Friday, April 30, 2010

Long on Oil

Happy 97th Birthday to Eleanor Rubinstein, my late grandparents’ mechutan (does that make her my grand-mechutan?) who could still beat most readers of this blog at tennis.

Get this: the very same day that we learned about BP springing a leak in the Gulf of Meh-hee-ko, we discovered that our kitchen faucet had a leak. Freaky or what??!!

(For those who have been flabbergasted by our stranger-than-fiction news of late, that last paragraph was said tongue firmly in cheek, or thumb in fist as it were.)

Raise your hand if you'd be willing to pay more to drive in order to avoid these mind-boggling spills.

So is there, you ask, a "Jewish" spin on the mega-disaster?

First of all, be prepared to defend Israel and the Jews for causing this catastrophe, along with the bankruptcy of Greece and the Iceland volcano.

Second of all, in proper rabbinic fashion, why don't I answer the question with a question...for your table of course:

What do the BP slick, the Goldman-Sachs affair, the China real estate bubble and John Lennon's lyrics for sale all have in common?

After you ponder that one for awhile, you might consider this take:

It's actually quite simple. These stories make worldwide headlines because they have worldwide impact. The common thread is that we are all connected to one another. Humanity is like a person with many cells, organs and limbs. To fight each other is like cutting off one's proverbial nose to spite one's proverbial face (to coin a proverbial phrase).

The only way to proverbial Mt. Sinai (or choose your own symbol of human spiritual quest) is by working together, or to quote the modern proverb...

You better recognize your brother
in everyone you meet.

You know I spend a lot of time talking to individuals about their stressed-out all-but-broken relationships. Everybody wants an uplifting, compassionate, loving, unifying relationship. We get stuck in these ruts of resentment and criticism.

What's the way out?

Put your thoughts (and those of your table) in the comments below. Anyone who gets the right answer will win a copy of the new edition of the Art of Amazement.

Shabbat Shalom

"I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat." - Churchill

PS - Two weeks ago, I posted this uplifting Jewish story. It's still uplifting. Don't read it if you don't want to be uplifted:

Soldier, survivor have emotional reunion | The Detroit News

In the fall of 1945, a Soviet soldier hoisted a 5-year-old boy aloft and paraded him through a Lithuanian synagogue that had been closed throughout a long Nazi occupation.

For 65 years, the boy and the soldier carried that moment in their heads and hearts. Unknown to each other, they told the story to family and friends. A Toronto songwriter memorialized it in song. The boy became a man and included the anecdote in his 2003 book.

On Thursday, they met and embraced for the first time since then in Rabbi Leo Goldman's Oak Park living room.

(click to read more)

Friday, April 23, 2010

Do Gooder

Done any good deeds lately?

How about mitzvahs? Done any of them?

If you think that a mitzvah is a good deed then you've come to the right blog.

Let's start with 4 common misconceptions:

* A mitzvah is not a good deed.
* A mitzvah is not a commandment.
* A mitzvah is not helping someone.
* There are not 613 mitzvahs or mitzvot.

I'm not saying that a mitzvah isn't related to good deeds, but they are not the same.

So what is it already? A mitzvah is a certain type of transcendent connection that you create when you do some actions (such as good deeds) with the right frame of mind.

Let's take the most basic example:

You're walking outside and a stranger asks you for a handout. You give him a dollar. Did you do a mitzvah? Let's say for the sake of discussion that he uses the money to buy food to stay alive.

Survey says: You definitely did a good deed. But you didn't do a mitzvah!

It's not a mitzvah until you have in mind as you had him the dollar that you're doing a holy act that unites heaven and earth and imitates God as it were.

A person can spend their entire life helping others and never do a mitzvah. If you are doing good things without knowing it, without consciously choosing, it means that you had parents who gave you good habits. It doesn't make you a spiritually-oriented person.

Judaism says that you were put on this planet for a purpose. Actually, you have two purposes, your meta-purpose and your specific purpose. Your meta-purpose is the same as mine, it is the general purpose of human existence. Your specific purpose is the details of how you are going to realize that meta-purpose.

Our meta-purpose is to transcend the auto-pilot and perceive the hand of God in every transaction of Nature and of Man. What makes this constant awareness so hard is that we have these bodies that have physical cravings and distract us from the spiritual awareness. One solution to this problem is to unite body and mind by focusing like a laser on the transcendence of the body's action.

To put it simply, when I do a mitzvah with the proper focus - called kavanah - I am fulfilling my purpose in this life (in at least the general sense).

Now, how many mitzvahs are there? As I mentioned above, if you say 613, then you've come to the right blog to get your head fixed. Before I tell you the actual number, let's clarify one point: regardless of the number, the fact that there are a set number of mitzvahs means that there are x number of channels through which you can connect your physical existence to the Source in order that your existence be meaningful and not a pointless sham.

Each one of those channels is a unique opportunity to give your life transcendent meaning. So, for instance, giving tzeddakah gives you a different connection than not eating meat and cheese together.

But the uniqueness of a mitzvah compared to another mitzvah is only one facet. Another facet is the way you give tzedakah (or any other mitzvah). Your way is different from the way in which I do it. In order for us to bring the world into harmony, the world needs both your expression and mine of that mitzvah. If either of us fails to do a mitzvah, then our collective karma is lacking one connection that it would have otherwise had.

Therefore the true number of mitzvahs is really 613 times the number of Jewish people. Your mitzvahs affect me and mine affect you.

A mitzvah to the soul is like food to the body: it's good for you to do, but how you do it is just as important as what you do.

Below are three videos to compare and contrast. The first is a player piano recording of Scott Joplin himself playing "Maple Leaf Rag". It's undoubtedly a work of genius.

The second is a human being playing the same song.

Which is more enjoyable to watch?

The third is a different human playing a different fast song:

What do you think? It seems to me that the contrast between these performances compares to doing a mitzvah on auto-pilot versus with all your heart and soul.

You can test this: In the next 30 minutes, try to find a mitzvah to do (keep it simple - you know, "love your neighbor" or something), and do it with the awareness that you are creating a connection while you do it.

Then let us know how it went in the comments section below.

Shabbat Shalom

"Great and good are seldom the same man." - Churchill

Friday, April 16, 2010


13 years ago this week, a child was born.

I remember it like it was yesterday.

Well, maybe like it was last year.

It was early Wednesday morning, before sunrise, in an unfamiliar Jerusalem neighborhood.

He had reddish hair from day 1, then later became blond.

He had his bris on day 8.

And every Passover for 13 years, we’ve watched him become more and more like the “wise child” at the Seder.

The Dvar Torah that he wrote for tomorrow has nothing to do with this week’s Torah portion.

It is an analysis of one detail in the Talmudic ethics of returning a lost-and-found object.

You and I – most people reading this blog – we were there once upon a time, when we were 12 or 13.

We were full of great potential.

By the way, we’re still full of great potential.

Old people sometimes need young people to remember that you’re never too old to change yourself or the world.

The kids and I sometimes make Friday night Kiddush at a nearby assisted-living home.

Most of the residents have extremely limited mobility.

The oldest resident is 107, the youngest 85.

They don’t always feel like they can change the world. They don't always look like they can change the world.

So I frequently point out to them that when they choose to smile at someone even thought they don’t feel like it, or refrain from speaking lashon hara, you changed the world.

Think about it.

Shabbat Shalom

To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often. - Churchill

PS - You'll appreciate this: Soldier, survivor have emotional reunion | | The Detroit News

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Kosher Pork Chops

A few years ago, I was teaching a walk-in class in Seattle. The participants looked like a cross-section of mainstream Seattle.

The class was about the intersection between the mundane and the mystical. At one point, I asked, “Who knows the bracha to make on pork chops?”

“That’s a trick question,” a young lawyer answered. “You don’t make a bracha on non-kosher food!”

“Ah – but what if someone were starving, and the only thing they had to eat was pork chops? If they need it to save their life, then pork becomes temporarily kosher!”

Afterwards, an older lady came up to me with a word of protest. She was friendly but quite driven. “I’m a survivor of Auschwitz,” she said. “After we were liberated, we were starving. There was some non-kosher meat, and we ate it. But we would have NEVER eaten pork!”

First question for your table: What is it about pork?

Keeping kosher, gotta love it, gotta hate it.

On the one hand, it's so easy now. Walk into any Safeway and you'll find that little O-U symbol everywhere. Trader Joe's even publishes a list of their kosher products.

On the other hand, there aren't very many kosher restaurants, and very few great ones.

I used to associate "kosher" with being "religious". A little bit fanatical. But then again, I used to think someone who strictly reported every penny of income or stringently avoided gossip was also a bit fanatical.

Second question for your table: If, as Hillel said, the essence of the Torah is how we treat others, how does “kosher” fit in.

Once upon a time someone promulgated a myth that the kosher rules are based on health concerns. Pork and shellfish can carry diseases, right?

The problem with that logic is that lots and lots of ancient people ate pork. If the Jews had some kind of health secret, wouldn't word have leaked out? The Romans were ruthless, but they weren’t dumb.

In fact, it was only when the early Christians (who were Jews) discarded the kosher rules that they were able to attract Gentile converts. If it were all about health, they should have just told the potential converts, "You'll live longer if you avoid pork!"

It took me a long time to figure out this whole kosher thing.

Finally I figured it out.

It's really quite simple: The idea of kosher is: Train yourself to think: "You can't eat everything."

Think about it.

(There is an esoteric teaching about pigs becoming kosher in the Messianic age. I’m not going to put it on the blog, but email me if you'd like the details.)

Shabbat Shalom