Friday, February 26, 2010


What does it mean when someone says, "S/he's a real mensch"?

Here's a story from the Talmud:

Once, while Rebbe (that's the nickname of R. Yehuda HaNasi) was teaching his daily class in rabbinics, he noticed a particularly strong scent of garlic.

Now if you are a garlic lover, the scent of raw garlic can only be described as an aroma.

But if you are not a garlic lover, or if you happen to be pregnant, any scent of garlic (raw or cooked) can only be described as an odor.

While the Talmud does not mention whether or not Rebbe was pregnant at the time, I think it is safe to assume he was not. Nevertheless, he found the garlic smell so strong it was disturbing his concentration.

"Whoever has been eating garlic, please go out," he said.

R. Chiya stood up and left.

Then all the other students stood up and left.

The next day, Rebbe's son R. Shimon ran into R. Chiya. "Aren't you the one who annoyed my father yesterday?"

"God forbid," he answered.

Question for your table: Why did R. Chiya (and then the other students) leave?

If this story speaks to you, then you get one of the 2 messages of Purim: Doing whatever it takes to help anyone in your community who needs help.

Whatever it takes.

That’s being a mensch. Think about it.

If you don't know someone who needs help, or if you want to give anonymously (recommended), find a rabbi who disburses funds. If you can't find a rabbi, try 1-800-823-CHAI.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Purim

Here is link to a class I gave this week on Purim.

And as promised, here is the second story, followed by a Purim-ready joke...

(As told by Larry Domnitch)

It was Purim, my destination was the South Bronx to read the Megillah (Scroll of Esther) in one of the last remaining Synagogues in the area. While scurrying around my apartment in an attempt to make a hasty departure, I received a phone call from a friend who had discovered an elderly Jewish man who lives alone in a vast housing project in the Bronx's Soundview section. It would be reasonable to presume that this person lives in virtual seclusion and is also detached from the Jewish community. On that day however, he would be reacquainted with the holiday of Purim.

I phoned Bernie (not his real name) and offered to bring him Mishloach Manot - the traditional package of treats. Pleasantly surprised as well as shocked to receive my call, he accepted the offer. I told Bernie that when I finished reading the Megillah, I would stop by. He responded that he anxiously awaited my arrival.

Years of solitude no doubt affects an individual and my call must have prompted Bernie to recollect the memories of the neighborhood's bygone eras, with its shuls, and schools, and holiday celebrations with relatives and friends. Perhaps he was not quite ready to deal with those memories for he called and left this message, "All the Jews have left, there is no one left here anymore." He said with resignation that perhaps it would be better if I did not visit him. However, I had already left and did not receive that message.

Later that afternoon, when I along with a friend arrived at Bernie's apartment, he greeted us graciously but with a subdued enthusiasm. He seemed uneasy, unsure he wanted us there. But with Mishloach Manot in hand, we were there nonetheless.

For about a half-hour, we sat in Bernie's unkempt, cluttered apartment surrounded by old newspapers and memorabilia. We spoke about Israel, the Bronx, the Jewish Patriarchs, Purim, and about whatever else he chose to discuss. I felt like a traveler from afar bringing Bernie news. We were indeed his connection with the Jewish world for that brief time.

How ironic that we lived only a few miles away. Bernie soon became comfortable with our presence, a sure sign that our mission was a success. When it was time to leave, we gave Bernie a Mishloach Manot package, and wished him a Freilichen (joyous) Purim. A greeting he probably had not heard in years.

When I returned home that evening, I heard Bernie's earlier recorded message telling me not to bother bringing him Mishloach Manot. Yet, an additional message followed. In an
enthusiastic tone that told a thousand words, he profusely thanked me for visiting him and for the Mishloach Manot. In an uplifted spirit, he said, "I want to thank you for the Shaloch Manos and most importantly for your presence here today. It's been a long time since I spoke about Yiddishkeit, you brought back the 'pintele Yid' (Jewish spark) in me." He concluded his message with, "Zei Gezunt," (be well) and added in parting "I'll call you when I get a chance." Indeed I have spoken to him since.

That year, the holiday of Purim was brought to Bernie. On that day, Purim was not merely a forgotten memory celebrated elsewhere but something real, a cause for celebration.
There are times when a seemingly small act can have the most profound effect upon another. It was a Purim I will never forget.

Q: Why did Adam and Eve have a perfect marriage?
A: He didn't have to hear about all the men she could have married, and she didn't have to hear about the way his mother cooked.

Have a better joke? Leave a comment below!

PPS - Purim-friendly t-shirt seen in Israel:

Friday, February 19, 2010

On Ice and Snow

Attention all ye snow birds out there, and that includes you Easterners who are really really ready to see springtime arrive...

What comes first, righteousness or holiness?

Let's say someone is acting all holy, keeping kosher, praying, that kind of thing, but speaks a lot of gossip. Or cheats on their taxes. How do you react?

Pretty disappointing, right?

OK, let's say someone is super-duper ethical in action and speech, but has no spiritual practice, in fact disdains "spirituality" as "mythology" and is exceedingly proud of his or her great accomplishments. How do you react?

I used to be a big fan of the Winter Olympics.

I particularly loved the Giant Slalom (perhaps because as a skier, I could somewhat relate to the sport).

What changed me was a realization that the thesis of "human perfection" has a spiritual antithesis, of humility.

The Olympics do not seem to encourage nor honor humility.

Just look at the face of the Russian figure skater, standing on the podium with his silver medal.

Silver! He ought to be thrilled. But he has the scowl of a sore loser.

Righteousness is like striving for the gold.

Holiness is like being happy with whatever the outcome may be, whether Gold, Silver, or even being disqualified or falling during your routine.

How do you fall on this topic? Here's the big question you can ask your table to flush out where everyone stands:

With whom would you rather spend an hour and why:

A) Your favorite Olympian (or pro athlete)
B) His Holiness the Dalai Lama (or other comparable person)

If you answered "B" - how does your time cultivating holiness compare to your time watching sports?

These days, I've become a "small" fan of the Olympics.

Shabbat Shalom

He has all of the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire. - Churchill

Friday, February 12, 2010

Do You Dig?

I have a blizzard of questions for you and your table:

Why do kids love digging snow tunnels but not sidewalks?
Why do some adults love kids playing outside, while others prefer they stay inside?
Why do some people shovel their elderly neighbors' walk, while others don't?
Why do some people get frustrated by the tardy snow plow, while others just smile?
Why do the media report on the number of accidents and deaths, but not the number of snowmen?
Why do some people think Karl Rabeder is crazy, and others think he's an idealist?

Just wondering.

Shabbat Shalom.

PS – Here's a nifty President’s Day family activity.

Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference. - Churchill

Friday, February 05, 2010

Regenerative Break

Question for you...

What's the most memorable news you've heard recently?

Is it:

A. The devastation of Haiti, and the heroic efforts to help?
B. The world's biggest car maker, Toyota, has become the world's biggest lemonade maker?
C. The Saints are marching in?
D. Something else?

I vote for D - the announcement that functional MRI can be used to communicate with some people in vegetative state.

If you didn't see this, here is a link. This is a story you can share with the entire family.

The science is not being universally applauded. In fact, comments to the NYT health blog are running about 4 in favor, 3 against, and 10 skeptical about this development.

(FYI - Here is a story worth sharing about someone who was in a "permanent" vegetative state for 14 years, and now can communicate.)

So this gives us 2 questions for your table, one practical and one tangential:

1 - How do you react to this story? Amazed? Skeptical? Disappointed?
2 - If you were in a vegetative state, fully aware of what was going on around you but unable to communicate, would you want them to keep you on life support, or pull the plug?

As you know by now, I like to spin the news "Jewishly".

Remember The Matrix? In this film, the hero learns that everything we perceive as reality is really an artificial virtual reality. One of the best scenes in the movie is when one character who goes in and out of the matrix says,

"You know, I know that this steak doesn't really exist. I know that the Matrix is telling my brain that it's juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know I realize? Ignorance is bliss."

In other words, he'd rather live in a blissful illusion than a challenging reality.

What a Jewish metaphor.

(If you want to learn the three Jewish techniques for waking up from our rather permanent vegetative state, send me an email. If there is enough interest, we'll do an online class.)

Shabbat Shalom

PS - Here's the matrix scene.

It is a good thing for an uneducated man to read books of quotations… The quotations, when engraved upon the memory, give you good thoughts. They also make you anxious to read the authors and look for more. - Churchill