Friday, May 27, 2011

Late For the Plane

If you have been reading this blog for less than five years, you missed one of the most popular posts ever, "Late for the Train".

This week, it was like déjà vu all over again, with a twist.

I'm in sunny San Francisco. Well, it had been sunny, but the moment I'm trying to leave it starts to rain. Remember what Mark Twain allegedly said (but didn't really), "The coldest winter I ever had was a summer in San Francisco"?

Not that bad really, it isn't cold, just raining.

But what's to worry? I have two hours before my flight, and what does it take to get to the Oakland airport, 30 maybe 45 minutes? Not checking bags, already checked in, yada yada yada.

My hostess puts me in the cab with breakfast, I have my cell phone, looking forward to an easy day of travel.

San Francisco is picturesque in the rain. It's a treat to be a passenger for a change.

Soon my attention gets diverted from the scenery to my breakfast and my phone. After awhile I look up and discover to my great chagrin that we are in bumper-to-bumper stand-still traffic on the 880 highway.

This is not good.

My watch says that we still have 75 minutes before the flight.

"What's going on?" I ask the driver.



The Bay Area has a very important service, you dial 511 and can check traffic conditions, updated every 10 minutes or so.

I remember when they launched the service, the voice recognition wasn't so sharp, and I had to shout a lot into the phone. Now it's a lot smoother, almost feels natural.

The report: an accident on the 880, just before the High Street exit.


I report the news to the driver. "How many exits is that ahead of us?"

"Just two more exits."

"Maybe we should get off now and go through the streets."

"Streets no move faster than this."

Well, he's the professional driver. What do I know? It is moving, but about 5 miles an hour.

Question for your table: What would be a "spiritual" reaction at this point?

So here's what happens.

The clock keeps ticking relentlessly forward, second by second.

1 hour before the flight.

50 minutes before the flight.

40 minutes until the flight.

OK, this is not looking great for my travel plans.

Question #2 for your table - Does your response to question #1 change at this point?

Then it dawns on me - I forgot to say "Tefilat Ha-derech"!

Tefilat (or Tefilas) Ha-derech is sometimes translated as "The Wayfarer's Prayer" or "The Traveler's Prayer." It is customary to say towards the beginning of a journey, just after getting outside of town. As soon as you cross the Bay Bridge, you're now "out of town" - and that's just about where the backup started!

Fortunately, there are lot's of copies of THD floating around. Many organizations print it up on wallet-sized cards. There have been PDA and smart-phone versions ever since the advent of PDAs and smart-phones.

I rummage through the "travel stuff" pocket of my bag, and sure enough, there among the ear plugs, metro cards, stain remover (why doesn't that cap stay on?), band-aids etc., I find a THD card.

It doesn't take long to say, about 40 seconds.

When I finish, I look up. That exact moment, the traffic suddenly starts to move.... 15 MPH...30 MPH...45..... and finally to highway speed!

"Did we pass the accident?"

"No, it just started to move!"

We arrive at the airport 18 minutes before the flight.

I could make this all dramatic and tell you every agonizing detail of the security and the dash, but picture this - I arrive at the gate clutching my carry-on in one hand and my belt and shoes in the other only to find they haven't started boarding yet. Seems there was some unexplained delay, even though the boards all read "on time".

Question 3 to ask at your table - What do you think - "just a coincidence"??

Wishing you safe and on-time journeys of your own and a

Shabbat Shalom.

PS - Amazon carries a laminated THD here.

PPS - with the Middle East so dominant in the news, you may enjoy this site.

PPPS - Live in American and looking for a meaningful Memorial Day Activity?

Friday, May 20, 2011

What More Can I Add to This?

(If you read this blog online only, you may have noticed that there was no post last week.... I actually did write a blog but blogger was down. Those who subscribe via email received their Table Talk as usual, and several said it really moved them. Time to subscribe to the email version?)

Sometimes the news headlines are so colorful, I wonder why bother sending you a story for your dinner table?

Haven't the headlines given us enough to talk about?

Yes... and no...

If your dinner table includes children, or adults who have a sense of discretion, the two stories of male indiscretion (one confirmed, the other alleged) that rocked all news media worldwide this week need some kind of spin.

If you and your family are already more familiar than you care to be with these two headlines, then here's a great starter question for your table:

How would you imagine a religious family would talk about Former-candidate-for-president-of-France and Former-Governor-of-California?

While the latter Former, being of Teutonic descent, may possibly plead ignorance, the former Former, being Jewish, should have been aware that we Jews have an ancient book of ethics.

It's called Pirkei Avot.

No, it doesn't say "don't be a chauvinist", it's a little more subtle than that.

Here's one of its most quotable quotes:
Ben Zoma said: Who is wise? One who learns from everyone.
Who is mighty? He who subdues his passions.
Who is rich? One who is happy with what he has.
Who is honored? One who honors others.

Let's think for a moment what Ben Zoma is trying to tell us.

He is saying: there is a conventional definition, and there is a spiritual definition.

Try asking at your table: "Give me an example of someone you consider wise."

Most people will answer with someone who knows a lot of stuff. Ben Zoma is telling us that the enlightened definition of wisdom is not a measure of how much you know rather your attitude towards learning, your humility towards others.

Ask everyone at your table to give an example of someone who is mighty or strong. Most people will say someone who is either physically strong (eg, Former-Governor-of-California) or someone who is politically or economically mighty (eg, Former-Candidate-for-President-of-France).

Do you see where this is going?

Ben Zoma is telling us that the truly mighty is someone who can control his or her passions. There could be no better illustration of this idea than this week's headlines.

Former-Candidate-for-President-of-France, by political and economic measures (was) one of the more mighty human beings on the planet, evidently (allegedly) is not mighty at all, according to the Jewish book of ethics.

Former-Governor-of-California, who built his entire career and fortune on the projection of physical strength and used that image to persuade the citizens of the world's fifth mightiest country to make him their leader, has been unmasked as a 235-lb weakling.

Final question for your table: Looking at Ben Zoma's definitions, who are the wisest, strongest, richest and most honored people you know?

Shabbat Shalom (and Happy Lag B'Omer)

UPDATE - In reply to several readers' questions - I am neither presuming nor insinuating Former-Candidate-for-President-of-France to be guilty as charged, and have added the word "alleged" above. He may very well be found (and I hope is) innocent. Moreover, it is a shame that he has been tried and convicted by the media. I am rather reacting to the news. The news headlines are, in my opinion, a reminder to all of us of the continued relevance of Ben Zoma's wisdom, regardless of the outcome of any specific case.

PS - Please bookmark if you haven't already.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Just Dessert

Question for your table: What's the #1 question rabbis get asked?

A: "Where was God in the Holocaust?"

Second question: What's the #1 question rabbis got asked this week?

A: "Is it right to celebrate or be happy about the death of Bin Laden?"

Many rabbis will answer the way I do: It is not inappropriate to be joyful when hearing of the death of a Hitler, a Stalin, a person whose life mission it is to murder thousands or millions of people, especially people like you and me.

Third question: Who gets the "credit"?

Perhaps the following true story will shed some light on the question.

Approximately four weeks prior to the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York City, the suicide bombing of the Sbarro pizzeria in central Jerusalem occured on August 9, 2001. The following is a true story:

"May I please get ahead of you in this line? I have to catch a plane back to America and in a great hurry to get to the airport."

The elderly gentleman generously granted this request and soon the tourist was outside, pizza in hand, rushing towards his cab. But then a huge explosion rocked the air and he realized that the Sbarro restaurant he had just left had been the victim of a terrorist suicide bombing. Rushing back to see what happened to the man who had given him his place and thus had saved his life, he found him alive but wounded. After expressing his deep appreciation for his role in saving his life, he informed him that he was a wealthy businessman back in New York and he would be glad to help him any time he was in need. He left his business card and was on his way to the airport.

The opportunity to keep his promise came less than 4 weeks later. The son of the elderly man phoned him that his father required major surgery in an Israeli hospital and could not afford to pay for it. Upon hearing this, the businessman responded that he was ready to come to Israel to see that everything would go well with the operation and he would cover all expenses.

He soon found himself sitting together with the son who called him in the lobby outside the area where the elderly man was undergoing the critical operation. As they looked up at the television screen they saw one plane after another crash into the World Trade Center. The businessman had offices in one of the buildings.

The person that was saved from the Sbarro pizza bombing in Israel was again saved by the same person from the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center.

Fourth Question: Just a "coincidence"?

Shabbat Shalom

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The goal of this email is to offer conversation-starters for your Friday night dinner table. Please print and share.