Friday, July 25, 2014

Yes, But Are They Evil?

In memory of my father, Dovid ben Eliezer (Dennis Seinfeld), whose 9th yahrzeit was observed this week.
We are wishing
Nosson Tzvi ben Sarah Rivka Kashtia
, a toddler in a coma, a speedy and complete recovery.
The goal of this blog is to meld some minds around your Friday night dinner conversation. Please print and share.

Shalom Wall Hanging

They use human shields to protect their weapons.

They invest millions of donated funds in sophisticated attack tunnels instead of schools, hospitals and roads.

They regard every Jewish community in the Land of Israel, without exception, as "occupied territory".

They aim to kill as many civilians as possible.

They celebrate death.

All these facts are well known.

But we still have the question: Are they evil?

Try asking this at your dinner table and you will likely be surprised at the range of opinions.

My father, who died 9 years ago yesterday, enjoyed ethics discussions.

He was eulogized by the local paper as "one of the good guys".

His epitaph reads, "Champion of Justice" but it could just as well have read, "Champion of Peace".

He fought tirelessly for justice, but he also had the wisdom to see that sometimes peace requires foregoing a bit of what you "deserve". In Jewish talk, this quality is called being mevateir.

He was able to see both sides of an argument. Doesn't mean he always agreed, but he could disagree without being disagreeable.

Someone asked me to write about what Jews and others around the world could do to help bring shalom to the Land of Israel. Here's my top four:

First and foremost, cultivate peace in your own relationships. Greet people with a smile, your family members, your neighbors (even the ones you don't like), strangers. Try to be mevateir.

Second, put your money where your mouth is:

Feed a Soldier
Adopt a Soldier
Thank a Soldier

Support Terrorized Civilians
Share this Video Liberally
Help Israeli Farmers
Visit Israel
Buy Cool Israeli Stuff (have you seen the Zaksenberg juicer?)

Third, if nothing else, be better informed And here. And here. Oh yeah, and here.

Fourth, ask this question at your Shabbat table:

True or False - "There are no evil people. Only very confused people."

Shabbat Shalom

PS - Have you told your kids'/grandkids' schools about the Amazing Nature for Teachers program?

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Meaning of Lift

The goal of this blog is to give a helping hand to your Friday night dinner conversation. Please print and share.

Helpong Hand
Central Pennsylvania.  

Rural central Pennsylvania. 

Driving with the wife and 3 kids. Heading home on a Sunday evening after a LONG day. 3 hours of driving ahead of us. A narrow road, traffic. Not a lot of room to maneuver. An object on the road. Black. Looks like part of a truck's engine. 

Can we make it over it? Hope so, no choice. 


 Guess not..... 

 Plume of oil spurting out the back of the car. 

Seven year old, "I can't breathe!! I can't breathe!!" 

 We made it off of the road safely. There is a happy ending. 

 But I wanted to relate one detail of this story that should be remembered. 

 Not only did Act Towing take care of our minivan, they took us in a separate vehicle, first 20 miles to the airport to see if there were any rentals available (there were not) and then 15 miles to a hotel. 

 And not only that, but the next morning, the boss's wife picked us up in her minivan to take us back to the airport to get our rental car. She didn't need to. They could have told us, "Sorry buddy, call a cab!" 

 That's hospitality. That's kindness. 

 And here's the best part: She showed no sign of trouble or hurry or bother. 

 2 questions for your table:

 - What's a better feeling, when someone goes out of their way to help you, or when you go out of your way to help someone?
 - Does it matter how you do it, or is the doing it the main thing? 

Shabbat Shalom
  PS - Some say the cultivation of compassion starts with this kind of wonderment.  

Friday, July 11, 2014

Could it Be Any Other Way?

The goal of this blog is to bring peaceful conversation to your Friday night dinner. Please print and share.
In honor of our great friend in Jerusalem, whose birthday was this week - Happy Birthday, Pinchas.


A young woman phoned me the other day - someone I've never met - with a burning Jewish question, that is so good I offer to you as this week's Table Talk question:

Did God have to create a world with pain and suffering?

It seems to me the answer must be yes....

....or no

Let's start with the no.

The question assumes that we're talking about creating a world with a specific purpose. Let's say that purpuse is for us to achieve a certain thing. So the question is, did God have to create this purposeful world with pain and suffering - was it impossible to create a world with the same potential but without the pain and suffering?

If the answer is "no" - that God could have created creatures with the same potential yet without the pain and suffering, then it seems to point to God the sadist. Why would God make us suffer unnecessarily?

OK, so perhaps God is a sadist.

But if that's so, then God isn't a very successful god. After all, millions of people are happy. Millions of people - despite their pains and sufferings - are enjoying many blessings. If God were a sadist, he's not batting 1000.

So we have to reject the "no" answer and turn to the "yes" answer - that God had to create this purposeful world with pain and suffering, or at least with the potential for pain and suffering (perhaps triggered by our own actions).

That is, we need pain and suffering in order to achieve our purpose.

What is that purpose?

Simply put: knowledge of God.

In other words: the pain and suffering are custom-designed for each person to achieve divine knowledge.

The reason people are confused by this is because our materialistic culture teaches us that our purpose is material (money, leisure).

Judaism is a spiritual culture, teaching us that our purpose is spiritual.

In a materialistic culture, pain and suffering are inherently bad, because they are the opposite of comfort.

In a spiritual culture, comfort is not the goal. The goal is enlightenment, and usually this only comes through discomfort.

The girl's question was, Couldn't God have made a world with the same enlightenment but without the discomfort (pain)?

The answer is no, because learning to deal with discomfort is part of the enlightenment. Without discomfort, we would be missing certain facets of the jewel of enlightenment:

Without someone testing my patience, how will I learn patience?
Without someone testing my calmness, how will I learn calmness?
Without having my honesty tested, how will I learn honesty?
Without feelings of laziness, how will I learn zeal?

And so on.

And here's the real zinger for your table:

What's the greatest discomfort (pain) in the world?

I'm interested in your answers. Here's mine:

The greatest pain in the world is the bruised ego.

That's why the Torah starts with the legend of Adam and Eve in the Garden. Their great mistake wasn't eating the fruit - it was their refusal or inability to admit they'd done something wrong.

Thus the singlemost important thing you and I can do right now in order to become enlightened is to look in the mirror and practice over and over saying the two hardest phrases in the English language:

- "You are right - I'm wrong"
- "I'm sorry."

Only by embracing the pain of saying those two phrases can a person become truly great.

Good luck....

....and Shabbat Shalom

PS - There is another, less painful, route to enlightenment, and you can find it here.

Friday, July 04, 2014

How's the Vu? A Talmudic Approach to the Anguish

The goal of this blog is to turn the focus of your Friday night dinner onto higher ideas. Please print and share.
In memory of Ayal, Gilad and Naftali of blessed memory.

Three martyrs

The cycle of violence.

Déjà vu all over again?

Someone emailed me yesterday asking, "What is the mood in Israel right now?"

Sadness? Anguish? Heartbreak?

Such feelings are here and worldwide for anyone who has a heart. As many have said to me, "These are our boys."
The less obvious answer is more subtle and profound.

The fact that these three innocents were yeshiva students underscores a mood in the yeshiva community here of being increasingly persecuted over the past couple years.

You don't read about this stuff in the news. But recently this community has felt that the Israeli government is systematically attempting to undermine Torah education in the Land of Israel.

This is why they protested drafting exempt yeshiva students - in the context of defunding yeshivas and other traditional institutions, the draft was perceived as part of an anti-yeshiva agenda, rather than a noble move to create fairness.

So the anguish of the racist murder of Ayal, Gilad and Naftali did not come out of the blue and has not shaken these Jews from complacency and comfort.

This anguish is a manifold increase of that feeling of being attacked.

If they are feeling so generallyl aguished, I'm going to play the gadfly and say that they should consider it (the chain of anguish, not the murders) very good news.


Understand that the yeshiva world revolves around Talmud study.

They were kidnapped on the 15th day of the month of Sivan, when the worldwide Daf Yomi (page-a-day of Talmud) was beginning Tractate Taanit - all about fasting and prayer. Their bodies were found on 2 Tammuz, when the day's Talmud study was Taanit 19 - all about the definition of, and efficacy of, sincere prayer.

I would like to point out that their murder and first burial took place in the town of Halhul. This is one of the few places in Israel that is both mentioned in Tanach (as a principle town of Judah) and still bears the same name today. Muslims believe the town includes the burial site of the prophet Jonah.

One of the tractates of the Talmud studied regularly in the yeshiva world is Ketubot. Yet they rarely get to the end. That's too bad. On the last page (112) the penultimate point on the last page says, "The generation when the son of David (i.e., the Messiah) will come will experience repeated persecution of yeshiva students."

Then the Talmud seems to switch gears and concludes with an unrelated, apparently mystical teaching that in the post-Messianic world, "non-fruit trees will bear fruit."

Some commentators interpret the tree here as a metaphor for people. "Bearing fruit" means possessing wisdom or good deeds.

But perhaps there is a different interpretation that can connect this teaching with the previous prediction about the suffering of yeshiva students.

It says elsewhere (Talmud Eiruvin 19a) that even the most lowly Jew is "as full of good deeds as the seeds of a pomegranate."

What I think the Talmud intends here is not mere escatology. It's a message to us - a prescription for how to bring the Messianic age.

If the lowliest person is already so full of good deeds, then what could it mean that these lowly "trees" will bear fruit? They already bear fruit!!!

It must be that those who are presently regarded (and regard themselves) as "fruitful" (the yeshiva world) will change the way they look: change they way they regard the non-yeshiva world.

Instead of seeing them as fruitless, start recognizing your brother in everyone you meet.

Many people, especially non-Israelis, don't realize that Ayal, Gilad and Naftali represent the three main cultural streams of Jews: Yemenite, Sefardi and Ashkenazi.

Maybe the murders, in the context of the persecutions, are all part of a grand test to push us, nudge us, drag us kicking and screaming perhaps, to a sense of unity that is not based on fear of an outside enemy, but based on a recognition of the good in others. What Pirkei Avot calls having a "good eye".

How many people are so evil that you can't find something good in them?

Think about it. Talk about it.

There's the sermon. Here's the question for your table:

Maybe the key to ending this cycle of anguish is indeed recognizing the good in others - But how can a person learn to do that?

If you can pull it off, that's a true declaration of independence.

Shabbat Shalom

PS - Speaking of changing your perspective, have you seen this?