Friday, December 30, 2011

Master of the Name

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

Last week's Table Talk generated a huge amount of positive feedback. If you missed it, it is archived here.

This week's story is for anyone who is feeling down.

Or knows someone feeling down.

Or might feel down one day and find it helpful to have a story like this on file to pull out and re-read at the time.

The protagonist is of the most famous rabbis of all time.

I don't know if it's true or not.

But they don't tell stories like this about you and me.

He's known as the Baal Shem Tov.

If you want to remind yourself who he was and what he did, click here.

Here's the story.....

For those who "do" Shabbat, even a little bit, Saturday night can be a mystical time.

The more you do Shabbat, the more mystical Saturday night can become.

Saturday night is when a person can savor the Shabbat that one just experienced. Bask in the glow. The greater the experience, the greater the glow.

Something like enjoying a drink or cup of coffee or tea after an excellent meal.

The long Saturday nights in winter, all the more so.

One such Saturday night, while all were basking in that glow, the Baal Shem Tov told his driver to prepare the wagon and they set out with several of his students.

When they reached the open road outside of town, he told the driver, "Get the horses into a gallup and then let go of the reins."

This driver knew better than question or doubt anything that the great tzaddik said.

The horses were allowed to run freely, to follow their instinct.......
They ran and ran, on-road, off-road, on paths seldom traveled.

Finally, after an hour or so, they slowed and stopped.

They had come to a stop before a small cottage on the outskirts of a small town in the forest.

The residents must have heard the noise outside because almost instantly a man came rushing out, a Jewish man.

"My friends," he called to them, hurrying to the road. "My friends, my friends, welcome! Please, come inside for a warm drink, for a bit of food. We seldom see travelers here, please do me the honor of welcoming guests into our home!"

The Baal Shem Tov, his students and driver all followed the man inside.

When the man heard that they were from Medzibozh, his face lit up even more. "Do you know the Baal Shem Tov?"

Before anyone else could answer, the rabbi said, "If you please, we are indeed hungry and thirsty, may we speak later?"

The man served them a hot meal. They sang songs together.

When the hour got late, he invited them to stay the night and they accepted.

In fact, they stayed not one night, not two nights, but five nights with this Jewish family, until they had consumed all of their food.

When they departed on the sixth morning, the many thanked them profusely and asked, "If you see the Baal Shem Tov, would you please ask him for a bracha for me, that I should raise my children to be good Jews?"

Finally, the rabbi told him. "I am the rabbi you are asking about. God sent me to you for a reason, and soon you will know why."

They departed before their stunned host could gather his thoughts and reply.

As he re-entered his house, still in a daze from what had just happened, he encountered his wife.

She was not happy.

To say the least.

"You fed those strangers every moursel of food in our house! We have nothing left! And the children are hungry! They're crying! What are you going to do?!!"

In despair, the man closed his eyes, and uttered a simple prayer.

"Master of the universe, what did these children do to deserve to suffer? Please send us help!"

He continued for a few minutes, thinking about his wife and children, what they needed and asking for help.

While lost in this meditation, there was a knock on the door.

It was a non-Jewish neighbor named Ivan.

Ivan often came by for a visit and a shot of vodka.

This time, Ivan had other business.

"My friend, I've known you a long time, and you know that I live with my daughter and son-in-law, and that they make me miserable. I can't stand it anymore. Let me come stay with you."

Before the Jewish man could tell Ivan he had no food in the house, Ivan continued.

"I won't bother you. In fact, it will be very good for you. You see, long ago I made a fortune and I buried it in the forest in a secret location. I don't want my daughter and son-in-law to get it. I will give it to you. All of it. Just help me get out of the misery."

Seeing that the man was incredulous, he added, "Come, come with me, we'll get some of the treasure right now."

Into the forest they went, shovel in hand, and sure enough, Ivan dug up a sack full of gold coins.

So Ivan gave the man the treasure in exchange for his hospitality.

Not only did the man's family have enough to eat, they became great givers of tzedaka.

A few years later, the man traveled to
Medzibozh to visit the Baal Shem Tov.
When the Baal Shem Tov saw him, he spent an unusual amount of private time with him.

Seeing this, his students asked, "Why did Rebbe spend so much time with this particular man?"

"You don't remember him. He is the Jew we visited Saturday night a few years ago. The Holy One brought us to him. There was a decree in Heaven that he should be blessed with great weath. The problem was that this simple Jew was so satisfied with what he had, that he never asked for anything more. There was a chance that the blessing would never reach him. We were sent to him to consume all of his food so that he would ask for help."

Question for your table: What is the moral of this story? Can you think of two or three?

Shabbat Shalom

PS - Thank you to all those who responded to last week's PS.... As I wrote then, if you're read this far, chances are you enjoyed this message. Tomorrow night at 11:59 pm is your last chance to make tax-deductible contributions for 2011. How many appeals have you received this year? But you read this email, so you got something out of it. Maybe you have enjoyed this Table Talk throughout the year. Please support the organization that makes this and many ambitious educational programs possible. Here's the link: No contribution is too small or too large.

PPS - Robert Zimmerman:

PPS - Another selection from the Amazing Jewish Fact-a-Day Calendar

++++++ Sunday’s Amazing Jewish Fact ++++++

6 Tevet 5772
1 January 2012

At the age of 40, Akiva (ca. 60 CE) was an illiterate shepherd.

At his wife's insistence, he went to learn, but was embarrassed to be sitting in school with kindergarteners. Yet he couldn't go home, because his wife told him not to return until he was a scholar.

Feeling sorry for himself. Akiva sat down by a stream and stared at the water.

As he watched the dripping water slowly wearing away a rock, he had a flash of inspiration:

"If water, which is so soft, can wear away a hard rock, surely a little Torah can get into my hardened heart!"

So inspired, he returned to kindergarten.

By the age of 64 he had become Rabbi Akiva, the greatest scholar in Israel, with 24,000 students.

Talmud Nedarim 50a, Ketubot 62b-63a

Wikipedia on Rabbi Akiva

A book about Rabbi Akiva
An amazing class by R. Akiva Tatz on the meaning of life 

From the Amazing Jewish Fact-a-Day Calendar: (iphone/ipad version) (android version)

Friday, December 23, 2011

2011 Hannuka Miracle?

This week, a modern-day Channukah story.

It is a true story. It happened just last week.

It is also a bit long, so I will cut out some of the details.

The story begins with a real tragedy.

A 54-year-old doctor from New York named Brian Grobois is in Seattle for a Bar Mitzvah. He plans to stay in Washington an extra day to enjoy one of his favorite pastimes, walking in nature.

Sunday morning he sets out on a snow-shoe trek in Paradise.

Paradise is the name of a popular hiking area at Mt. Rainier. You can imagine what it must look like for people to give it that name.
Here are some photos.

The husband, father and popular doctor does not return from Paradise. Rangers find his body late Monday and recover it on Tuesday. He apparently got lost and was unprepared for an overnight stay.

But that’s just the beginning of this tale.

When Dr. Grobois’s widow arrives to identify the body, she learns that the Pierce County Medical Examiner plans to conduct a full autopsy and there is nothing she could do to prevent it.

From a Jewish perspective, there are two problems with an autopsy. One is that it delays burial. But worse than that, a full autopsy is incredibly invasive. It involves procedures that I will not describe here. Suffice it to say, you would not want one performed on anyone short of a sworn enemy. Moreover, if you are a religious family like the Groboises, it violates your religious beliefs.

(Channuka theme #1 – Remember what the Maccabees were fighting for? Judaism v. Hellenism, right? One of the symbols of that Hellenism was the gymnasium, the focus on the body. It is ironic that Judaism has so much respect for the body that it’s against the rules to desecrate a corpse. Hellenism isn’t antithetical to Judaism. The fight wasn’t against Hellenism. It was against the hegemony of Hellenism. Hellenism under the umbrella of Jewish ethics is no enemy.)

Well, at this point, two sets of players get activated, one national and one local. The national players include a network of rabbis and lawyers across the country, New York Assemblyman Phil Goldfeder, Congresswoman Nita Lowey and Senator Charles Schumer; Washington Senators Pat Murray and Maria Cantwell, Governor Christine Gregoire and Attorney General Rob McKenna.

The local players, besides the family and witnesses, include two individuals, Rabbi Zalman Heber and Tacoma attorney Barry Wallis.

Wallis has never had a case like this before. In fact, Washington State has never had a case like this before. There is no legal precedent on the books.

Wallis, who happens to be Jewish, went into law because he saw it as the best way to “fight the good fight”. Now he has a truly good fight on his hands. Whether or not he shares the family’s religious beliefs is never discussed. He has so much respect for Judaism and the Jewish People that he is at the top of Rabbi Heber’s list.

In order to keep this from becoming a novella I promised not to tell you all the details. But Wallis personally has to put everything else on hold, all his other clients, cases and court appearances, in order to fight this battle. It involves a zero-hour court order to stop the autopsy, and just one day to prepare this unprecedented case.

The good news is that the plaintiff wins.

The bad news is that the State appeals.

The good news is that the judge who is hearing the appeal is the Hon. Brian Tollefson, who happens to be the brother of my Jr. High French teacher. The Talmud says that if you really want to know what a woman is like, meet her brother. I figure it works the other way around too. Miss Tollefson was professional, fair, and very smart. I’m sure that he is too.

Indeed, plaintiff wins again. And many of the abovementioned political figures intervene to prevent a further appeal.

The burial took place in Jerusalem, according to the wishes of Brian Grobois. May he rest in peace.

When it’s all over, an exhausted Barry Wallis trudges home late at night. He stumbles into the kitchen, looking for olive oil to light his menorah. But there isn’t enough oil, only a few drops left in one small bottle....

You complete the story.


Several days after the events of this story, one of the rabbis involved received a phone call from the Park Ranger who testified on the family’s behalf. He was in tears and very emotional.

“You might not believe what I'm going to tell you now, but I still have to share it with you. Last Tuesday night after I recovered the body of Dr. Grobois I had a dream. I dreamed that I was in Israel, attending a Jewish funeral, and I'm telling you, I was never in Israel, and never at a Jewish funeral, but here's what I saw, men were on one side, women on the other. And in the center was a body on a bench.  They were eulogizing the person, and suddenly I heard them starting to thank people. And guess what? I heard them thanking me!”

“It’s weird, you know?  When I helped bring the body up from the mountain, I was just doing my job.  And I had nothing to do with his Jewish burial. But when you reached out to me on Thursday to come and testify in court, it clicked. I felt that it was a clear and direct sensational message sent from heaven, and that's why I felt I needed to act.”

As it turns out, the ranger’s wife is Jewish, and so are his children. He has already reached out to Rabbi Heber about teaching the children about their Jewish heritage.

Question for your table: Why did plaintiff win? Hard work, good luck, or a miracle?

Happy Channuka and Shabbat Shalom

PS - If you're read this far, chances are you enjoyed this message. Well, it's that time of year again. Last chance to make tax-deductible contributions for 2011. How many appeals have you received this year? But  you read this far; chances are you enjoyed this post and perhaps previous ones this year. Please support the organization that makes this and many ambitious educational programs possible. Here's the link: No contribution is too small or too large.

PPS - Need a last-minute, simple, affordable, meaningful Channuka present for someone?
Try the most amazing Jewish app ever. Click here for the current amazing fact. (iphone/ipad version) (android version)

++++++ Sunday’s Amazing Jewish Fact ++++++

29 Kislev 5772
25 December 2011

Of the 25 most performed holiday songs in America, 10 were written or co-written by Jews, including:

"O Holy Night" (Adolphe Adam)
"Silver Bells" (Livingston and Evans)
"The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)" (Mel Torm)
"Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer"
"Holly Jolly Christmas" and "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" (Johnny Marks)
Two Christmas albums by Barry Manilow

And, of course, "White Christmas" (Irving Berlin), the best-selling song in history.

US News and World Report, Dec. 2, 2002

Two great links:

Chinese Food on Xmas music video

Longer article on this topic

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++ (iphone/ipad version) (android version)

Friday, December 16, 2011

Distracted Living

I have a confession to make.

Please forgive me in advance for shocking you.

I don't have a smart phone. We don't even have high-speed internet at home. Just a slow dial-up connection to check email.

My car has a cassette player and I'm still going through the hundreds of Torah tapes in our collection. My commute is so short that I usually only get 5 minutes or so at a time, and I love that it always saves the place I was at before, even days or months later.

Throw in the lack of a TV and I guess most people think we're living in the stone age.

So the other day my wife suggested that she could be so much more.... productive if she had a smart phone. She could look stuff up. She could shop online.

"You don't know what it would do to you," I said. "It will take over your life."

She didn't believe me.

I realize that most of the people reading this blog think it's normal for kids to have their own phones, not to mention free access to the Internet, TV etc. So what benefit is there to fighting the tide?

Well, the answer is, if you have kids, you have exactly one chance to raise them. No, they don't have to have a TV in their room. No, they don't have to be on Facebook during homework time. Be their parent.

If you don't have kids, but know someone who could benefit from this message, please forward it to them.

If you have a husband, consider this: many, many men have told me that it annoys them deeply when they come home and their wife is on the smart phone or dumb phone and hardly notices that he's home. When you see your husband for the first time at the beginning and end of the day, don't be on the phone. If you're in the middle of a conversation with Barrack H. Obama, you say, "Excuse me Mr. President, but my husband just came in, gotta go." Let your husband know that he is more important to you than anyone else in the world. Think about it.

(PS - guys, this goes both ways)

If you are a parent, don't make your children feel that they have to compete with your phone. Don't even bother answering it between 5-8 pm. That's what answering machines are for!

Be your spouse's spouse and your child's parent and let them know that they are more important to you than everyone else in the world. Actions speak louder than words.

Think about it.

Question for your table: Are you so addicted to your device that the above sounds preposterous to you? Here's a litmus test: for 24 hours, from sunset tonight until sunset on Saturday, don't check your email. Not even a peek.

Can you do it? Prove it.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Hannuka

PS - Another way to treat the "distracted living" problem is Hannuka. Here are a couple classes you can download to help your family's Hannuka be a spiritual experience and not lost in the materialism of the "holiday season":
Hannuka of Presence

Hannuka and the Secret of the 36

 We have added a bunch of great Hannuka stuff (books, menorahs, candles, toys) to - if you use these links for your shopping, it helps support JSL's nonprofit educational mission.

Further reading:

Friday, December 09, 2011

Out of the Box

Note - We have added a bunch of great Hannuka stuff (books, menorahs, candles, toys) to - if you use these links for your shopping, it helps support JSL's nonprofit educational mission.
For some karmic reason, last week several out-of-the-box music videos ended up in my inbox.

These caused me to rethink something about my life.

The first was this guy in Portland, Ore. who has over thirty-five years honed a technique to play impressive music on a rubber band.

You heard me right. A rubber band.

You have to watch the video to believe it:

Here, he's playing in a jazz trio:

Here, he's explaining his technique:

The second is this guy who takes a different approach to the rubber-band music:

The third is string quartet from Poland of all places, who are obviously very talented at their craft. Yet they have the most fun playing classical music you've ever seen:

After watching these videos, I started to wonder: What is so compelling about these guys?

I think the answer is that they have found a way to be unconventional without being offensive. Au contraire, their unconventionality draws you in.

But this leads to a profound question that you might try asking at your table -

Is there room for such out-of-the-box expression in every human endeavor? What about your own job/career/pasttime?

And if you answer yes, the second question is, is it important to break with convention?

And if the answer is yes, then the third question is, How????

Friday, December 02, 2011

Love at First Sigh

PPS - We have uploaded a bunch of great Hannuka stuff (books, menorahs, candles, toys) to the - if you use these links for your shopping, it helps support JSL's nonprofit mission.

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky is one of the living sages of the Jewish People. He resides in the Land of Israel, near Tel Aviv.

The Rav has afternoon visiting hours. Each year he receives thousands of visitors. Both religious and secular come to seek his wisdom.

Recently, a man having trouble finding a shidduch (match) visited the Rav.

The teary-eyed man explained he cannot find a shidduch, asking Rav Kanievsky for a blessing.

The Rav gazed at the man, probed his details somewhat and reportedly responded, “Your soulmate hasn’t been born. Blessings and success."

End of interview.

Question for your table: Try to imagine yourself in this man's shoes. How would you have reacted?

The man left in tears, devastated by the holy rabbi's words.

Less than two months later, the man returned to Rav Kanievsky. This time he was smiling.

In fact he was grinning. He had good news.

"I am engaged!"

That would be great news to hear from anyone. But under these circumstances, the Rav's attendants were nonplussed. Who could forget what Rav Kanievsky had said?

The groom explained that his new fiancée is a convert, who completed her conversion only a month earlier.

According to Jewish tradition, a convert is regarded as a "newborn baby" (Talmud Yevamot 22a).

Shabbat Shalom


Friday, November 25, 2011

Jewish Thanksgiving?

Mazal tov to Asher Dossetter and family on his becoming Bar Mitzvah this week.
The goal of Table talk is to make you look brilliant at your Friday night dinner table. Please print and share.
Imagine you are the first European to visit America. It's an amazing New World! Strange people, strange foliage, strange animals. And you see this odd chicken-like bird for the first time. What do you call it?

Since you think you're in India, you naturally call it "Indian chicken."

Are you with me so far?

So French explorers dubbed this new bird poulet d'Inde (Indian chicken) later shortened to dinde (pronounced "dand").

English settlers called the bird turkey because they thought it looked like another type of fowl that was imported from Turkey.

Jewish explorers sided with the French and called it tarnegol hodu which means "hindu chicken" and was later shortened it to simply hodu.

What's interesting for us is that the Hebrew word HODU also happens to mean "give thanks."

Similarly, we ourselves are called "Jews" because most of us descend from the remnant of the 12 Tribes who survived the repeated pounding from Assyria and Babylon 2,500 years ago. The one remaining landed tribe was Yehuda or Judah. And that name - Judah - means "thankful".

Therefore, being "Jewish" means cultivating a Thanksgiving mindset every single day.

(I can hear it already - "Gee honey, I"m watching so much football because the rabbi told me to....)

Below: Two links on cultivating gratitude...

Article by Rabbi Pliskin
Audio by Rabbi Rietti

Shabbat Shalom

Friday, November 18, 2011

In Woman We Trust

When I returned from Israel last summer, my friend Raffi happened to be in New York, so we arranged to have breakfast.

Guided by google, we chose the Bagel Hole restaurant on Avenue J, in Brooklyn.

We immediately found out why they gave it that name.

Even though Google calls it a restaurant, they don't actually want you to eat there. There's only one tiny table!

But a great spot for a tête-a-tête (as long as there are no other customers)....

Indeed, as we were winding down, we noticed a couple attempting to join us in that tiny space.

We were visibly done, so they were probably annoyed that we were still sitting there.

"I'm so sorry," I apologized. "We're really leaving. It's just that I'm from Baltimore and my friend here is from Jerusalem and we haven't seen each other in three years."

I'm not sure why I had to reveal all those intimate details.

Did I think that  they would have any interest in that information? Did it occur to me that my story would somehow justify our hogging (pardon the expression) the counter.

Yet for some reason I said it nonetheless.

The woman just stared at me.


You know what I mean? Think new-york-stare.

Then she blurted out, "You're from Baltimore? What's your name?"

To shorten a long story, it turns out that I had helped her via phone 5 years ago sort out some dating/marriage issues.

Friends and family had been pushing her to marry a guy she knew wasn't right for her, and I had encouraged her to ignore them and to find Mr. Right.

Now here she was with Mr. Right, the fruit of all that effort. We'd never met in person.

Question for your table: Random coincidence, right?

Shabbat Shalom


Today's Amazing Jewish Fact 

November 21, 2011
21 Cheshvan, 5772


"The trust God places in women is greater than the trust God places in men." 

Talmud Brachot 17a

Here is a class given this week by Rebbetzin Esther Baila Schwartz, on one of the greatest Jewish women ever. 

From the Amazing Jewish Fact-a-Day Calendar

Friday, November 11, 2011

Seek the Truth

Dedicated by a subscriber in loving memory of Marcel Will.(To dedicate a future Table Talk, send an email.)

Please consider the remarkable story of Israel's newest Nobel laureate.

Shechtman experienced several years of hostility toward his non-periodic interpretation (no less a figure than Linus Pauling said he was "talking nonsense" and "There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists.")

The head of Shechtman's research group told him to "go back and read the textbook" and then "asked him to leave for 'bringing disgrace' on the team." Shechtman felt rejected.

The Nobel Committee at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said that "his discovery was extremely controversial," but that his work "eventually forced scientists to reconsider their conception of the very nature of matter."

And in his own words:

“I was thrown out of my research group. They said I brought shame on them with what I was saying,” he recalled. “I never took it personally. I knew I was right and they were wrong....If you are a scientist and believe in your results, then fight for them, then fight for the truth. Listen to others, but fight for what you believe in."
— Prof. Dani Shechtman, 2011 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Amazing. Should be on the first page of every science textbook.

Question for your table.... What's more important, fighting for what you believe or having friends?

Today's Amazing Jewish Fact

November 11, 2011
14 Cheshvan, 5772

Star of Whom?

There is no evidence that the six-pointed star was a particularly Jewish symbol prior to the Middle Ages. It can be found in ancient inscriptions all over the world, as can the swastika.

Read more:

From the Amazing Jewish Fact-a-Day Calendar

Android version:
Iphone/ipod/ipad version:

Shabbat Shalom

Friday, November 04, 2011


Dedicated by a reader in memory of Chana bas Pinchas (Alzbeta Dolanova), one of the few remaining Holocaust survivors in Nitra, Slovakia, who passed away last week. "Her pride in the continuation of the Jewish people was evident in our every conversation with her."

(To dedicate a future Table Talk, send an email.)

Today you get an amazing Jewish fact, followed by a question for your table....

November 4, 2011
7 Cheshvan, 5772


In contrast to the country’s stunning natural beauty, Israel currently faces several environmental catastrophes, e.g., low rainfall has depleted the aquifers, risking permanent damage; several of the rivers are so polluted with industrial waste that humans are not allowed in their vicinity; there are few municipal recycling programs and a plethora of desert landfills.

Fortunately, organizations such as the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) and the Jewish National Fund (JNF) are working hard to strengthen laws and teach people new behaviors.

More info:
R. Becher's great class on the Land of Israel
SPNI website
JNF website


From the Amazing Jewish Fact-a-Day Calendar

Android version:
Iphone/ipod/ipad version:


Question for your table: Is there a difference between "Israel", "The Land of Israel" and "The State of Israel"? And does it matter?

Shabbat Shalom

Friday, October 28, 2011

Soul Mates

Dedicated to the memory of Peerlya Briskina, whose yahrzeit was observed recently.

(To dedicate a future Table Talk, send an email.)

Questions for your table....

What did the Jews have to do with Columbus?
How about Louis Armstrong?
Where in the Talmud can you find a reference to airplanes and telescopes?
What are the top five inventions by Jews that you can’t live without?
Why didn’t they teach this stuff in Sunday school?

Which famous Jewish iphone/ipad app is now available for Android?

In celebration of the new edition, for the next week or so I will be sending out the day's amazing fact to my mailing list. If you would like to receive this in your inbox (for free of course), let me know.

Here's today's Amazing Jewish Fact you can share at your table....As you will see, the app NOT merely trivia. It includes a wealth of ancient Jewish wisdom on life, relationships, ethics, and spirituality. You will also learn amazing things about Jewish history, religion, Torah, Hebrew language, philosophy, geography....even a bit of Jewish humor!


Soul Mates

A beautiful example of two souls blending into one:

Rabbi Aryeh Levine, the "Tzaddik of Jerusalem" in the 1940s and 1950s, once took his wife to the doctor. He explained to the physician, “My wife’s foot is hurting us.” And he meant it.

Source: Simcha Raz, A Tzaddik in Our Time (Click here for more info)


(Each daily fact includes links to further information. Some say that these links are the best part of the app - they include online articles, books on Amazon, and streaming audio and video that you can enjoy right inside your device.)

Android version:
Iphone/ipod/ipad version:

(note, even if you don't have one of these devices, you can still click on the links and enjoy the screen shots)

Question for your table: What does it take to be able to speak about another person like R. Levine did about his wife?

Shabbat Shalom

PS - Rabbi Twerski on soulmates:

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Taking a Week Off

Dedicated to my dear mother, whose birthday is today. Happy Birthday, Mom!

Happy Sukkot....

Kids off from school from today for 2 weeks so you will get an abbreviated blog this week and next....

Here's something they didn't teach you in Sunday school:

(You can ask this at the table....)

When the Talmud refers to "ha-chag" - "the holiday" - without specifying which one  - which one does it mean?

A: It always means Sukkot.

Sukkot is the archetype of holidays.

It is the greatest of holidays.

And it is the least celebrated.


Why do you suppose that is?

Interested in something meaningful about this festival? Try these links:

Great short article
Great audio
Collection of thoughtful articles
Coloring pages

 Chag Sameach!

Friday, October 07, 2011

Do Something Wonderful

Hard not to comment on all the big stories of the week. I've decided to save the great material from the Nobel prizes for future Table Talks.

“Being the richest man in the cemetery doesn’t matter to me … Going to bed at night saying we’ve done something wonderful… that’s what matters to me.” 
           — Steve Jobs (The Wall Street Journal, May 25, 1993)

As as user of Apple computers since 1984 (even in the 90s to the derision of most of our friends), it's tempting to write about Steve Jobs. We loved him because he spoke truth.

I don't mean his speeches or interviews. Frankly, I don't pay attention to those things.

He spoke truth through his actions. He declared that a "good" is a four-letter word! A person should strive for great. He stated that computers could make work more fun. He asserted that everyone, even the visually, physically or mentally impaired, should have access to the new technologies.

But these values didn’t make him a guru. What made him a guru were 4 pillar beliefs:
  • Truth at all costs, even when the rest of the world tells you you’re wron
  •  how you travel matters as much as getting there
  • aesthetics matter
  • create for the sake of the creation, not the money
I know what you're thinking: How does all this tie into Yom Kippur?

I am going to try to explain why we fast on Yom Kippur. I will do so with a personal story, and then try to tie it back to the quote above.

My story actually begins last winter, when I decided it was time to listen to the voice in my head that kept saying, "You should get your body back into shape!"
There is so much great wisdom available on mp3, it seemed to me a great excuse to get on the treadmill. Just like I wasn't taking hte time to get exercise, I wasn't making the time to listen to all those hours of Torah audio that I'd downloaded.

Anyway, in late January I was able to jog/run a mile in about 11 minutes, 10 minutes if I really pushed myself.

After a mile, that was plenty.

Funny thing happened, over time I found myself able to go faster and farther.

By September, my record mile was 7:15. That was after a 1-mile jogging warmup, then starting at an 8 minute pace and then at .80 increasing the speed one notch for every 1/100 of a mile until the end.

But I never seemed to be able to go faster than 7:15. I figured that was just my body's physical limit.

About a month ago I started to wonder if a different strategy would produce different results.

Instead of jogging my 1-mile warm-up, I thought I should walk it and conserve energy.

Instead of sprinting at the end, I thought maybe I should try starting too fast, then slowing down at the end.

Instead of listening to an erudite discussion about Jewish ethics, I'd listen to Beethoven's 4th symphony.
So after the warm-up and stretch, I set the pace for a 6:30 mile, and figured that each 1/4 mile I'd slow it down a bit.

The first quarter wasn't bad (actually, it flew by pretty quickly!) and I realized that I could probably make it to .30 or .40 before slowing down. Then I soon realized I was going to make it to .50 without a major problem.

You can probably guess where this is going.

At .50, the way I felt, it suddenly occurred to me that I could keep the pace up, perhaps even to the end. It wasn't easy, but with concentration it was working.

At .75 I really wanted to slow down. Or should I say, my legs really wanted to slow down.

My legs started complaining, "Enough already, you've proven your point! Slow down already, and we'll make the 7-min goal easily."

But my heart said back to the legs, "Shut up and keep moving. We're going to blast this one out of the park!"

.90 and I could see the finish-line. I could see the tape. I was going to make it. It was taking every ounce of concentration to keep those legs from quitting on me.

Here's where things got difficult.

You see, at the Baltimore JCC, there is a special room that alternates between women-only and men-only.

At that exact moment, a staff member came in to tell me my time was up.

I tried to ignore him. Couldn't he see I was concentrating?

But all he saw was a guy lost in his headphones and going over time.

It was a battle of wits, his determination to get me off the treadmill versus my determination to run a mile in 6:30.

He won. He broke my concentration. 6:40.

I learned two lessons from that experience. Lessons that I already knew, but had forgotten.

1 - I'm not always performing at my highest level.
2 - A lot of what stops us from reaching a higher level is an internal block, rather than external circumstances.

This internal block, in my case, was the comfort of my body. My body didn't like running that fast. The real battle of wills wasn't between the staff member and me, it was between me and my body.

And that's why we fast on Yom Kippur. We fast in order to remind our bodies (and ourselves) who's really in charge.

We wander around all year acting like human beings trying to have spiritual experiences.

On Yom Kippur, late afternoon, after a day of fasting, near the finish line, we remember: Oh yeah, I'm really a spiritual being having a human experience.

That can't happen on a half-day fast, nor on a 3/4-day fast. Only after about 23 hours or so of denying your body the comforts of food and water can you really truly get it to shut up. Then you've won.

But what have you won?

If you were only fasting, the very least you've won is the knowledge that you are in control of your body and not the other way around.

If you were using Yom Kippur to reflect on your life and your mistakes of the past, then you've won a great deal more. You've conquered, temporarily, that one force in your life that always derails your attempts at greatness — your body and ego.

Isn't that a happy ending?

I promised I'd tie this back to Mr. Jobs.

Here's another quote:

“No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.” — Steve Jobs, [Stanford commencement speech, June 2005]

Happy Yom Kippur!!

PS - This new vid puts a similar spin on Yom Kippur:

PPS - Yes, 2 days later I tried again and hit 6:30. Now that I know I can do it, it doesn't seem like such a big deal.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Staying Awake on Rosh Hashana

This special Rosh Hashana edition is dedicated in honor of Kyle and Shelli of San Francisco who just celebrated their "bar mitzvah" wedding anniversary (13) and their daughter Scarlett who, according to ancient tradition, becomes bat mitzvah (12) this Thursday night. Mazal tov! (To dedicate a future Table Talk, send an email.)

For a different kind of Rosh Hashana tonight, try printing this email and sharing it at the table....

What's Rosh Hashana?

It's the Jewish New Year, right?


That's actually a lie.

First of all, according to the Talmud, it's not just for Jews, it's for all humanity.

Second of all, there are four "new years"....

So what's the Rosh Hashana that is happening tonight all about??

It's the day when our karma is fixed for the coming year. That means that how we think and act on Rosh Hashana (from tonight through Friday) will affect us the next 12 months.

So ask at your table: What kind of year do you want to have?

Happy? So act happy.

Patient? Then act patient.

Mindful? Then be mindful.

Energetic? So don't take a nap.

Thankful? Well, how about trying eating your food mindfully for a day?

Prosperous? Then be generous of spirit and pocket (now you know why there is a universal Jewish custom of increasing charitable donations from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur).

Everything we do should be oriented towards this positive thinking, which is why we eat sweet foods on Rosh Hashana.

So in the spirit of the day, try teaching this song to your table that I learned from my kids:
    Dip the apple in the honey make a bracha loud and clear Shana tova ["good"] u-meh-tu-ka ["sweet"] have a happy sweet new year.
    (sung to the tune of "Oh My Darlin' Clementine")
Wishing you and yours an amazing year 5772 - healthy, happy, fruitful. etc., but above all, amazing.

L'Shana Tova


PS - this vid will uplift you!

Friday, September 23, 2011

Open Season on Wisdom

First, a ginormous mazal tov to Harmon and Jorun Shragge of San Francisco, who have completed learning the entire TANACH this week, a 10-year endeavor! Besides kvelling over their achievement, I am grateful to them for being the greatest of study partners - perseverant, yes...thoughtful, yes... but most important, they ask tough questions and have never let me get lazy.

Many thanks to the 75 guests, including leaders and laity, who joined us at the celebration Wednesday from all over the Bay Area, from as far away as San Jose, Mill Valley, Berekeley, Oakland and even Piedmont.

I tried to stump the crowd with a few Tanach trivia questions. Here's a sample for a conversation-starter at your dinner table tonight (helpful hint: print this page):

Tanach: Final Exam
1. What does "Tanach" mean?
2. What does "Torah" mean?
3. What is the first event in Tanach?
4. What is the last event in Tanach?
5. Name the 3 Patriarchs and 4 Matriarchs?
6. Name 3 heroes of Tanach?
7. Name 3 villains of Tanach?
8. List the "10 Commandments"
9. What are the 10 Commandments called by Jews?
10. How many books make up Tanach?
11. Which is longer, Tanach or War and Peace?
12. Which is longer, Tanach or the collected works of Shakespeare?
Answer key:

1. Acronym for Torah (5 Books of Moses), Neviim (Prophets), Ketuvim (Writings)
2. "Torah" means "instructions" and is short for "Torat Chayim" - "instructions for living"
3. The Big Bang, i.e., creation of the universe ex nihilo.
4. Historically, the returning of the Jews to the Land of Israel after the Babylonian exile and rebuilding the Temple. In the narrative, however, the last event is the Persian King Cyrus's proclamation that the Jews may go back "up" to the Land and rebuild the Temple.
5. Avraham, Yitzchok, Yaakov, Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel, Leah.
6. Some possibilities: Noah, Moses, Aaron, Miriam, Joshua, Devorah, David, Solomon
7. Some possibilities: Pharaoh, Haman, Bilam, Nebudchanezar
8. Monotheism, Idolatry, Blasphemy, Shabbat, Honoring Parents, Murder, Adultery, Stealing/Kidnaping, Lying, Coveting.
9. "The 10 Statements" (because we count 613 commandments)
10. 24 (Gentiles divide up their "Old Testament" into as many as 39 books).
11. Tanach is slightly longer (around 600,000 words in English compared to 580,000)
12. Shakespeare's 39 plays contain over 800,000 words

Now here's the zinger for your table: Do these last two answers make the Tanach seem long or short?

In my opinion, here's what the numbers are saying: It is long, especially when you're actually studying rather than merely reading, but those numbers make it clear - it's not out of reach....

You, too, can become literate in the Torah.
You, too, can explore ancient Jewish ethics.
You, too, can taste a little Talmud.
You, too, can learn a little Kabbalah.

Rosh Hashana is next week, what a great time to begin.

(If you'd like my help finding a suitable:

- class (live or online)
- study-partner (live or telephone)
- methodology (that fits your personality)
- plan (that fits your crazy schedule)

...send me an email. Like losing weight, if you don't have a goal and a plan, you're not being real.)

Consider this: the Torah belongs to you as much as it does to me, and great people have observed how much wisdom is there. How about the words of Churchill:

“Some people like Jews and some do not; but no thoughtful man can doubt the fact that they are beyond all question the most formidable and the most remarkable race which has ever appeared in the world…. We owe to the Jews…a system of ethics which, even if it were entirely separated from the supernatural, would be incomparably the most precious possession of mankind, worth in fact the fruits of all other wisdom and learning put together.” (Illustrated Sunday Herald, February 8, 1920)

Isn't it about time you discovered what's in there?

No, really. If not now, when?

(Have I made my point?)


My family joins me in wishing you and yours an amazing New Year signed and sealed for life, wisdom, health, peace and prosperity, deep contentment and soaring joy. (I will try to send a special TT Wednesday for Rosh Hashana, but no promises...)

If you have been enjoying this weekly email for some time and would like to express your appreciation, know that your emails are meaningful and appreciated and your donations to help - quite literally - keep the lights on and make this weekly service possible.

Shabbat Shalom and l'Shana Tova.

You can start your daily pursuit of Jewish wisdom with my iphone app.
Rosh Hashana video #1
Rosh Hashana video #2

Rosh Hashana video #3
"24 Questions to Think About Before Rosh Hashana". Here's the link.
A great affordable shofar: Great Shofar
Our four favorite honey dishes: Here's the link.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Satisficer or Maximizer?

Yesterday I met a man who told me he was having trouble making a major choice in his life, and he was troubled because he wasn't sure WHY he was having such trouble.

Here's a simple question for your table:

Do you ever feel like you have too many choices?

Barry Schwartz thinks that more choices often lead to more misery. A video and link to his book are below.

In a nutshell, Barry would ask you:

Are you a "satisficer" or a "maximizer"?

A satisficer is a person who chooses a product or service that is "good enough".

A maximizer is a person who is always trying to get the "best".

A satisficer is usually happy with their choice.

A maximizer isn't happy and often regrets what they bought.

Try to apply this question to five things you've purchased recently.

Question #2 - how does this model apply to things we create?

There is a line in the Torah that unfortunately few people know about. It says that it's a mitzvah to act with happiness, with connectedness, with joy, without exception.

Question #3 - That seems like a high bar - how can a person get there?

 My answer:

Shabbat Shalom

PS - Here's Barry:

And here's his book:

(If you haven't seen RH videos 1+2, they are here: Rosh Hashana video #1....Rosh Hashana video # 2.)

AND.... some Rosh Hashana links....

1. Download my free "24 Questions to Think About Before Rosh Hashana". Here's the link.
2. Get your very own shofar before it's too late!.
3. Our four favorite honey dishes which make great gifts. Here's the link.

Friday, September 09, 2011

2 Minutes, 2 Checks

Pouring, pouring rain.
Easily seven inches
A world waterlogged.

(My apologies to those who don't like haiku.)


(Did he say spiders?)

Yes, spiders. There has been a burst of spider activity this week. The most stunning webs glistening with raindrops. Here's a photo of Goldy with a giant one on our front porch:
As time keeps on slipping towards Rosh Hashana, last week I challenged someone to make two immediate changes in her daily life in preparation.

Because of the order in which I said them, she reacted quite negatively to the first one. She hardly let me continue to tell the second one. But then, when she heard the second one, she completely got it. She even apologized (unnecessarily) for her first reaction. She even phoned me later to apologize again (unnecessarily).

So this time around, I'm going to switch the order for you, Dear Reader.

Change #1:

1. Choose a time during the day when you could most likely find two extra minutes.
2. Between now and Rosh Hashana, take two full minutes every day when you do nothing else besides focus on something good in your life. Clock it - make sure it's a full 120 seconds.

Think you could do it?

Think it would be good for you?

Change #2: Sometime during the day (maybe before you go to bed), give yourself a check (on a calendar or chart).

If you did the 2 minutes, give yourself a second check.

Now, here's the question for your dinner table tonight: What's the first check for?

Here's a contribution from a reader who knows how to take 2 minutes:

The sun is just beginning to spread 
it's pinkish silvery sheen across the still strait 
outside my rustic cabin window. My bed, 
made from thick timber logs, 
looks as if it was made for Pappa Bear: soaring 40 inches from the floor:
I can view the panorama of wooded islands and distant snow capped mountains 
all from my cozy aerie. My "cliff" cabin 
is truthfully named: at the end of the road, 
its perch plunges into the water below. 
A small gnarled madroña tree,
the calls of herons and seagulls 
punctuate the serenity.

Q2 for your table: If you can't the wherewithal to take two minutes, what are you living for?

Shabbat Shalom

Rosh Hashana links:
1. Get your very own shofar.
2. Download my free "24 Questions to Think About Before Rosh Hashana". Here's the link.
3. On, you can find links to our four favorite honey dishes which make great gifts. Here's the page.
4. Finally, now that school is back for young and old, how about showing your appreciation to the teachers? Don't wait until the end of year. We have found 11 gifts that are inexpensive but quite useful for any classroom teacher. Get them a small gift now that will both show your appreciation and help them be effective. Go to and browse the category, "Gifts for Teachers".
5. The amazing Jewish iphone/ipad app....

Friday, September 02, 2011

It's Not the Hurricane, Stupid!

Hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, blackouts, yada yada yada.

Why do these things happen. That's what everyone wants to know.

Why did that bozo driving on a darkened street not only ram the shopping cart lying in the road, sending it hurtling across into my lane and putting a nice dent into my fender, but also speed away?

Why did I go out at all Tuesday night to look for ice when I should have known everyone would be sold out?

Why does this fruit fly buzzing around my desk keep pestering me? Why won't it just go away or die or something?

Why why why?

I have a more basic, Rosh Hashana-dik question.

After all, tis the season.

If you have a shofar at home, now's a good time to dust it off and get that lip back in shape. I've been blowing mine every morning starting Wednesday this week to wake up the kids.

If you don't have one,
here's a low-cost one online.

Nothing beats the real thing, but there is also the virtual shofar for iphone/ipad.

Now, I know I haven't asked you the question yet, but there are a few more Rosh Hashana links I'd like to share....

On, you can download for free our "24 Questions to Think About Before Rosh Hashana". Here's the link.

On, you can find links to our four favorite honey dishes which make great gifts. Here's the page.

Finally, now that school is back for young and old, how about showing your appreciation to the teachers? Don't wait until the end of year. We have found 11 gifts that are inexpensive but quite useful for any classroom teacher. Get them a small gift now that will both show your appreciation and help them be effective. Go to and browse the category, "Gifts for Teachers".

Now back to our main program.

It seems to me that the question of "Why did such-and-such happen" is useful and instructive if and only if we begin with a more basic question:

What am I here for?

Meaning, What's the purpose of my life?

We now have a little over 3 weeks until Rosh Hashana. Here's your action plan:

1. Download my 24 questions worksheet. Print a copy for everyone you love.
2. Set aside 5 minutes a day to work on one question.

Friday night dinner is a great time to begin with question #1.

Do this, and then between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur we'll be able to talk more meaningfully about the "why why why".

Shabbat Shalom

(I made these vids a couple years ago as an experiment. Please tell me what you think.)

PS - If you know anyone who might appreciate this blog, kindly send them the link, or post it to your facebook wall or even tweet it.

PPS - We have audio (CD and mp3) on Rosh Hashana / Yom Kippur here.

PPPS - What better way to help someone prepare for the new year than sending them the amazing Jewish iphone/ipad app?

Friday, August 26, 2011

Vacation Nation


Do you have a travel headache story?

Who doesn’t?

Traffic jams, flat tires, delayed flights, lost baggage, missed connections...

Anyone who has traveled has been there. How many times have I heard, “I’ll never fly on X Airline again”, when all of these problems occur on every airline.

Five years ago when we had to cut short our Israel trip after two days for my grandmother’s funeral, my mom’s suitcase didn’t make it to San Francisco and the airline knew where it was but, maddingly, couldn’t figure out how to get it to us.

But every time I found myself feeling the slightest twinge of frustration, I thought of the next woman in line at the lost baggage claim, who was weeping.

“What’s wrong,” my mom asked her. “Did you lose something particularly valuable?”

“Yes,” sobbed the woman, “My daughter!”

It seems her unaccompanied-minor daughter didn’t show up, and an airline rep had sent the distraught mom to lost baggage for help!

No matter how bad it seems, there’s always someone who has it worse.

Not only that, but the fact that we have a functioning air transport system is a wonderful thing. If I plan ahead of time for contingencies, I don’t mind the delays. I’m puzzled by the fact that while 100 of us waited at baggage claim for 45 minutes, I appeared to be alone in opening a book. Everyone else seemed to prefer watching the pot boil.

Anything as complex and human as an airport is bound to have snafus.

Every experience and every person in our life has a purpose in our life. It seems to me that the purpose usually falls into one of three categories:

A. To make you wise
B. To get you to ask for help or to say thanks
C. For you to give or to receive an act of kindness.

Sometimes a single experience can have more than one purpose.

Here’s an interesting question to ask at the table: Did you ever feel sorry for yourself and then get over it?

Shabbat Shalom

PS: Read a great review of Senator Lieberman's new book. It sounds like a winner! Here's where to find it.

Friday, August 19, 2011


“Think of who bin Laden was. The 17th child out of 54, he could have lived in rich mediocrity and obscurity. Instead, he shook the world, and changed not only the course of history, but the way a hundreds of millions of people would live their daily lives. For a decade, he escaped a manhunt organized by the most capable government on the planet.

"One man accomplished so much in the service of evil! We believe that the power of good is so much greater than the power of evil. Think of how much good one person can do!”

- R. Avrohom Ausband

"If one person could kill 6 million Jews, then one person could save six million Jews!"
- Rav Elazar Shach

Shabbat Shalom

Friday, August 12, 2011

Yom Kippur in August?

Here we are, in the deepest part of the summer, when all we NHs (Northern Hemispherites) want to do is relax for a few minutes.

Keep your feet up. I don't want to spoil the moment.

But I'm going to make a radical proposal.

It begins with a story.

At my first summer job as a young adult there was a guy who invited everyone in the office to his "Xmas in July" party.

What made it Xmas-y was that everyone brought a present to give to a random person.

So instead of a bunch of people drinking beer together on a summer afternoon, it was a bunch of people drinking beer and exchanging presents on a summer afternoon.

As I grew older and wiser (after all, I did learn to drink wine instead of beer!) I have learned an ancient piece of Jewish wisdom that for some reason has little cache, even in the most traditional Jewish families and communities.

It's called "Tu B'Av".

No, not Tu Bishvat

No, not Tisha B'Av

Tu B'Av.

"Tu" is the number 15. Av is the month of Av, which corresponds to the constellation Leo, the lion.

This coming Sunday night will be the full moon of the lion. (Don't think it's a random coincidence that Apple released the "Lion" OS this month.)

Tu is spelled "tet-vav" which are the first two letters of "tov" (good). What is needed to turn "tu" into "tov"?

A: the letter "bet", which is...

- the number two, i.e., a relationship
- a house or home (bayit), i.e., harmony

I'm not inventing this. In ancient times, Tu B'Av was celebrated as a day of friendship and love, "the most joyous" holiday (Mishna Ta'anit 4:8).

What happened to it?

Well, you know, destruction, exile, a few holocausts....

But is time we brought it back?

You know how many people try to make amends with family, friends and adversaries before Rosh Hashana/Yom Kippur?

Why wait until then? The most auspicious time to heal our relationships and this troubled world is this Sunday night through Monday.

Here is my challenge for you -

1. Try to make-nice this Tu B'Av with everyone you know.
2. Choose a Jewish single over 30 who hasn't yet found Mr. or Mrs. Right and make a commitment to help him or her get married in the next 12 months. Commit to making this goal a priority in your life.
3. Share to this blog to 15 ("tu") people. Let's start a viral campaign to renew Tu B'Av as a day of friendship and love and get a head start on the High Holidays.

"May you be inscribed and sealed for goodness."

Shabbat Shalom

PS - What better way to show someone you care than sending them the amazing Jewish iphone/ipad app?
PPS - Another way to show you care: print this blog and get a discussion going at your dinner table.
PPPS - Our kids' books site now has great school supplies! Browse from the comfort of your home and support JSL while you shop.
PPPPS - Our friend Rabbi Tzvi has a funky new book! Show him you love him by getting it here.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Harvesting Grapes

Four years ago I planted a couple stubby grape vines.

Four years later, they are HUGE, covering our entire deck in a giant embrace.

We have been staring at these luscious bunches, wondering when is the right time to harvest them?

The birds and bees have also taken notice, so the time to harvest got decided for us - now or never!

Yummmm. Sweet white grapes, sweet reds.

It was a long wait, those four years, but so worth it.

What a great way to pass the time on a summer day.

Yes, we know they're starving in Africa. We know that millions are unemployed. But to suckle a piece of fruit after four years of waiting, that's a sweet moment.

It's all going to end next Monday night.

"Next Monday night?" you ask....

If you have to ask, you have to read this.

Next Monday night is the 9th of Av

So what?

It takes enormous effort to connect with this holiday.

Even if you consider yourself "Jewishly connected".

Is it worth the effort?

Here's a story you can read at the table. See how people react.

Imagine the Taliban were to conquer America.

Would our lives really change that much?

Well, we can assume that they would move quickly to abolish Hollywood, destroy museums, dismantle universities. Probably convert all synagogues and churches into mosques.

Now just imagine that you join a few families on a boat to escape. You set sail for the South Pacific. You are hoping that the forces of Good will triumph, but in the meantime, you're saving your own skin. Nothing wrong with that.

But the forces of Good do not get the upper hand so quickly.

Not even in your lifetime.

Nor your children's lifetime.

Not even your grandchildren or great-grandchildren.

So your great-great-grandchildren are born on this South Pacific atoll, they have a decent life with plenty to eat and great surfing. They hear stories from their parents and grandparents about where the family came from, a place called Amerika where there were amazing cities, magical technologies, etc. etc. But that all this was destroyed by the Taliban.

It would be very hard for your great-great-grandchildren to relate to these stories as much more than legends.

That's what Jewish history is for us. We are so far removed from what was, we have almost no appreciation for what was lost.

Why bother?

Because when the Taliban are eventually overthrown, a boat will be coming to offer us passage back home. If we don't appreciate what we lost, we won't want to get on that boat.

Think about it.

The very best things in life often take years of toil and patience before they are ready for harvest.

Three things for your perusal:

1. Here is a packet of Tisha B'Av readings that I compiled for you. I've uploaded it to our teacher-parent resources page.

2. Here is a class I gave in Los Angeles on the topic of how to find a silver lining in any tragedy.
99¢ link .... Free link
(Why a paid download alongside the free one? The first download is for those who recognize the costs incurred in creating and sending you this content and choose to support it. But there will be no hard feelings if you take the latter!)
3. Here is a video by the incomparable Charley Harary:

Shabbat Shalom

PS - Did you know you can send someone my amazing Jewish iphone/ipad app even if you don't use the iphone/ipad yourself? Here's the link.

For the biggest enjoyment of this email, try printing it out and sharing at your dinner table.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Older But Wiser?

In memory of my father, Dennis Seinfeld (Dovid ben Eliezer).

Last Friday night I went as usual to the nearby assisted-living home.

Small place, only about 30 residents.

As a rule, by the time I arrive (after dinner) the only residents I see are those who want to participate in the Shabbat program (kiddush + story). Everyone else go up to their rooms straight after dinner.

So it surprised me to see Mr. Aaron still sitting there. At 103 years old and nearly deaf, I doubted he had stayed around for me, maybe he was just feeling too tired to get up.

Anyway, after the program, as I rose to leave, he suddenly stood up and asked me, "Would you walk me to my room?"

He was shuffling with a walker. Big man. Strong man. You could tell he had been fit once upon a time.

We walked to the elevator. I wish I could say we had a meaningful conversation. With his hearing loss, it was next to impossible. I knew that he had a lot going on inside there, because over the course of the past few years knowing him, a great sense of humor occasionally came out.

Like the time 2 years ago he had been in the hospital. When he returned home, I told him, "Good to see you on your feet!"

"Better than on someone else's feet!" he retorted.

Last Friday night was the last I saw him. He was "niftar" this week and the funeral was yesterday.

Yesterday was also the 6th Yahrzeit (anniversary) of my father's petira.

Many people don't know the word "petira" (and niftar, the adjective form) but it's a great word to add to your Jewish vocabulary.

It doesn't mean "passing" or "death".

It literally means "exemption" or better, "absolution".

Exemption from what?

From doing mitzvot (mitzvos).

Isn't that a strange way to refer to someone's passing?

Well, what does "passing" mean?

Think about it.

I did several things in his memory yesterday.

- Lit a 24-hour candle Wednesday night.
- Said kaddish in a minyan
- Learned a little bit of Torah in his honor.

I also went to a funeral.

Of course, the funeral had nothing to do with my father, but it brought back memories.

I sat in the back, and listened to Mr. Aaron's grandchildren (he had outlived his children) talking about this man's long, productive life.

Like my father, he had been an attorney. Like my father, he had been the epitome of compassion.

One time, a grandson told, they were having lunch at a restaurant and his grandfather ordered an extra sandwich to go. What was this for? For a hungry person he had seen outside on the way in.

It's great to hear these kinds of stories, because if you only know someone as a 103-year-old man, you only know him as a disabled, hard-of-hearing wrinkled old fella.

My dad, in contrast, never reached old age. He was niftar in his prime.

Sometimes I wonder what my dad would have been like at age 70, or 80, or 90, or 100.

Sometimes I wonder what I will be like at those ages, should I enjoy living so long.

(Apparently, this site will transform your photo to show you past and future selves.)

First question for your table - What kind of person do you see yourself as in 10 years? In 20? In 40?

One of the things I learned about Mr. Aaron was that he had always had a sense of humor.

Riva, the nurse who cares for the seniors over there, observed after the funeral how for most people, when they age their personality doesn't change.

So it sounds like if you are a complaining person today, you have a high chance of ending up a cranky old man or woman.

If you are a cheerful person today, you have a high chance of ending up a cheerful old man or woman.

Some people feel that they are stuck. They are stuck in their bodies, stuck in their personalities. Change may be possible, but it's just too darn hard.

Question #2
- If there were one thing you could change about yourself between now and when you reach 103, what would it be?

Shabbat Shalom

PS - Here is a recent video of Mr. Aaron

PS - Looking for a bargain birthday gift for someone? For 99¢ send them the amazing Jewish iphone/ipad app that they will love and use every day -

Friday, July 22, 2011

My Heart

Last week you may have noticed that I dedicated the blog/Table Talk to the memory of Leiby Kletzky, and then went to write about music, something apparently completely disconnected to this great tragedy to befall the Jewish People - the murder of an innocent child.

One reader from Los Angeles questioned my silence on the issue:

"When I saw your email I was looking for some comfort....I am kind of disappointed and I was expecting to learn a lesson when I opened your email, instead with much surprise I read about music. The whole world was mourning for that boy, he was on media, he was all over the news and you just decided to mention his name and that’s it!!!!!!!!"

First of all, there is a piece of ancient Jewish wisdom that says don't offer a person words of comfort while his deceased lies before him. Meaning, while someone is grieving, let him grieve. Comfort - and all the more so with any lessons - are for later.

As others have written, what words can I say? I could have left the Table Talk blank, maybe that would have been appropriate.

Now that shiva has passed (although mourning continues for 1 year), I will take up the reader's request.

There is a rule of thumb for interpreting the "karma" of events in one's life: When something happens, our reaction is a clue to the purpose or meaning of the event.

What were some of our reactions?

1. Achdut - Unity - Jewish people all around New York and the world working together with one heart to find Leiby. Interpretation: We need to work on our achdut (and eliminate those things that are hindering our achdut, like lashon hara).

2. Pain at the loss of an innocent child. Interpretation: We need to work on our compassion for "lost" children (not necessarily dead.... think of all the children who are growing up without a Jewish education....)

3. Pain at seeing the security videos of Leiby wandering around and no one helping him. Interpretation - we are

As Shlomo Katz, a New York paramedic, wrote:

"The videos have shown Leiby standing lost for SEVEN minutes!!!! None of us, none of us, stopped to talk to help this little boy, looking so obviously lost! It was only this monster who had the time for this little boy! I am just as bad as the next, I am always doing one thing to many, rushing to try to get it all done, busy on my cell phone and often distracted. But my Grandfather ob”m never had a cell phone and never was too busy for anyone on the street, he could stop to show his concern and love for any of Hashem’s creations....So we as the Jewish People, merciful people, we have received a brutal wake up call. Are we ready to answer it? Will we stop the next time something might not be right, with a child, with an elderly, or even with one of those that makes us a little uncomfortable?"

That's a poignant message. It seems clear and to the point. A child was lost and the only person who stopped to help him was a murderer. What's wrong with us?

I would like with all due humility to expand on Shlomo's point.

Shlomo addresses the Jews of New York. He takes them to task for a lack of chesed. Some of the reader comments attest to this, a feeling of everyone rushing around doing their own thing and not looking out for strangers - yes strangers - in the street.

But my reader is from LA. Surely the Jews in LA who cried over Leiby, the Jews in Mexico, in Russia, in Israel, and everywhere else, is our lesson also that we need to look out for lost souls in the street?



We cried over Leiby. One sweet innocent child. My reader tells me that she "could not sleep for 3 nights" because of this unspeakable tragedy.

Yet I wonder: Should we also be losing sleep over the 16,000 children who die EVERY DAY from starvation and malnutrition in Africa?

(This is not an exaggeration:

4. We recoiled at the ugliness of HOW he was killed. Interpretation - our bodies are precious gifts, are we taking care of them properly?

5. We shuddered at the idea of an evil person among us. Interpretation - evil comes in many forms. This form was blatant. But for a member of the Tribe to be unethical in business is also an act of evil among us.

On the one hand, we should not live in fear, nor should we become depressed nor anxious. On the other hand, we all have a tendency to become complacent. We're "busy", trying to be good people, good parents, good neighbors. But Jews are not supposed to become complacent. We can strive to do better, in the above 5 ways at least.

Your thoughts?

PS - Leiby literally means "my heart". Think about it.

Shabbat Shalom

PS - Want to help another Jew learn what it means to be Jewish? Send them the link to the Amazing Jewish Fact-a-Day Calendar - or send them to