Friday, January 25, 2013

Feeling Sappy

The goal of this blog is stimulate warm conversation at your Shabbat table. Don't read it now - print and share!


Feeling Sappy

Tonight is Tubishvat, the festival of the trees.

In past years I've made some suggestions how to make it meaningful for the kids: here and here.

This year I want to try a different approach for your and your table.

The Talmud occasionally compares a person to a tree.

So first question for your table: How is a person like a tree?

Let's think for a moment.

We are exactly 4 months after Rosh Hashana, one third of the year has passed.

A tree is the ultimate symbol of wisdom as in the "tree of knowledge" in the Garden of Eden.

On Tubishvat, saith the Talmud, the sap starts to stir in trees.

Think about that - in the middle of the winter with snow on the ground, the potential for new fruit has already begun.   

So just when we think we can spiritually slumber - after all, we have 8 more months until Rosh Hashana! - it's time to let something stir inside of us.

Here is a list of "middot" - A to Z - that we ought to cultivate:

  • A good name, Attentiveness,
  • Bearing your own burden, Being pleasant,
  • Cleanliness, Compassion, Courage,
  • Decisiveness, Derech eretz (Common Decency),
  • Equanimity,
  • Fear/awe/yirah, Flexibility, Forgiveness, Friendship,
  • Gemilut chasadim (Lovingkindness), Generosity of heart, Goodwill, Gratitude,
  • Holiness, Humility,
  • Joy
  • Kavod
  • Leadership, Love,
  • Moderation,
  • Not embarrassing,
  • Order,
  • Patience, Peace, Privacy/modesty, Purity,
  • Recognizing the good, Respect, Responsibility,
  • Separation, Sharing the burden, Silence, Simplicity, Soft-heartedness, Strength,
  • Taking Care of the Body, Trust, Truth, Tzedakah,
  • Watchfulness, Welcoming guests, Willingness,
  • Zeal

What is the key to the sap inside a person?

Maybe the answer came in an email I received this week from a rabbi I know:

crystal"One of my promising students, who has a large crystal collection, is really keen to find out the mystical aspect of crystals."

Most people asking such questions believe in the healing power of crystals. Sorry to say, I'm afraid this isn't going to be a fruitful search.

But Maimonides says that studying nature is the first step towards developing the most fundamental of all middot: appreciation.

Crystals are awesome. So are cells. And orchids.

So I suggested to the rabbi that he show his student two mentions of crystals in the Torah.

1. The book of Job

"But where shall wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding? Man does not know its price; nor is it found in the land of the living. The depth says, It is not in me; and the sea says, It is not with me.  It cannot be acquired for gold, nor shall silver be weighed for its price. It cannot be valued with the gold of Ophir, with the precious onyx, or the sapphire. Gold and glass cannot equal it; nor can it be exchanged for jewels of fine gold. No mention shall be made of coral, or of crystal; for the price of wisdom is above rubies." (28:12-18)

2. The Talmud:

"R. Ashi made a marriage feast for his son. He saw that the Rabbis were growing [overly] merry, so he brought a cup of white crystal and broke it before them and they became serious." (Brachot 31a)

Second Question for your table: What's the moral of the story?

Evidently we are to understand crystal as something very, very precious. But wisdom is even more precious, as are proper middot.

Shabbat Shalom 

PS - In case you missed you missed it, wo weeks ago during the Jerusalem snowstorm, I sent you some Jewish ideas about snow.

This blog can be received via email. Subscribe at If you enjoyed it, please "like" it, "tweet" it, or simply forward the link to others who may enjoy it.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

The goal of this blog is stimulate a more penetrating conversation at your Shabbat table. Don't read it now - print and share!


OK, let's have the truth (today's first question for your table):

Who - sorry whom - do you prefer:

A. Lance-the-suspected-PED-abusing-teammate-and-journalist-bullying-Tour-de-France-Champ Armstrong or...

B. Lance-the-convicted-and-banned-but-still-bullying Armstrong or....

C. Lance-the-confessed-and-partially-apologetic Armstrong???

D. None of the above?

Perhaps you're waiting for Lance-the-totally-repentant-Mr.-Nice-Guy Armstrong ??

Sorry, if he was truly repentant, he would have looked at the camera and said, "I cheated, it was stupid, I am sorry."

Amstrong2To some, this looked like a staged PR event to save his $100 million brand.

So here's Question 2 for your table:

What do you think? Was his confession real, or no more trustworthy than the cheating that got him here?

And finally, the inevitable Question 3:

What do our answers to Q1 and Q2 say about you and me?

[Soapbox: LA's mistake was not the cheating per se. The cheating was a symptom of an underlying confusion. He was, and apparently still is, confused about the definition of greatness. He thought that greatness = looking good, and didn't or doesn't realize that greatness = being good. See Chapter 7 of The Art of Amazement.]

Shabbat Shalom 

PS - An Onion classic

Friday, January 11, 2013

Call Me Sheleg

The goal of this blog is foster a warm + cozy conversation at your Shabbat table. Don't read it now - print and share!

Jerusalem snow-covered palm trees

First of all, there were several great entries to last week's contest to finish the joke.

The judges conferred and decided that the best punch line was:

"One America, on the rocks!"

Now, speaking of penguins, perhaps you heard that Jerusalem, City of Gold, turned white this week.

These pictures are worth a thousand words around your table.

But maybe we could ask a question about snow as well.

Why is a fresh snowfall so magical?

Think about it for a moment.

Is it because snow softens the sounds, slows the pace?

Is it because snow closes schools and is fun to play in?

The Hebrew word for snow is sheleg.

Normally, we look for significance of a word by how it's used in the Torah.

Sheleg is not used qua snow, rather to describe a perfect whiteness, as in "your sins will be made white as snow."

But the word sheleg has a peculiar quality.

Peculiar, that is, to those who study gematria (numerology). It's numerical value is 333.

Numerologists read that as: "The number three expanded to the utmost."

Or, "the ultimate in three-ness."

But what  is "three-ness"?

The number 3 in Jewish thought represents something foundational about humanity: "The world stands on 3 pillars: Torah, Avodah and Chesed" (Pirkei Avot).

(Loose translation: wisdom, spirituality, kindness)

These three qualities are exemplified by the three Patriarchs: Avraham/Abraham, Yitzchak?Isaac, Yaakov/Jacob.

Perhaps this numerology is the key to the lesson of snow.

We need those 3 pillars - Torah, Avodah and Chesed - to have a stable world. Snow shows us what the world would look like when we get the right balance of those three.

It's magical - blanketing the world with a clean whiteness, smoothing over all the bumps, hiding all the dirt.

Fox News Jeruslem snow pic
Yes, we know the dirt is there, and will be back soon enough.

But isn't it fun for a few minutes to pretend that it isn't?

But it's more than pretending. That magic is teaching us something.

It's reminding  us what the world could look like all the time, if each of us worked on the area(s) where we are deficient in our own triangle.

Final question for your table: What area do you need to work on (Torah, Avodah, Chesed) to stabilize your own snowflake?

Shabbat Shalom 

PS - In case you heard about our next Treasury Secretary but missed what I wrote about him a few weeks ago, click here.

If you enjoyed this post, please "like" it, "tweet" it, or simply forward the link to others who may enjoy it.

Friday, January 04, 2013

The Leadership Cliff

The goal of this blog is to facilitate an engaging, Torah-based conversation at your Shabbat table. Don't bother reading it now - just print and share!

"The fiscal cliff: when congressmen who are protected from a pay cut decide what happens to everyone else." - Andy Borowitz
"Al Qaeda Disbands; Says Job of Destroying US Economy Now in Congress' Hands." - Andy Borowitz
"Let's just go over the cliff! Let's just go. Because, you know why? At least for a few seconds, it'll feel like we're flying." - Jon Stewart

OK stop me if you've heard this one:

A rabbi, a priest and a penguin walk into a fiscal cliff bar.
The bartender says to the rabbi, "What'll you have?"
The rabbi points to the priest and says, "Whatever he's having!"
So the bartender turns to the priest, "What'll you have?"
He in turn points to the penguin and says, "Whatever he's having!"
Finally he turns to the penguin and asks, "So what'll it be?"
The penguin shrugs and says, __________________

January contest - finish the joke! Use comments section to send your entry.

Now seriously... let's talk about leadership.

This week's question for your table — What are the qualities of a great leader?

Here's one way of going about it. On each of these alternatives, choose the one that you think is most important:

1. [A] Wise in all major matters of state v. [B] Relies on wisdom of advisors
2. [A] Upholds the letter of the law v. [B] Upholds the spirit of the law
3. [A] Doesn’t make serious mistakes v. [B] Admits mistakes and apologizes
4. [A] Clean background v. [B] Proverbial skeleton in the closet
5. [A] Commands respect and wields authority v. [B] Walks humbly
6. [A] Multicultural v. [B] Patriotic
7. [A] Fully developed skills v. [B] Able to learn on the job

OK, don’t peek below until you’ve made your choices...

Now, I’m not claiming these are the "right" answers, but it seems to me that the weight of Jewish thought would say:

1. B – When King David faced an unemployment problem, he consulted his wise men (who happened to be legislators and judges) on what to do. (He had the advantage of having a few card-carrying prophets around the palace, but they were more vocal about the king's morality than on economics.)

2. A and B. Tough job. He or she should keep a travel-size copy of the Constitution on hand at all times as a reminder that not even the King (or President) is above the law. (I'm not sure the Kindle or iPhone/iPad version would count...perhaps.)

3. B – no question about this – everyone makes mistakes. If we expect perfect leaders we are guaranteed scandals and cover-ups. If we let our leaders know we can forgive their errors as long as they own up to them, then we will have both more honesty and better role models.

4. The surprising answer here is B. The Talmud states this as a necessary quality for a successful head of government. The idea is to keep your leader from becoming arrogant. See Q. 5.

5. Tough one. How do you balance authority with humility?

6. The Executive should be patriotic but worldly. Legislators should be worldly but patriotic. Judges should be multilingual.

7. I'll leave this one unanswered here, but would be pleased to hear the answers from your table.

Shabbat Shalom 

PS - Thanks to everyone who recently launched or renewed a Table Talk partnership.

PPS - Speaking of multiculturalism: one of the most unusual multicultural videos you've ever seen.

As always, this message can be received via email - sign up at If you enjoyed this blog, please link to it, "like" it, tweet it, or merely send the link to others who may enjoy it.