Friday, July 27, 2012

The Dynamic Duo

The purpose of this email is to provide something creative for dinner table conversation. Please print and share.

You may have noticed that I don't often use this space to comment on the news.

There are massacres committed daily in distant lands.

There are natural disasters that boggle the mind.

There is rampant thievery. And poverty. And disease.

I would like this message to be a mini refuge from the "news" which is invariably bad news. For some reason, our journalists feel that we are mainly interested in hearing the bad news. It used to be because "bad news sells." But is that still true today?

But there's something particularly disturbing to me about this Batman massacre.

Maybe it's the image of these innocent people settling down for some truly innocent pleasure.

Rather than only shake our heads, let's see if we can gain something positive from this evil.

This story hit close to home. Maybe, if nothing else, we can allow ourselves to be reminded that every moment is truly precious, how each day may indeed be one's last.

We should therefore live each day as if it were our last.

If you knew this were going to be your last day, what would you do?

Would you savor your food?

Would you hug your kids?

Would you say I love you to anyone?

Would you say I'm sorry to someone?

Would you do an act of kindness?

Would you try to control your anger/impatience/anxiety - just for the day? Go out on a high note?

Would you turn off the TV and learn a little wisdom?

Notice the dynamic here?

The self is a fusion of two forces: my centrifugal drive to connect to others and to the world, and my centripetal drive to suck the world into myself (ego). This is a true dynamic duo!

Enlightenment is a measure of how well a person remains aware of this dynamic duo, of what truly matters. What matters is both what you do but also how you do it.

That's my two-bits (as my grandfather would have said). What's yours?

Shabbat Shalom

PS -Here is a video I just made related to this topic. This is a rough draft. I'd like to re-do it with a fancier production, but would like to hear your feedback first:

PPS - This Shabbat is the 9th of Av - Tisha B'Av. The fast is put off until Saturday night. To learn more, click here.

The iPhone app:
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Bar and Bat Mitzvah gift suggestions at (a service of JSL).

Friday, July 20, 2012

A Handy Man

The purpose of this email is to provide something creative for dinner table conversation. Please print and share.
In memory of HaRav Yoseph Shalom ben Rav Avraham Elyashiv who passed away this week in Jerusalem, and in memory of my father, Dovid ben Eliezer, whose seventh yahrzeit was this week. (To dedicate a future Table Talk, send an email.)

What do you do when Truth contradicts Reality?

If you've been reading this blog for awhile, you have learned something every summer around late July about my father....

My father, the champion of justice.
My father, the people-lover.
My father, with the corny sense of humor.
My father with the beard and bow ties.

This week: my father the handyman.

Here's how dad-the-handyman taught me grammar:

Me: "Alls you have to do is..."

Dad (smiling): "Awls? I have awls in the basement."

Our deck had a wall-like fence along one side of it, made of horizontal slats.

One time he decided to build a bench and back-rest along that wall.

He measured. He cut. He leveled.

He was really big on leveling. To him, if something wasn't level, it was just, well, wrong.

So that summer, he built the most perfectly level bench and perfectly level back-rest.

But when he had finished, there was one problem.

Evidently the contractor who had built the deck hadn't been so careful with the level.

Dad's perfectly level back-rest was not perfectly parallel to the planks of the wall.

There's a case where Truth (true level) clashes with Reality.

First question for your table: In this case, what do you do? Change Reality? Change Truth? Live with the contradiction?

The answer, in my humble opinion, is that there is Truth, and there is Truth. "Perfect level" is one truth. "Parallel" is another truth. Which is the higher truth? Level or parallel?

That's a good question for your table. Let's make that #2.

I'll tell you what my father did. He decided that in this case the very visible aesthetics of parallel was a higher truth than the more subtle truth of level.

In other words, Dad adjusted the back-rest.

Rabbi Elyashiv, mentioned at the top, was one of those exceedingly rare people who can distinguish between the most subtle differences between competing truths.

Over the past five or so decades, he was asked every manner of question, from life-and-death emergencies to the more benign.

Here's a famous one someone asked him (not the most subtle, but fun for the table):

Jerusalem has a well-known seat belt law. A certain driver picked up a hitchhiker, reminded him to put on his seat belt, but the passenger did not and they were pulled over. The driver asked the passenger to pay the 500 shekel ticket. After all, it was his fault. The passenger refused: "He gave you the ticket, not me!"

Who is right?

They agreed to take the question to Rav Elyashiv.

Questions for your table:
a. How many possible answers are there to this question?
b. How would you answer?

Want another one?

Five people got stuck in an overloaded elevator, they had to be extracted and were fined for the cost of the rescue and repairs. Four of them blamed one of them who, they said, was overweight and came in the elevator last, over the objections of the other four who said it would be too crowded. The fifth person responded that they should all pay equally.

The question came before Rav Elyashiv and he ruled....?

Shabbat Shalom

PS - If you want to know how the Rav ruled in each case, send me an email.

The iPhone app:
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Bar and Bat Mitzvah gift suggestions at (a service of JSL).

Friday, July 13, 2012

To Tell the Truth

Happy birthday to all of the Pinchas's out there (most popular name for boys born during this Torah portion!)
The purpose of this email is to provide something different for dinner table conversation. Please print and share.

So this week's story starts off ordinarily enough.

I'm getting more and more emails about my app.

In case you missed it, it's the Amazing Jewish Fact-a-Day Calendar (links below).

Someone found an error.


The fact of the day a week ago or so was about the Jewish cadet at West Point who was told that the "History of War" course doesn't cover Jewish wars, ancient or modern, because according to military science, the Jewish should have lost those wars.

Now if you have the app and read that fact, you may have noticed that it promises to take you to more info if you click the link below. Problem is none of the links take you to more info.

It turns out that I had fixed a broken link but failed update the text.

In searching for a better link for this gentle reader, I came across an online forum.

Maybe you've seen these online forums.

Perhaps you've even joined one.

I'm not a big forum guy. I don't like the name-calling, the rants.

But this one was particularly civil. It appeared well-moderated.

And there I found myself joining a spirited discussion around the topic of religious "truth".

Some of the writers were bothered by the whole idea of "truth".

Truth, they stated, is a subject of science. The function of religion is belief.

Question #1 for your table: Do you agree?

Therefore, they said, what's the point of debating religion?

Someone else, however, made the point that many religions make exclusive claims about the truth.

For instance, "Believe XYZ if you want to go to Heaven, otherwise you go to Hell."

But the problem is, there are about as many variations of belief out there as there are people.

So we boiled the question down to a very simple one: Christianity, Islam and Judaism all claim that their book has some exclusive "truth" to it. It seems to me that these claims should be as subject to scrutiny as any scientific claim.

For example, the chemist claims that matter is made of atoms. All matter. S/he doesn't claim that "matter is made of atoms for me, but not necessarily for you." It is an exclusive claim. We therefore require a certain amount of evidence in order to accept it as "true" or even probable.

In my humble opinion, the big claims of religions, such as the exclusive truth of their respecdtive books, should be held to the same standard of evidence.

For your table: What's your opinion?

Shabbat Shalom

The iPhone app:
Android version:

Bar and Bat Mitzvah gift suggestions at (a service of JSL).

Friday, July 06, 2012

Enlightenment Comes from Surprising Places

The purpose of this blog is to provide something creative for dinner table conversation. Please print and share.

In the past seven days, there have been two leaps in our appreciation of nature.

One I think I understand well enough to explain to my kids.

The other, well.....

Each one has a story and perhaps a spiritual angle that you can share at your dinner table. (I'll try to keep this short and sweet.)

The First Story:

If you live anywhere outside of the red zone, then you may have heard about a storm we had last Friday night.

What most people don't know - including the five million who lost power - is how bizarre and rare this storm was.

We're used to storms. We check the weather forecast. Although the weatherman is often wrong, he usually gets the major storms right.

Especially Atlantic storms and hurricanes, which give us days of warning.

So how could it be that at 7 pm last Friday, the forecast didn't even mention thunderstorms, and yet at 11 pm we were hit with a Category 1 Hurricane?

This freak storm, called a derecho, went something like this:

Between Indiana and Baltimore, there was a 600-mile air mass that was just the right temperature, just the right density and just the right size, so that when a butterfly flapped its wings at just the right altitude in Iowa, this caused a chain reaction that drew on this massive potential energy and expanded and expanded until we were hit with a broad destructive storm that had all the force of a Category 1 hurricane.

Unlike an ordinary hurricane, where the winds are more horizontal, the derecho winds had a lot of vertical vectors.

And unlike a regular "severe" thunderstorm that has an energy rating of 2,500 Joules/kg, this one was feeding off of >5,000 J/kg.

Wow or Whoa?

What we witnessed Friday night was an awesome surprise barrage of air, water and electricity.

When morning came, there was hardly a street that didn't have a downed tree and major fallen branches. They call this kind of freak storm a derecho because it moves in a straight line, fast and furious.

It's only a coincidence, of course, but "derecho" resembles the Hebrew word "derech" which means "path".

Jewishly-speaking, someone who is on a path of spiritual growth is sometimes called "on the derech" and someone who decides to ditch their Judaism can be called "off the derech".

Question for your table - Can you come up with a creative interpretation of what it means to be on or off the "derech-O"?

The Second Story

When we went to school, we learned about the four fundamental forces of nature: gravity, electromagnetic, strong-nuclear and weak-nuclear.


It was always confusing what these forces had to do with each other.

Know why it was confusing? Because the physicists themselves didn't quite get it.

Now they get it - finally!

They do, don't they?

(Hmm...If you spent $9 billion on a research project, wouldn't you make sure to make it sound like you got it?)

Bottom-line: how will this Higgs boson stuff impact high school textbooks?

As far as I can tell, we're not quite there. While Higgs-Boson does help solidify the Standard Model that explains some of these forces, we still apprarently don't fully get gravity, nor this newly discovered "dark energy" (not to be confused with dark matter).

So for all the non-physicists at the table: How do you feel about the confirmed sighting of the Higgs boson? (Since you helped pay for it, you certainly have a right to an opinion!)

(FYI and FYJP, eleven Israeli scientists played key roles in this discovery.)

In my humble opinion, the Higgs boson pales in interest to the mystery of dark energy.

The Higgs has been conceptually understood since the 1960s - just never proven.

Dark energy, in contrast, remains one ginormous mystery: an unknown invisible force is causing our universe to expand at a faster speed every single day.

We know that this is happening, but we evidently have no idea why.

Any new theories out there? Old theories?

Bonus question for your table: What do the derecho, Higgs and dark energy have in common?

Shabbat Shalom

PS - click here for some Higgs boson humor

The iPhone app:
Android version:

Bar and Bat Mitzvah gift suggestions at (a service of JSL).