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.

+ + + +

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.)

+ + + +

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

+ + + +

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.