidote?

Probably can’t get rid of it like a TV. It’s getting harder and harder to do certain things without the Web.

So how do you create the right balance for yourself, and how should adults teach kids the right balance?

(As you know, the purpose of this blog is to give you food-for-talk at your Friday night dinner table, i.e., questions, not answers. In this case, I think the answers are obvious, but perhaps not. If you’d like to dialog on this, send me your answers and Ill send you mine.... Hint – it has something to do with roll-modeling.... )

Shabbat Shalom

PS – Here’s Phil’s website:


Friday, October 22, 2010

Hello, World

It's here, and it’s alive, very much alive:

If you have an iphone, ipod-touch or ipad, get yours now!

If you don't have an iphone, ipod-touch or ipad, boy are you a loser... (just kidding, I don't have one either!)

But seriously, click on the link just to see the fabulous screen shots, and please send the link to your friends and family who might enjoy this.

What does the Talmud say about airplanes? What did Louis Armstrong say about the Jews? Where is Hebrew hidden in a Shakespeare play?

And which iphone app keeps Shabbat?

(I believe after extensive testing that this app is bug-free. However, should you find a bug or a typo, kindly let me know and I'll send you a free copy of my CD, "Hannuka and the Secret of the 36".)

Last week I asked you how is it possible that I could have worked on this app for 8 years, given that there were no iphones 8 years ago?

The answer is I first developed it as a page-a-day wall calendar. But it turned out to be economically impossible to do and break even, because paper calendars have such a short sales-window. These new technologies mean it will never go out of date. Whatever day you start using the calendar, that's when it begins.

So here's the question of the week for your table
: What’s worth spending eight years of your life working on? How about eighteen? What about eighty? In other words, what would you be willing to work on for so long if you knew that you could succeed but only after so long?

Shabbat Shalom

Friday, October 15, 2010

Climb Out of That Hole

Life underground seems to be a theme of the week.

And patience.

Just as Switzerland completed a 20-year project to build the world’s longest tunnel... (

Just as the Chilean miners were emerging from their 70-day ultra slim-down retreat….

Two patience-required milestones happened in my life that were causes for personal joy. I just wanted to share these with you before I ask this week’s question.

Event #1 – after 12 years of work – yes, that’s not a typo, 12 years – I have in my hands the Hebrew version of the Art of Amazement. It was published just after Rosh Hashana in Jerusalem and it is exactly how I envisioned it. Small, paperback, beautiful cover.

1,000 extra copies were printed to send to Jewish centers around the world where young Israelis are wandering. (15,000 copies were requested, by the way.)

Event #2 – after 8 years of work, yesterday I submitted my very first iphone app to Apple.

How could it be, you ask, since the iphone hasn’t been around for 8 years?

I’ll leave that question unanswered for now. When the app is approved and I can unveil it to the world, then I will tell all.

Now, here’s the stumper for your table:

We live in a time of instant gratification. Food, information, communication, entertainment and you name it – can be enjoyed with the push of a button.

Some of us (including yours, truly) enjoy the slow, delayed gratification of home-grown vegetables.

But let’s face it. We’re all somewhat addicted to instant results. If a computer becomes sluggish, we get impatient, forgetting what computers were like just a few years ago.

One day I imagine our grandchildren are going to ask, “Tell us again that story about how phones used to drop the call…” or “Tell us that story about how you had to push buttons in order to call someone.”

So here’s the question: How can you get instant “spiritual” gratification?

(Remember the rules, there are no wrong answers, but ask at your table

Of course, there is the long-winded answer that I put into a book: (that’s cheaper than you can get it anywhere else)

Here’s a short-winded answer:

Give to someone.

The moment that you give to someone, you are getting outside of your own bubble. That’s the most basic spiritual experience.

We all pay lip-service to becoming more spiritually-connected.

Time to put your mullah where your mouth is.

Our friend Captain Shulman is now on assignment on the US base in Korea. He just sent a list of Jewish soldiers currently serving overseas.

Why don’t we – you and I – try to make sure that every one of these soldiers gets something for Hannuka. A card, some chocolate gelt, a box of small candles, a book, a silly toy. You name it.

If you know any kids, get them to MAKE cards. Hand-made cards are the best.

Email me for the names. Let me know how many you want.

(The cost of mailing is the same as a US address, but needs 10-14 days.)

Think about it.

(But not too hard.)

Shabbat Shalom

Friday, October 08, 2010

Begin Again Now

They were talking on the radio the other day about a new trend to delay retirement, or come out of retirement.

The claim is that not everyone is doing so because they need the money. Evidently, some have chosen to keep working in order to avoid boredom.


Try asking these 3 questions at your table:

Q1. Do you remember Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, or are they already a fading memory?

Q2. On a scale of 1-10, how much would you like this year to be a year of real personal growth (or reduction, for those trying to lose weight)?

Try getting this marvelous book: Begin Again Now, by Rabbi Pliskin.

The book is an encyclopedia of strategies for dealing with adversity, setbacks, frustrations, etc.

Question 3. (For those not yet retired:) If you stopped working today, either because you had enough money to retire or because you were laid off, what would you do with the rest of your life? (For those already retired: On a scale of 1-10, how meaningful is the rest of your life going to be?)

Retiring for leisure is not a Jewish value. A year of life that is not guided by a mission or sense of purpose is a wasted year.

Ran a marathon? Finished your degree? Built a house? Raised a family? Made a fortune? Saved a life? Way to go!

Now get back to work.

Shabbat Shalom

PS – Here is R. Pliskin’s Happiness Club video

One mission we all should have is to “do no harm” or “don’t be evil” as our friends at Google like to say.

This week, Maryland joined the ranks of states requiring hands-free cellphones while driving.

BYAM (that means between you and me), I've been on the bandwagon for a long time now. I know, I know, research has shown that a bluetooth headset only marginally approves safety, that the best practice is not to talk on the phone while driving.

But if you are looking for a bluetooth set, even for comfortable use around the house, I might as well save you the trouble. I did a lot of research. My main criteria were:

1. Sound clarity
2. Comfort
3. Price

I was not looking for any extra features (like the one that lets you listen to mp3s when not on the phone).

Frankly, knowing how easy it is to lose or break these things, I didn't even look at anything over $100. I read a lot of on-line reviews, asked friends for recommendations, tried out a few models. Here's what I found. For the best combination of the above 3 criteria, the Cardo wins hands-down. It's only $20! Just ordered one for my wife. Here's your link.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Feel More Human

Happy new year! Welcome to volume 5771 of Table Talk.

I have some really good news.

After 10 years of effort, the Hebrew edition of The Art of Amazement is now in print. I haven't actually put my hands on a copy yet, but 1,000 copies were sent out to teachers and organizations around the world, thanks to contributions and pledges from many readers of this blog. $9 enables me to put one book into the hands of one young Israeli and follow-up with him or her. Another shipment will hopefully go out soon, and hopefully we'll eventually fulfill the requests we have for 15,000 copies.

This week - three steps to feeling more human:

1. A timely update
2. An important addition
3. A child's plea for mercy

First, the update:

I gave a few Yom Kippur classes this week. In case you missed them, here are links to two handouts that I used - great Yom Kippur table talk for all ages:

Get the free handouts

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Second, even if you were with me, here is something that I did not say.

Something that is arguably the #1 most important thing to do before Yom Kippur.

Something that has nothing to do with being "religious".

Something that has nothing to do with fasting, praying, yada yada yada.

This afternoon, try finding a moment and place of solitude, and saying aloud the following words:

"I hereby forgive anyone who has hurt me in any way in the past, whether it was intentional or unintentional, knowing or unknowing, negligent or unavoidable. (If they owe me money or an apology, they may still repay or apologize, but I am not going to harbor grudges or bad feelings.) Beginning right now, I am looking forward and not backward in all of my relationships."

Guaranteed to make you feel more human than you felt before you did it.

(What do you have to lose, besides your pride?)

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Finally, people sometimes ask me what's the best way for a non-religious person to do Yom Kippur? How about kids? Make them sit through a long service bored out of their minds?

Are you crazy?

If you are not inspired to sit in shul, PLEASE do not go to services just because “I’m supposed to.” That’s a great way to kill your soul.

If you have any influence over children, PLEASE do not drag them to services just because "I’m supposed to". That's a great way to kill their souls.

A better use of Yom Kippur: go visit an assisted living facility. Go see how your single/divorced/widowed neighbor is doing.

And if you are one of the pious ones who likes to be in shul, make sure to read the words of the Yom Kippur Haftara - this is exactly what the Prophet Isaiah is telling us to do.

Think about it.

Happy Yom Kippur

Yes, happy!

PS - there may not be an update the next 2 weeks because I'll be sitting in my Sukka.

PS – this inspired 104-second video is all about changing one’s perspective:

Friday, September 03, 2010

What Do You Want To Fix?

Today (Friday) begins the last week of the year 5770.

There is an old piece of Jewish wisdom: "Everything goes after the end."

This means that the final week gives us a last chance to fix things that we might not have been so successful at this past year.

What could you have done better at this past year?

Diet? Exercise? Temper-control? Joy? Patience? Getting up early? Avoiding distractions? Hugging your loved ones?

Do it right for one week, beginning now.

Everything goes after the end. One can literally fix the entire year this way.

This is what it means to live, to be inscribed in the Book of Life. I won't be blogging next week, but in the meantime, you might enjoy these classic Seinfeld videos on Rosh Hashana:

Wishing you a meaningful and inspiring New Year of sweetness, health, joy, prosperity and life!

לשנה טובה


PS – Here are two inexpensive books that can enrich your Holidays, whether you are at shul, at home, or elsewhere:

Friday, August 27, 2010

Is it About You and Your Garbage or You and Your Dad?

You are 16 years old and your father has told you to take out the garbage.

This is the job you hate most in the world.

So you acknowledge that you heard what he said, and then you walk out of the house to go to school without doing it. When you arrive home, your father calls you into the room and asks you why you didn’t take out the garbage. You reply that you forgot and you will do it. But then you start thinking about the smelly garbage room and the bugs. You go to sleep without taking it out.

The next morning your father asks again why you didn’t take out the garbage. You apologize profusely and then go to school without taking it out.

When you arrive home, your father calls you again and asks you why you didn’t take out the garbage. This time you know that you are in trouble.

”Son/Daughter, I want you to know that you have done something really wrong. The issue is not that you haven’t taken the garbage out for these three times. The issue is that you have hurt our relationship. Three times you told me that you would do it and each time you promised me. Now I know one thing; I cannot trust your word anymore. This shows that, on a certain level, you don’t respect me or value our relationship. I want you to think over what you have done and decide what you need to do to rectify the wrong you have done."

Your father’s words really make an impression. Now you really feel bad. It finally hit you what you have done. You want to return to your father and tell him you are sorry. It is not so simple in this case to just say you are sorry. There is something more serious involved here. You have damaged your credibility with your father. Just saying you are sorry is not enough to repair the damage.

So you decide to make a plan. After thinking about what you did, you decided to take the following steps:

Step One - You sincerely feel regret for what you have done. You will not try to push away these feelings of regret over what you have done but rather you will let yourself use them in order to spur you to take the steps necessary to change.

Step Two - You will listen to your father. Until you get forgiveness from him you will make sure to listen to everything else that he asks of you.

Step Three - You will go to him and ask forgiveness for what you have done. You will tell him that you are sorry.

Step Four - You will tell him that you have made a decision to listen to his instructions and will not procrastinate any longer.

The next day you go to your father and explain how sorry you are, and that in the future you promise to listen to him immediately when asked to do something. You pour out your heart to him and beseech him to forgive you. Upon seeing your great sincerity and change in attitude, your father wholeheartedly forgives you and warmly welcomes you back into his good graces.

What has occurred here? You have restored your relationship with your father. You have taken a situation of a wounded relationship with him and turned it around. Because you took the time to think it out and sincerely change, you were accepted back by him with joy.

For an explanation of this parable, click here.

If you find this approach to Rosh Hashana useful, you might enjoy the following as well, all thanks to R. Aryeh Nivin.

2. Waking Up to the Sound of the Shofar: Self-evaluation quiz

3. How to use the weeks leading up to Rosh Hashana

4. Defining the spirituality of Rosh Hashana

Shabbat Shalom

“It is always wise to look ahead, but difficult to look further than you can see.” - Churchill

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Did You Know?

Received an email this week from a Jewish person who wants to understand why Judaism states that you can't convert OUT of Judaism - once a Jew, always a Jew.

He has gone so far as to ask his mother not to identify herself as Jewish.

"Justify it," Rabbi he told me.

I asked him, first of all, why would you NOT want to be Jewish? Look at what others have said:

“I will insist the Hebrews have [contributed] more to civilize men than any other nation. If I was an atheist and believed in blind eternal fate, I should still believe that fate had ordained the Jews to be the most essential instrument for civilizing the nations ... They are the most glorious nation that ever inhabited this Earth. The Romans and their empire were but a bubble in comparison to the Jews. They have given religion to three-quarters of the globe and have influenced the affairs of mankind more and more happily than any other nation, ancient or modern.” - John Adams, Second President of the United States

Shabbat Shalom

Friday, August 13, 2010

Hippiness: Bang-Bang-Shoot-Shoot

Here’s another news item that might be food for thought and dinner-table conversation.

One of the last refuges for hippiness is the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash.

There you will find the highest concentration of Birkenstocks and facial hair in the Western hemisphere.

Evergreen is so Left they make Cal (Berkeley) look like Tea Partiers.

In Evergreen, the board of the “Co-op” market voted last month to boycott produce from the Land of Israel.

Here is a handy guide to responding to someone you meet who wants to stop supporting Israel or worse wants to harm Israel.

First, acknowledge that their motive is valid: strong feelings about the living conditions of many Arabs living in lands adjacent to the Jewish state.

We have seen images and heard accounts of these conditions that are very upsetting. These narratives have persuaded us that (1) we are getting an unfiltered, objective understanding of the conditions and (2) the blame for these conditions lies mostly, if not solely on the Israeli government, and therefore by extension on the Israeli people who put that government in power.

Given the volume of information that has informed this conclusion, it would take an equally great volume of counter-information in order to change someone’s opinion.

Most people you meet will not be interested in this kind of education.

I would, however, suggest making these three points:

(Point 1) The fact that I am Jewish does not mean that I have an irrational bias towards Israel. There are plenty of Jewish people who are anti-Israel. But it has been my personal experience as well as that of others that the more one pauses to hear all sides of a story, the more one’s own views tend to moderate.

The question is, are you interested in what is true, or are you interested in bashing-Israel, regardless of the facts?

Because if you are interested in what is true, I would dare say that you cannot honestly claim that you are well-informed if you haven’t examined the evidence on these websites:

Examine them well, with an open mind, and then send me an email to tell me you still see the blame as one-sided. I don’t believe I will receive any emails.

If you don’t want to take the time to become well-informed, then at least be intellectually honest enough to admit you are taking an emotional stance and not a reasoned one.

Point number 2:

Even from within the world-view of the emotional stance, a boycott of Israeli products doesn’t really make sense.

I’ll explain.

A boycott means “we cannot in good conscience trade in Israeli produce.”

Does the boycotter’s computer contain an Intel Core Dual chip? Better stop using it. Invented in Israel. Every local-grown peach you ring up on that register is using an Israeli product. Not to mention the computers you have at home and everywhere else. Get rid of them.

Well, you already have the computers, don’t want to throw them out. But don’t buy a new one with the Windows NP, XP or Vista. These operating systems were all developed in Israel.

I should add Microsoft Office, also an Israeli-developed product. I wonder if we would have any anti-Israel flyers without Israel’s help. Sorry to point out an inconvenient truth.

While we’re at it, let’s mention some other Israeli inventions in the computer industry that you should add to your boycott: Firewalls and Virus protection software, cellphones, cellphone cameras, and AIM and ICQ instant messaging technology. There is even an important search algorithm used by Google that was invented – guess where? As soon as you leave this forum and go googling, you’re supporting Israel. Do you use Skype or other VOIP service? Invented in Israel. Better move back to the local phone company.

I wonder how many American farmers use drip irrigation. That’s an Israeli invention. So are many of the solar power technologies that we use in the United States.

I hope the emotional boycotters never get sick, because the following are some of the medical technologies that you’re going to have to avoid:

• Computerized prescription systems
• The ingestible camera pill
• Babysense anti-SIDS monitor
• Copaxone, which is an MS drug
• Mirabel breast cancer detection

In fact, thanks to Teva pharmaceutical, 1/15 of all prescriptions in the US come from Israel. Make sure you let your doctor know that you don’t want any of these life-saving Israeli products.

That is, if you are being intellectually honest. Or are you a boycotter of convenience?

Point #3

What if the Boycott Israel campaign is the product of forces of evil? Israel has a better human rights record than any country in the Middle East. This is a fact that you can verify. Boycotting people who do so much good in the world is a tactic that has been used in the past by ideologues who wanted to delegitimize Jews, or the Jewish State, regardless of these facts.

In summary:

• Inform yourself using multiple sources and form an educated opinion.
• Consider the absurdity – the impossibility - of a true boycott
• Consider the possibility that joining a boycott supports the political-religious agenda of the most radical people in the world. The Palestinian Authority doesn’t boycott Israel but Hamas does. Which side will you choose?
Finally, here’s a film worth watching and showing:

Shabbat Shalom

“Some people like the Jews, and some do not. But no thoughtful man can deny the fact that they are, beyond any question, the most formidable and the most remarkable race which has appeared in the world.” - Churchill

Friday, August 06, 2010

Pinteleh Yid

What did you see when you saw the photos of Marc and Chelsea?

In case you missed the three official photos, here’s one:

This is a Rorschach test. How you answer the question will tell us a whole lot about you.

Tell us what you see: _____________________________________________________________________________________

(I don’t want to spoil the purity of the test, so go ahead and answer it, and I’ll blabber a bit, then tell you below what I see.)

Blah blah blah blah, yada yada yada.

OK, want to know what I see?

I see a Jewish guy who knows that he’s under a big spotlight, and nevertheless is telling his new wife and in-laws, and his own family and all the guests,

“I’m Jewish! My father is a Jew, my mother is a Jew. I am a Jew.”

Given his position with his background, don’t be fooled by the inter-marriage part of the wedding. There was something intra- going on there too.

Rebbetzin Jungreis always says that inside every Jewish person is a “pinteleh Yid” – a point of awareness of his or her tribal membership, with all the rights (rites) and responsibilities that membership confers. To awaken that pinteleh Yid inside of yourself or someone you care about, I’d highly recommend any of her books:

A Committed Life
A Committed Marriage
Life is a Test

Shabbat Shalom

PS – another perspective

“My most brilliant achievement was my ability to be able to persuade my wife to marry me.” - Churchill

Friday, July 30, 2010

When Life is Hanging by a Thread

There are two things I’ll bet you don’t know about the lowly caterpillar:

1 – Why is it called caterpillar?

2 – Why do you often see one hanging from what looks like a spider thread?

A1 – The name caterpillar supposedly derives (as usual) from a French word, meaning “hairy cat”. The hairy part I get, but cat? Let’s send that one back to the etymological drawing board.

A2 – caterpillars have a real problem. They have really really poor senses of sight, hearing and smell.

Imagine a caterpillar sitting on a leaf.

The wind blows and rustles the leaf, no problem.

A twig falls and strikes the leaf, not at all scary.

A fly lands on the leaf, our little furry fella yawns.

But when a wasp lands on the leaf and starts to approach his blind and deaf prey, the little guy shoots out a silk thread which sticks to the leaf, and leaps over the edge, dangling out of sight and out of danger. After the bloodthirsty wasp departs, little caterpillar hoists himself up the lifeline and resumes his busy eating schedule.

Prof. Ignacio Castellanos (Hidalgo, Mexico) has proven that the caterpillar can distinguish between all of these various motions of the leaf by mere sense of touch.

How did it learn to do that?

(Sometimes I wonder why biology departments are not full of religious people.)

Here’s a summer challenge for you….When you are outside, enjoying the warm weather and natural beauty of this world, find the “picture perfect” moment (butterfly, sunset, etc.) and DON’T take a picture. Take it in with a deep breath, knowing that it is THIS moment that counts, not the digital memory of it.

Shabbat Shalom

PS – hat-tip to Highlights for Children for alerting me to Dr. Castellanos’s research!

PPS – Remember The Very Hungry Caterpillar? Creator Eric Carle has a whole zoo’s worth of here.

Sometimes hanging by the thread brings it’s own danger:

“One ought never to turn one’s back on a threatened danger and try to run away from it. If you do that, you will double the danger. But if you meet it promptly and without flinching, you will reduce the danger by half. Never run away from anything. Never!” - Churchill

Friday, July 23, 2010

Contents: Contentment

This week, our 13-year-old Avrami departed for his first-ever 'sleep-away' camp.

It’s the first time he has been away from us for more than a single night.

The camp then visited Baltimore on Thursday, so I popped in to see how he was doing.

When I caught up to them, they were in a pizzeria.

Avrami doesn’t like pizza.

(I know that's hard to believe; but he does like hamburgers and hotdogs, and Emuna’s the opposite, she’ll eat any amount of za and won’t touch the burgers or dogs with a 10-foot pole.)

Yet every signal I got from him was that he is extremely happy.

The question is: why?

Before you read on, let me throw the question to you, for your table:

What does it take for a person to be happy in a new situation?

I think it’s due to a convergence of 3 things:
- nice people
- activities that are fun and/or meaningful and sometimes challenging
- great leadership
The one thing I don’t think he necessarily has – nor needs – is like-minded people. OK, they’re like-minded enough to enjoy the same activities and basic values.

I suspect that if any one of those three factors were missing from a person’s daily life, life could become tiresome.

Question 2 for your table: If what I wrote above is true, what do we need to do to make this situation we call “Judaism” or “The Jewish People” a happier place to be?

As the 3rd promised installment of remembering Avrami’s grandfather, my father, today’s 3rd question is, Who is rich?

The answer is told by this memorable anecdote. My father was a partner in a law firm where there were sometimes….disagreements about compensation. Some lawyers feel that bringing in big clients, even once every year or so, is worthy of the greatest compensation. Others feel that producing steadily, even at a smaller scale, is more important.

My father would sit in meetings, listen to these discussions that seemed to go nowhere, and patiently wait his turn.

Finally someone would ask, “What do you think, Denny?”

“I’ll tell you what,” he said with a smile. “I’ll leave the room and you all decide what my compensation should be. Whatever you decide, that’ll be fine.”

He was the richest one in the room, because true wealth is a measurement of how contented you are with what you have.

On a scale of 1-10, how contented are you with what you have?

Shabbat Shalom

(PS – my mother always wished he would be less contented with his clothes, especially when a particular shirt or pants passed the 20-year mark!)

“Although personally I am quite content with existing explosives, I feel we must not stand in the path of improvement.” - Churchill

Friday, July 16, 2010

Tree of Life

This week: gladiators!

But first, congratulations to Marc Sarosi, who completed with me learning the entire Chumash this week. Next week: the dramatic book of Joshua.

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In honor of the occasion, I created a new chart to explain how the various parts of what we call “Torah” all fit together.

It’s called “The Torah Tree” and you can download it for free here.

Last week, in conjunction with my father’s fifth yarzeit, I asked “What is wisdom?”

This week, the question for your table is, What does it mean to be “strong”?

In the Mishna (try locating it on the Torah Tree diagram), “strong” (like “wise” last week) has a very non-conventional definition.

The conventional notion of strong is physical strength. This week the BBC reports that archaeologists believe that ancient remains they found in York had died from brutal blows known to be common in gladiatorial contests.

For all of human history, physical strength and prowess have been celebrated. Today is no exception.

The Survivor shows do not reward contestants who keep their cool, only those who outwit the others.

But the Tree-of-Life definition of a strong person is “someone who controls their urges”.

No one who knew my father ever called him “dispassionate”. He was quite passionate. His passion led him to Mississippi in 1963 to join the civil rights movement. His passion made him a lifelong best friend to many. His passion led him to be a regular consumer of music, art museums and great literature.

But he never lost control. He never lost his temper. He never acted brashly. When he worked on one of his many carpentry projects, he always used pencil and paper to plan it properly. He made mistakes, but always took them in stride. He never hesitated to say, "I'm sorry."

The point of recalling the greatness of a person is to remind us that if he could do it, so can you and I.

Second question for your table, in honor of Marc and all of you out there who learn with me, whether weekly or only periodically: What’s the difference between “studying” and “learning”?

Shabbat Shalom

“Solitary trees, if they grow at all, grow strong.” – Churchill

PS – the fast of the 9th of Av (Tisha B’Av) falls Monday night through Tuesday. Here is a short video to make it meaningful:

(If you would like Tisha B’Av readings, send me an email.)

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The goal of Table Talk is give food for conversation at the Friday night dinner table. Know someone who might enjoy this message? Please forward. Want to be added or removed from the list? Send an email with SUBSCRIBE or UNSUBSCRIBE in the subject.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Five Years

In memory of Dovid ben Eliezer: tragedy, wisdom, greatness and Jerry Seinfeld

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Five years ago yesterday, my father passed away.

He had been up on a ladder, trimming "one last branch", preparing the house for our visit a week later.

One leg of the 4-leg ladder was over the dirt. As you go up a ladder, your center of gravity moves towards the back. The right rear leg did not have solid ground under it to support his weight.

When my father died so suddenly, many hundreds of people felt that they had lost a father or a brother. They lost a person who was not just central to our lives, but essential to our lives and to the community. The shock we felt was the shock that someone would feel if he woke up without his left arm.

When people start talking about my dad, certain qualities come up again and again:


These are all words that described my father and probably only the tip of an iceberg. They were all true, and just about any anecdote you tell about him shows that.

In my father's memory, I'm going to focus over three weeks on three qualities that are not on the list, that you did not hear people say, but I think that when you hear the depth of the concepts, you will agree that this is who my father was, and what we should all strive to be.

My father had a very Talmudic way of discussion. He called it Socratic. But you know, he didn’t realize how very Jewish he was. (Or did he? The beard – so he claimed – was because it was so much easier than shaving every day — that’s what I claim too.)

So at his funeral, in my father's own Talmudic fashion, I asked the hundreds of mourners about these three qualities:

Was my father a wise man?
Was he a strong man?
Was he a rich man?

The first one’s easy to answer – climbed too high on a ladder? Mmm, no, not wise. Scratch that one off the list.

No really, what’s wisdom in the Talmudic sense, not according to Webster’s?

There were mourners that day, five years ago, who remembered him as a kid.

His 6th grade teacher, Mrs. Marsh, had a different perspective on his social skills, writing that he “could show more initiative and exercise leadership by looking ahead and anticipating situations,” in other words, he was short-sighted, not able to see the outcome of situations. However, Mrs. Marsh was also confident that he would develop those qualities as the elected class chairman….

By the spring, she reported that he indeed had.

The Talmud asks, “What does it mean to be wise?” and of course when a rabbi asks you that question, you know that the right answer is not “knowing a lot of stuff.”

The Talmud gives two answers.

The first is: “Someone who foresees the outcome.”

This ability was my father’s strong suit. He was the kind of person you love to have on your committee and you hate to have on your committee at the same time. You love to have him there because he asks the tough questions. You hate having him there because he asks the tough questions. He had not only the ability but the all-important tenacity to ask the tough questions, to push us – believe you me, his children included – to consider all the possible outcomes. He taught this to us, and those who were good disciples learned to do so naturally.

The Talmud’s second definition of wisdom: Someone who learns from every other person.

It’s a remarkable statement, if you understand Hebrew. The language is clear, it doesn’t mean every other man, nor every other Jew, nor every other adult: it means every other human being.

Is there a better description of my father’s relationship toward other human beings?

All he wanted from people was to hear their ideas, their beliefs, their hopes and dreams – from the elderly to young children. My father was a feminist before anyone talked about feminism (although I suspect he may have picked some of this up from someone he met in college), he was the trailblazer whose equal treatment of others was so natural to himself that it disarmed you if you weren’t used to it. Even when two of his children went by Tacoma standards completely nuts, if he was judgmental, he kept it to himself, he certainly didn’t ever make us feel ashamed of having chosen a different path than his own.

His ability to learn from others was a key to his successful relationships, because of all people, my dad had so few, if any pretensions. He was not impressed by anything that Madison Avenue would have impress us. Money didn’t impress him. Status was irrelevant to him. His definition of success was hard work, strict ethics and a good heart.

I remember when Jerry Seinfeld came to Tacoma. It was 1984 or 85, I think. Dad couldn’t care less that Jerry was a comedian – what mattered to him was that here was another Seinfeld and we didn’t know of any other Seinfelds before then. So he went to meet the guy, and years later flew down to LA for a taping of the show, because he was family.

This wisdom I think is what drove his passion for Tacoma Community College. I don’t remember him more proud than when he told me about the award ceremony where they would honor students who had come from nothing – no education, no money, no support – and graduated from TCC. Displaced people, people with no direction, who found their way. He loved getting to know the student, finding out their story.

Finally, he set up a scholarship fund there, not at one of his own prestigious colleges but at TCC where he felt he could help the most people.

The point of recalling the greatness of a person is to remind us that if he could do it, so can you and I.

Shabbat Shalom

“It is always wise to look ahead, but difficult to look further than you can see.” – Churchill

(PS – one word about tzedakah – my Dad and Mom raised their children with this value from a very young age: Give a substantial portion of your income – even 10% - back to the community. He was quite pleased when I told him one day that that’s a recipe right out of the Torah.)

Friday, July 02, 2010

Devorah Torah

Did you ever find yourself struggling to stay awake during a sermon?

Who hasn’t?

Did you ever find yourself giving a sermon and wonder why so many people were sleep-deprived lately?

Yesterday someone asked me if I could help his daughter with her “Dvar Torah” for her Bat Mitzvah. He wanted me to send him some thoughts about her Torah portion.

More specifically, he wanted me to send her ideas about the portion of her portion that was her portion, or at least a portion of the portion of her portion that was her portion.

I asked him if she felt that she had to speak specifically about a portion of her portion of the portion. Or should she necessarily speak about any portion of the portion?

For example, another young lady in San Francisco chose to speak about the hugely-important mitzvah of not speaking gossip (lashon hara). She even made a public commitment not to speak OR LISTEN TO lashon hara.

Thanks to her, there has been an estimated 7.7 percent decline of lashon hara levels in San Francisco over the past 30 days.

That’s the nature of a good Dvar Torah – it inspires the audience to think about their own lives in a new way.

So now I’d like to share a most unusual Dvar Torah at our own Friday night dinner table.

First we sing “Shalom Aleichem”. (To learn one of the classic tunes for this great song, click here.)

Then the children line up for their parental blessing. We go oldest to youngest, but we've heard there are families who go youngest to oldest. (The traditional blessing is here.)

(but I always add my own words).

Then we sit down, say “Shabbat Shalom” or “Gut Shabbos” or “Good Shabbat” to each other and do Kiddush and Hamotzee.

Then I start to ask the kids what they learned this week. In their schools and camps, they USUALLY learn something about the Portion. But if they didn’t, I try to have a story ready for them. (looking for great books of dinner-table-friendly stories? see below.)

(At some point, of course, I tell over the week’s Table Talk, of course...)

Lately, at some point in the meal, our 4-year-old Devorah gets out of her seat, strides over to the bookcase I keep by the table, takes a large book and announces, “I have a Devorah Torah!”

She insists that everyone listen.

We listen.

She opens the book and, pretending to read, starts to improvise a story that can go on for quite a long time.

It’s entertaining… for a few minutes.

What keeps it going is her radiant joy, and our reluctance to stop her.

There are two morals to this story.

The first is what makes a great Dvar Torah?

1. Be happy
2. Be personal - tell a story
3. Be brief

Question for your Table: What’s the second moral to this story?

Shabbat Shalom

“Without tradition, art is a flock of sheep without a shepherd. Without innovation, it is a corpse.” – Churchill

Some recommended books of meaningful stories:

1. (or use this for paperback)
2. (or use this for paperback)

If you use one of these links, a portion of your purchase is donated to support JSL’s programs.

Need more ideas? Send me an email.


Friday, June 25, 2010

Penny For Your Smile...

You know those old photos that people have, of their great-grandparents? Where no one is smiling, because that had to sit frozen for 20 minutes?

Ever wonder what they were thinking?

Ever think about what goes into a smile?

Let’s think about this. What makes you smile?

When you think of soccer, does it make you smile?

How about baseball?

Let’s say someone loves playing baseball so much, he puts all his energy into it and works his way up to the Major League. Do you think –that- would put a smile on his face? If not the money, at least the fact that he's playing MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL?

Everyone's talking about this recent study from Wayne University, in Michigan.

Using photos of Major League players, and controlling statistically for all kinds of factors, they discovered not only is a smile an indicator of longevity, but even the type of smile. The players with the broadest, happiest smiles lived the longest.

Here's a summary of the study.

But I have a question that the researchers didn’t ask. Maybe you could get me an answer from your dinner table tonight.

How could someone be playing Major League baseball and NOT be grinning ear-to-ear?

(Jewish wisdom: True happiness comes not from what you make of yourself, but what you do for others.)

Shabbat Shalom

“War is a game that is played with a smile. If you can’t smile, grin. If you can’t grin, keep out of the way till you can.” - Churchill

PS: Know someone (including yourself) who could use a smile-boost? Try one of these books:


…and if none of those work, try this:

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Rite Stuff

Sorry this is late… I have a good excuse! Really!

This morning I passed one of my comprehensive exams for the Ph.D. It was the most challenging because it was in a field that I had least prior knowledge.

I'd been preparing for this exam for about a year, most actively the past three months. It was an oral exam, no notes, in front of two professors.

You would guess that I'm relieved.

You would be right.

But I'm not as relieved as my patient wife, who has had to put up with my relative inattention. So if anyone deserves a mazal-tov at this juncture, it is surely she! (tikva at jsli dot org)

(Wait til I get in dissertation mode - she doesn't know what she's got coming...)

Sometimes it feels like "life is a test."

If you ever feel like you're being tested and you're not a registered student, you might enjoy this gem of a book:

Life is a Test book

She's a great story teller and teaches how to re-frame each and every challenge as a test.

But all these little tests don't feel complete until graduation. Until you graduate, you haven't reached the finish line.

In the old days, graduation meant finishing 12th grade, then college, etc.

Nowadays, schools are building graduation ceremonies into every grade.

Our 6-year-old Yoseph, for instance, had his graduation ceremony this week - from Kindergarten. You should have seen it - cap-n-gown, procession, the whole works. And the boys sang 2 medleys, the first to show off what they'd learned in the Jewish part of the curriculum, the second to show off their achievements in "general studies".

Here are a couple photos:

Rites and rituals are so important to a feeling of accomplishment. Have you passed any tests or challenges recently that you were never recognized for? Please let me know so that I can help you fill this void, with all due pomp and circumstance.

Now here's the big question try asking this at your dinner table: What about the life tests that you did NOT pass? What to do?

(The crib-sheet answer: Every challenge is a "test", and if you failed it, that means you'll get it again, sooner or later. But the next time you get it, the challenge is slightly different: It will be, did you learn anything from the previous time? No? Back to school for you!)

Shabbat Shalom

“The empires of the future are the empires of the mind.” - Churchill

Friday, June 11, 2010

Hug a Rabbi

What's your favorite teacher memory?

A. A remarkable, true teacher story
B. A challenge for all readers
C. The recipe for making your very own rabbi!

A. First, the remarkable story.

Solve for n, if 100 – n = 25

Starting to sweat? Then you must not have had Paul Miller as your math teacher.

Which would be unusual, since 75 years ought to be long enough to each just about everybody.

No, that's not a typo.

Here in Baltimore, there is a Jewish math teacher who has been teaching for 75 years.

That's 3x25 years.

It's such a remarkable and uplifting story, I’m inviting you to read it in full here.

B. The challenge for all readers

Did you ever have a teacher who changed your life?

Did your child/grandchild/nephew/niece ever have a teacher who went the extra mile?

Do you have any idea how hard it is just to be an average teacher?

My wife has always been diligent about giving a gift with a hand-written thank you note to all of our children's teachers every June. I urge you to do the same. If you can't afford a gift, a hand-written note is perfectly adequate. If you can't afford the stamp, send an email. Let them know how much you appreciate their work this past year.

You may want to print out the Paul Miller story and send it with your thank-you notes.

C. The Recipe

What's the Jewish slant on this?

Well, first and foremost, appreciation is supposed to be a hallmark of being Jewish. The word “Jewish” comes from Yehuda which means thankful.

But more than that….Everyone needs a teacher. Even we adults. When it comes to wisdom, we call this teacher a rabbi, a rav or a rebbe.

What's the difference?

Reb - equivalent to "Mr."
Rabbi - someone who has taught you some Torah or Jewish wisdom.
Rebbe - your primary teacher in one or more areas of wisdom.
Rav - someone, usually a rabbi, with whom you have a mentoring/coaching relationship, wherein you never "agree to disagree"

(To make it more confusing, "rav" is also used as a generic title in the place of "rabbi".)

(Also, it's OK to have more than one rav for various areas of life, but not more than one for the same area of life.)

Says the Talmud: "Acquire for yourself a friend, and make for yourself a rav."

This is the question for your table: Why does it choose the word "acquire" for a friend but "make" for a rav?

Think about it.

The answer, it seems to me, is this: For someone to be successful as your rav, in addition to inherent wisdom, they have to know your personal situation. What is good for the goose is not always good for the gander, so to speak. Therefore, you don’t just go to someone and say, “Will you be my rav?” Rather, you go to someone with specific questions, listen to the answers, try to follow them. Then go back with more questions. The more you go, the more you challenge, the more you listen and learn, the more that person becomes your rav. That’s the recipe for making yourself a rav.

By the way, everyone needs a rav. Even a rabbi. And every family needs a rav, not two.

Once again, think about it!

And don’t forget to send those thank you notes.

Shabbat Shalom

I am always ready to learn although I do not always like being taught. - Churchill

Oh yeah...PS: