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