Friday, December 25, 2015

Make Beer, Not War

The purpose of this blog is to turn Friday night dinner into Shabbat.... Please print and share.
Jaffa-GateTwo days ago, on Wednesday morning, Rabbi Reuven Biermacher went to Jerusalem's Old City.

At 10 am the 45-year-old immigrant from Argentina taught a group of Panamanian 16-year-olds something from the Talmud.

They were on summer vacation and their counselor came by to ask the rabbi to give them a break.

The students demurred, “No! We don’t want a break. This is the best class of the day!”

At 11 am he gave his regular Talmud class, followed by a short talk to a group of South American students.

What all three classes had in common was a beloved, wise rabbi, "full of joy and life", who cared for each of his students.

At 12:45 he left the yeshiva and headed towards Jaffa Gate, which is the main route taken by Jewish residents and tourists, and anyone else who wants to use it. The footpath outside Jaffa Gate looks like any sidewalk in any large city.

It was an unseasonably warm, sunny December day in Jerusalem.

And there, returning home to his wife and seven children, Rabbi Biermacher encountered evil.

Two young men lunged at him with knives.

Ofer Ben-Ari, 46, happened to be driving by and witnessed the attack. With only his bare hands as weapons, he ran out of his car to save the rabbi's life.

Police arrived moments later and Ben-Ari was hit by a stray bullet.

Both victims were rushed to Shaare Zedek Medical Center where they died within an hour of each other.

Biermacher's 16-year-old daughter described him as "a man of gold who never harmed anyone." One of his colleagues said in a eulogy, "He was walking example of what we all aspire to be....He was always there for everyone.... We have to take responsibility to live up to his example and make a serious change in our lives..... To look at what happened as a message to me, to think that I deserved this more than he did, and I am lucky to be here. God has chosen the best among us deliberately.... Instead of thinking, 'Am I safe or am I not safe?' we should think, "What matters is that I'm doing my job."

Ben-Ari owned a recording studio in Jerusalem and opened it free of charge to distressed youth. He also provided temporary housing for the homeless in a property he owned. He is survived by his wife and two children and here is a brief report of his funeral.

2 victimsThese two tragedies leave one speechless.

But I am not sharing them with you to make you sad, rather to foster a discussion at your dinner table. Perhaps these two questions are appropriate:

We know that everyone has to die. But is it better to die quickly and suddenly as they did (in this case as heroes), but without a chance for anyone to say goodbye? Or to suffer a period of illness first?

We all know (but don't like to think about it too much) that anyone and everyone's fortune could change in a moment. So what?

Shabbat Shalom.

PS - Funds are being established to help the two widows and nine orphans. For more info, post a comment or send an email.

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Friday, December 18, 2015

R U a Chameleon?

The goal of this blog is to transform your Friday night dinner table.... Please print and share.

chameleonRecognize this critter? It’s a famous lizard called a chameleon.

They’re famous for changing their colors. They really can do that. It’s quite amazing. They can change from brown to green or other colors in twenty seconds.

But why do they change their colors? Are they trying to hide?

It turns out that they change color to communicate! They use color to tell other chameleons how they’re feeling! Some colors mean, “Hello, how are you?” and other colors mean “Stay away from me, I’m not in the mood to talk right now!”

Or, “You know, I’m tired of wearing brown, I think I’ll try green today.”

(We don’t know their language very well, but some people think they may have a special color for, “How was Trump last night?” What do you think?)

There are two other cool things about chameleons.

One you can see in these pictures — look at the cool bulging eyes. Each eye moves independently of the other. Think about it. When you move your eyes, they move together. Try to imagine being able to look at two different things at the same time. Is that cool or what?

But they can also work together to see in stereo if needed, like when they want to focus on a juicy bug for breakfast.

This leads me to the other cool thing about the chameleon: its secret weapon. Even though the chameleon moves incredibly slowly, like a snail, and looks very vulnerable, it has a truly incredible tongue. Most chameleons have a tongue longer than their own body that they can shoot out at lightning speed and grab something as heavy as half their body weight. You ever try catching a fly? Bet you can’t!

But a chameleon can! Its tongue can move faster than muscle tissue can physically move.

I’ll repeat that: it’s tongue, which is made of muscle, can move faster than muscle tissue can move.

How is that possible? It wasn’t until 2004 that scientists figured out how they do it. The secret is a material called collagen that the chameleon winds up under its tongue like a spring, turning its tongue into a 14 miles-per-hour catapult — Wham! Mantis for breakfast!

It is the only creature in the universe known to be able to do that.

There is an interesting midrash that mentions the chameleon:

Noah’s son Sheim was telling Eliezer about life on the Ark: “We had to feed all the animals, but my father didn't know what to feed the chameleon. One day he was sitting and cutting up a pomegranate, when a worm dropped out of it, which it [the chameleon] consumed. From then on, he mashed up bran for it, and when it became wormy, it devoured it” (Talmud Sanh. 108b).

(The above is excerpted from our new curriculum to engage students in the wonders nature. For more info, send an email or visit There are two versions - one like the above for Judaics classrooms and one for secular studies classrooms.)

Question for your table: Is the chameleon being more or less "honest" when it changes colors? Do people ever do that?

Shabbat Shalom.

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Friday, December 11, 2015

Worth the Effort?

The goal of this blog is to minimize the effort and maximize the reward at your Shabbat table.... Please print and share.

flickeringOur daughter Goldy asked an interesting Channuka question the other day.

"Why is it that you're supposed to have enough oil (or wax) to burn for at least half an hour, but if they go out before that, you don't need to relight them?"

Good question.

So what was Goldy's answer?

"It's to teach us that when it comes to spirituality, it's the effort that counts. You cannot control the outcome, but you have to make the effort. That's all that matters in Shamayim."

One of the other kids at the table said, "Too bad they don't grade you in school based on your effort!"

It seems to me there is a great Table Talk in Goldy's Dvar Torah.

Think of how many things in life are measured by the outcome, not the effort.

It's hard to think of anything that is measured by the effort.

When is the reward ever according to the effort?

Happy Hannuka and Shabbat Shalom.

PS - Although Hannuka is here, it is never too late to click here.

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Friday, December 04, 2015

My Channuka

The goal of this blog is to bring controversy and clarity to the Shabbat table.... Please print and share.

Warning - long post this week. Apologies to those with short attention spans. If you want to skip the scholarly part, scroll down to "My Channuka" or you could just read last year's or the 2011 Channuka miracle, or the George Washington story.

menorahThe Talmud's famous chapter, "Mai Channuka? - What is Channuka?" is most famous for what it leaves out.

Here is the passage in full:

What is Channuka? When the Greeks entered the Holy Sanctuary they defiled all the oil that was there. And when the dynasty of the Hasmoneans grew strong and defeated the Greeks, they searched and found only one flask of oil with the stamp of the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) that had been set aside; and there was only enough oil to burn for one day. A miracle occurred and they lit [the Menorah] from this oil for eight days. The following year the Sages established these days for praise and thanksgiving. (Shabbat 21b)

It only tells about the miracle of the oil. There is no mention of Hellenism, religious persecution, civil war.

This omission has led to many opinions out there about the history and meaning of Channuka.

Somebody wrote i
n the Wikipedia article, "According to the Talmud, unadulterated and undefiled pure olive oil with the seal of the Kohen Gadol (high priest) was needed for the menorah in the Temple, which was required to burn throughout the night every night". As you can see above, the Talmud doesn't actually say that.

According to's "Judaism Expert", it had something to do with an otherwise unknown eight-day purification ritual involving oil.

According to, "This event was observed in an eight-day celebration, which was patterned on Sukkot, the autumn festival of huts."

I would like to address the latter view, because it is so widely believed and taken by many to be fact.

It comes from a question historians have. The non-Rabbinic sources we have that mention Channuka seem to tell a different story than the Talmud.

For instance, Josephus mentions the fact that we celebrate for eight days, and that we call it the Festival of Lights, but he claims not to know why it is called that.

The apocryphal books of Maccabbees make no mention of the miracle of the oil.

Due to these omissions, and due to some other evidence, some historians have speculated that Channuka started as a belated Sukkot and the rabbis later invented the story of the miracle. One problem with this theory is that Josephus doesn't mention it. So it is no stronger an argument than his omission of the story of the oil.

Let's look at the 3 other pre-Talmudic sources that mention Channuka:

1 Maccabbees is written by an eyewitness, the best record we have of what happened. He mentions “blameless priests, such as had delight in the Law”, implying that there were guilty priests around who did not relish the Law. Yet he does not mention the idol allegedly set up in the Temple. He says, “They celebrated the dedication of the altar eight days, and they offered sacrifices with joy, and sacrifices of salvation, and of praise.” Notice no mention of the menorah nor why eight days. Yet we do see the juxtaposition of “celebrated” “dedication and “eight days”.

2 Maccabbees is an abridged version of the above by Jason of Sirene, ca. 100 BCE (not an eyewitness), who wrote in Greek. He also mentions the altar, but not the menorah. “And they kept eight days with joy, like the feast of the tabernacles, remembering that not long before they had kept the feast of the tabernacles when they were in the mountains, and in dens like wild beasts.” This is the source for some historians to read this as causative – Eight days of Hannuka because of Sukkot – but the text doesn’t actually say this!

Mishna - written by Rabbi Yehudah haNasi and colleagues ca. 200 CE. The common scholarly view is that Channuka is absent from Mishna (as a separate holiday like Purim which has its own tractate) because Rabbi Yehudah was anti–Hasmonean. This may explain also why Talmud focuses on miracle and not on the war. Except that it's not entirely absent from the Mishna, so this isn't a very strong argument.

This disparate sources yield no easy answer, and we should see that it’s impossible to say anything for sure – much of what is written in scholarship is over-confident, not solidly supported by evidence.

My Channuka

Based on all of these sources, I have a slightly different approach.

One has to understand that the Maccabeean war is halachically problematic. It was largely a civil war, Jew against Jew. Who authorized the Maccabees to wage it?

The Maccabees were, in the eyes of their Jewish enemies and the Assyrian overlords, a band of terrorists. I'm not so sure that the rabbis of the time (Pharisees) would not have felt the same, even though they surely sympathized with the cause (the religious persecution was quite brutal - Judaism was outlawed and religious Jews were heavily persecuted).

So there would have been good reason for the Pharisees and later the Mishna and Talmud to minimize it. It may be compared to Israel’s war of independence in 1948 – this is a very uncomfortable halachic position for right-wing rabbis. Do you celebrate Israel Independence Day? If you celebrate do you say Hallel? If you say Hallel do you say it with a bracha?

Yet they had to deal with the fact that there was this miracle of the oil.

What does the oil prove? That the victory in war was Heaven-sent! But if you believe that the war was forbidden to wage in the first place, how do you process that?

Answer: You certainly don’t publicize it.

Then why did they institute a festival at all?

It seems to me that the Hasmoneans did it first. They made themselves kings and created Channuka to celebrate and give Divine approbation to their victory. Maybe the rabbis at the time were passive — they didn’t want to openly support it but neither could they deny the Jews our victory.

And the holiday stuck.

Centuries later, in writing the Talmud, the rabbis have a holiday that cannot be ignored (because they believe in the miracle), so they confine the discussion to the oil and ignore the halachically-problematic war.

This hypothesis explains Josephus, the Mishna and the Talmud, and can perhaps also explain why the author of 1 Maccabees does not mention the Menorah nor give a reason for the eight days. Perhaps he himself was a Pharisee and is ignoring the miracle for a similar reason that the Talmud ignores the political events and the Mishna ignores both. He lived at the time of the political events and could not ignore them, but he could ignore the religious implications. The authors of the Mishna and Talmud were the opposite - they lived centuries later and could ignore the uncomfortable political events and focus on only on the religious part.

So what's today's take-away from all of this?

I think that we should follow the Talmud and focus on the Menorah, but it is important understand the nature of that event.

It is not true that they needed to wait for eight days. That's fiction.

It is not true that they needed special oil. That's fiction.

What is true is that they wanted to use special oil. Why? Because they were rededicating the Temple for crying out loud, after it had been turned into a pagan shrine! They wanted the rededication to be as beautiful as possible.

That, in my mind, is the main theme of Channuka. We should not be satisified merely to do the right thing in life. We should strive to do the right thing in the most beautiful way possible.

There's a term for that - hiddur mitzvah - the beautification of a mitzvah.

Hellenism (i.e., Western Culture) puts a huge premium on external beauty.

Some religions completely deny the external and put 100% premium on the internal.

Channuka is about combining the two. The internal matters most, but use the external to beautify it.

For example, let's say you decide to give a beggar a dollar. That's good, but better to give him a crisp clean dollar than an old worn out bill. And better to give with a smile than a frown. Same amount of money!

Judaism is about both faith and action. But not any ol' action. It should be beautiful.

Question for your table — what are other ways to do hiddur mitzvah?

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Channuka.

PS - Although Hannuka is almost here it's not too late to click here.

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Friday, November 27, 2015


The goal of this blog is to invite angels to the Shabbat table. Please print and share.

BJ and friendsJust about every year somebody asks about the Jewishness of Thanksgiving.

For example, the funny coincidence that "hodu" in Hebrew means both turkey and "give thanks".

To add to that interesting detail, a friend in Jerusalem sent us a fascinating article by CNN's Charles Garcia.

Evidently, Columbus himself may have been one of Spain's (or Portugal's) tragic secret Jews.

For this year's installment, I'd like to share a personal note of thanksgiving.

As you may know, every week I study Jewish wisdom with individuals and groups around the country, both live and long-distance.

Today, I surprised my phone-study partners with a guest-voice from the past.

The voice was none other than the legendary Billy Joe Ferguson, whom you read about a few weeks ago.

After more than a decade, he finally paid our family a visit, driving 1,000 miles in his pickup.

The reason I brought him to the phone study session is because these two study partners had met him many years ago.

Despite the many years, they instantly recognized his inimitable Mississippi drawl.

One of them, who had visited our home a few weeks ago, warned him: "If (5-year-old) Tehila challenges you to any game that involves skill, do not take her on."

Well, he failed to heed that advice. The results were not pretty.

But remember how unusual this man is.

This is a man who has spent very little time in his life outside the 600 square miles of Carroll County, Mississippi.

This is a man who is so dedicated to his students that in 28 years as a classroom teacher he called in sick only once, and that bothered him so much that he dragged himself out of bed for a school event that night.

He is so dedicated that he ran for Superintendent on a platform to improve the schools and won by a whisker, then the enemies of the public schools through him out four years later and replaced him with a woman who was so incompetent that over 10 years later he is still trying to undo the damage she wreaked.

He is so dedicated that after that defeat, rather than pack, he fought back and won re-election four years after that, and four years after that, and four years after that.

And this is a man who still farms 100 acres as a hobby. And he's still looking for his bashert.

As you can see in the photo, seeing his face is almost like seeing an angelic being.

As he was departing last night, the Thanksgiving guests of our neighbors across the street were also heading out. One of these guests approached the truck to speak with him literally as he was about to the pickup into gear. It turns out that while unloading the night before, in the darkness he had left a small bag sitting on the truck's saddlebox.

This lady, not knowing whose truck it was, had been so concerned that the bag would be stolen, she moved it beneath the saddlebox, out of sight. Angel meets angel?

So as he journies back to his homestead, we are greatful for such friendship and goodness that can be found in such an out-of-the way place the world hasn't yet heard of called Vaiden, Mississippi.

Question for your table: Do you know any angels?

Shabbat Shalom

PS - Now's the real Hannuka countdown... (so hurry up and click here.)

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Friday, November 20, 2015

The One Less Traveled By

The goal of this blog is to turn the Shabbat table into an adventure. Please print and share.

Danny Kaye Travel QuoteA couple years ago I wrote an amazing "true" story that allegedly happened in an airport.

This week, I learned that the version I told is not entirely accurate.

In fact, the true story is even better.

Last week, someone asked me if I had ever verified the story, and I hadn't. So I decided to do so.

I was able to track down one of the actual participants.

His name is Mordechai Koval. I reached him at his home in Cleveland. Here is his story, in his own words.

+ + + +

It was mid-August, 1988, a month before Rosh Hashana. I, my brother and a business partner were traveling to New York for a trade show at the Jay Javitz Center.

Because it was going to be Rosh Chodesh, we really wanted to davven in a minyan. So my brother worked out that if we took the first plane to Laguardia at seven a.m., we would arrive early enough to make a minyan and still get to the trade show early.

I'm telling you that I never oversleep. I'm usually up before my alarm. But for some reason, that day, I am lying in bed and am awakened by a knocking on the door. I'm thinking, "Who's knocking on the door in the middle of the night?"

I go to the door and it's my brother and his partner. They're ready to go and I'm in my pajamas.

What am I going to do? I still have to get dressed and get my coffee (I don't go anywhere without first having my coffee).

My brother said, "What should we do?"

I said, "You go without me, I'll see if I can catch up. There's no point in all of us missing the plane."

You know, I've never got dressed and out the door so fast in my life. Eleven minutes, including the coffee.

I also grabbed my radar detector, because I was going to need it.

It was early the morning, maybe I didn't need the radar detector. Don't the cops have anything better to do than to stop a guy trying to catch a plane? But if I was going to catch that plane, I had no choice. At one stretch of the highway, I floored it - you couldn't even see the odometer! A couple times the radar detector lit up and I slowed down, but fortunately I didn't get pulled over.

I get to the airport and am running like mad, and I caught up to my brother and his partner on the shuttle bus, totally out of breath. You should have seen the look on their faces. They were totally amazed. I was totally amazed! I don't know how I made it, I don't know why I made it, but I made it.

The flight from Cleveland to New York should take about an hour, and when we should have been landing, I could tell something was wrong.

We were not landing. We were circling.

Sure enough, the pilot came on the PA and announced, "Ladies and Gentlemen, all New York airports are fogged in. We have to land at Washington Dulles. There will be an estimated half-hour wait until we can take off again for New York.

As I said, it was Rosh Chodesh, and we needed to davven. Now, that Shabbos, Cleveland had hosted a Rebbe. The Nikolsburger Rebbe 
(also this
). It was Sunday morning, and he and his entourage were going back to New York, they were on the same plane. We counted the Jewish men on the plane.

Would you believe we had exactly 10? I said to myself, "That's why I made the plane - I made the minyan! It was meant to be."

So we went through the airport and found one of those glass rooms that was empty and we davened in there.

As we finished, this guy pops his head in. He's wearing one of those black mourning ribbons that the Reform wear during Shiva. He asks us, "Can I say Kaddish?"

"Sure," we say.

So he says it, and he's crying.

Afterwards, someone says, "Hey we're going to miss our flight." We all dash out of there. Except the Chassidim. They seem to be taking their time. Their attitude is more like, "If Hashem wants me to make the flight, I'll make the flight." Don't worry, they made the flight.

Anyway, the whole day I'm just so happy that I made the minyan.

That night, my brother says, there's a Jewish event at the New York Hilton, let's go. So we go. After that, we find there's another dinner in the same hotel, for a school for special education for chassidim.

We pay a visit there and I happen to run into a friend. When he finds out that I came on the early flight from Cleveland, he says to me, "That's an amazing story of what happened this morning!"

I'm about to ask him, "How do you know?" when he continues, "This guy Robert, just an amazing story!"

I say to him, "Who's Robert?"

It turns out Robert is the name of the mourner. After we dashed to catch the plane, he told the chassidim his story. He said that he lives in Virginia far from any Jewish community. On Saturday night (the night before), his father came to him in a dream and said to him, "Please say Kaddish for me."

In the dream, he said to his father, "But Dad, I don't live in a Jewish community, there's no minyan here."

"Robert, if I get you a minyan, will you say Kaddish?"

"Sure Dad."

He wakes up and thinks, "What a strange dream!"

"Imagine," he told the chassidim, "I'm walking through the Washington-Dulles Airport. I see all these Jews davvening. I said, OK, Dad, you got me a minyan, I'll say Kaddish."

travel quoteSo I thought that the reason I made the plane was to make a minyan. But little did I realize there was an even bigger plan at work.

God in his kindness has been ery good to me. I see the hand of God in everything. Only the Creator of the world can put things together that way. But the average person just sees randomness.

+ + + +

Question for your table — What's more important, the journey or the destination?

Shabbat Shalom (and happy travels)

PS - How many days did you say it is until Hannuka? (You may need to click here too.)

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Friday, November 13, 2015

Even Higher

The goal of this blog is to bring some fresh air your Friday night dinner table a little higher. Please print and share.
Happy recent Amy in San Jose, Harmon and Steve in San Francisco.

atmospheric_layersQuick - can you name the four major layers of the atmosphere, from bottom to top?

OK, forget their actual names... How about what each one does for us?

If you look at a typical high school science textbook, you might see a diagram like the one to the left.

For 75 percent of the students, that is BORE-ing.

Why are we teaching to only 25 percent of our students?

Here's a way to teach it that will excite 95-100 percent of your audience.

There are exactly two things I want you to know about the atmosphere:

1. There are four layers of the atmosphere. (We know this because there are sharp changes in temperatures between them.)
2. Each layer does something for us we couldn't live without!

Layer 1 - where we live - the Troposphere. Holds 80% of the air (thanks, gravity!) and all of our weather. Without it, we would suffocate.
Layer 2 - where airplanes fly - the Stratosphere. Has the ozone layer which stops over 90 percent of the UV rays. Without it, we would fry!
Layer 3 - the middle area - the Mesosphere. Really hard to study, too high for planes and balloons, too low for sattelites. But what we do know is that it stops about 19,000 meteors from becoming meteorites - every day! That's about 100 tons of junk we are being protected from.
Layer 4 - where the ISS and other satellites fly - the Thermosphere. Gives us long-distance AM and shortwave radio and absorbs deadly x-rays from the sun. That's fortunate. And gives us the awesome Northern (and Southern) Lights, for which to my knowledge there is no practical benefit whatsoever!

If that doesn't give them a breath of fresh air, nothing will.

Thin atmosphereBut here's something else to add:

Ask at your table: If I made a basketball-size model of the Earth, how thick should I make the atmosphere? A centimeter? An inch?

Answer: the thickness of a sheet of paper.
Get that?
Just a thin blue line protecting you and me from the black chasm of space.

You are walking around all day, minding your own business and not even thinking about all of this. Admit it — you are living as if the 4 layers of the atmosphere don't exist and don't matter.

But they do exist, and without them, you wouldn't.

That's something amazing I learned this week. How about you?

Shabbat Shalom

PS - Have you checked how many days til Hannuka?

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Friday, November 06, 2015

It's In the Air

The goal of this blog is to bring some fresh air your Friday night dinner table a little higher. Please print and share.

alveolus-gas-exchange-pulmonary-alveoli-capillaries-lungs-48200122Here's something cool to stump everyone at your dinner table.

If it doesn't impress them, they're surely asleep.

Question: What are the two primary gasses in the air we breathe, and at what ratios.

Answer: Nitrogen (78%) and Oxygen (21%)

Only 21 percent oxygen? That's counter-intuitive.

Does all that nitrogen do anything, or is it there just as a sort of accident of nature

It turns out that it does something very, very important.

Or actually two things that are very, very important.

First, when you inhale, all that air fills your lungs. Specifically, fills little sacks inside your lungs called alveoli. (Here's a detailed illustration.)These mini sacks achieve the truly remarkable feat of absorbing about 1.5 gallons (6 liters) of oxygen per minute, which is 378 gallons per hour, which is over 9,000 gallons per day (and I suppose exchanging the oxygen for equal amounts of CO2).

Now, take a deep breath and hold it for a moment:

Wwhile all that air is in your lungs and the oxygen is going into your blood, you have all this extra gas (nitrogen) just sitting there.

But it ain't just sitting there - it's keep your alveoli inflated!

A long time ago, doctors and nurses learned that if you give a patient pure (100%) oxygen, it will lead to a collapse of the alveoli.

That would be bad.

Even a slight increase in the amount of oxygen - let's say up to 50 percent - is risky and has to be managed carefully.

Also, too much oxygen itself may speed up aging.

But that's not the only amazing thing about the nitrogen in the air.

Let's say that the air had less nitrogen and more oxygen and our bodies somehow were able to adjust in order to handle it.

We'd still have a really big problem.

How do you put out a fire quickly? Get rid of its oxygen. Snuff it out.

Oxygen, you may recall, is the key ingredient to combustion.

If the atmosphere contained more oxygen, things like wood, dry leaves and so on would catch fire a lot quicker. One little spark and ... watch out!

(It is also possible that insects would grow much larger. And it may have happened before.)

So we could probably survive, but Spaceship Earth would be a treacherous place to live.

That's something amazing I learned this week. How about you?

Shabbat Shalom

PS - Clock's still ticking... do you know how many days til Hannuka?

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Friday, October 30, 2015

Big Ben

The goal of this blog is to chase down some "true" wisdom at your Shabbat table.... please print and share.
Happy Anniversary to Lawrence and Amy and Happy Birthday to Steve, all in California! Live long and prosper. (To dedicate a future Table talk - send an email.)
BenThis week I had the honor of attending a unique event.

It was the bar mitzvah celebration of a young man in California.

His name is Ben.

It was unique in the very true sense that Ben is unique. It had his unmistakable imprint.

Some of the guests were nonplussed at the venue - a golf club instead of a synagogue? Is that allowed??

In my opinion, the essence of a bar mitzvah is not the ritual, it is the bar mitzvah boy's (or girl's) speech. He's teaching us a bit of Torah wisdom that he has learned.

That is his true coming-of-age - taking ownership of the tradition.

As I told him, "It's your Torah as much as it is mine."

What Ben said was inspired and inspiring.

He spoke of his favorite pastime - the game of golf - and how Torah lessons can be applied to the game. He then expanded the theme to point out that the same is true for life itself.

After all, Ben concluded:

The Torah’s full name is Torat Chayin – which means wisdom for living, wisdom for life. So you could say that the entire book is wisdom not just one section. One of the great rabbis, Ben Zoma, said: the person who is wise is someone who learns from all others. I think this is a great way to sum up the entire Torah.

The obvious question for your table is, What in the world does Ben Zoma mean? How can he define wisdom as "learning from all others"? Does he really mean all others?

Mazal tov Ben!

and Shabbat Shalom

PS - Here's your countdown timer to remember how many days til Hannuka.
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Friday, October 23, 2015

The Real Deal

The goal of this blog is to bring a reality-check to your Shabbat table.... please print and share.

Bill Joe FergusonDid you notice last week when I gave a shout-out to my buddy BJ in Mississippi?

Some have wondered who in the world I'm talkin' 'bout. 

This week I called him to wish him happy birthday and now I've got the bug again.
The gentleman to your left is the man.

We met on the first day of summer 25 years ago when he rescued me in his cream-colored Buick from the 99 percent humidity of Jackson, Mississippi.

 As we cruised up I-65 (barely more than a stone's throw from Highway 61), the sky darkened so quickly I thought there must be an eclipse. 

Suddenly it was raining so hard you got wet just lookin' at it. 

The temperature plunged to a cool 78°.

Pulling into town, he pointed to the Vaiden (sounds like maiden) water tower, sayin', "There ain't been too many times in my life I been outta sight of that water tower there."
That was the start of many adventures together....

For now, here's his interview explaining why he gave up his salary in order to help his school district stay afloat.

And here he is in last Friday's report on Mississippi's public school crisis.

Here's his contact info in case you want to give him a virtual high-five or donate some books to the poor kids of Carroll County, Mississippi.

Or in case you want to wish him a happy birthday.

(Or in case you have a blind date for him.)

(When he came to our wedding in Jerusalem 19 years ago, we were at a big Friday night dinner. Afterwards, a Hasidic woman in attendance, a matchmaker, asked me incredulously, "Why isn't he married?????")

He's the real deal, as they say down in Mississippi.

In "Jewish" (as my grandmother would have said), we say, he's a mensch.

Here's this week's question for you and your table:

What makes a person the "real deal"?

Shabbat Shalom

PS - Do you know how many days til Hannuka?

PPS - If you're fixin' to visit, you may wanna check out the Vaiden visitor's guide.

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Friday, October 16, 2015


The goal of this blog is to turn extrospection into introspection at your Shabbat table.... please print and share.

Joseph's Tomb in FlamesThe image to the left is Joseph's Tomb, set ablaze by a mob last night.

Here is a little background.

In 1867, Mark Twain wrote:

About a mile and a half from Shechem we halted at the base of Mount Ebal before a little square area, inclosed by a high stone wall, neatly whitewashed. Across one end of this inclosure is a tomb…. It is the tomb of Joseph. No truth is better authenticated than this....Few tombs on earth command the veneration of so many races and men of diverse creeds as that of Joseph. Samaritan and Jew, and Christian alike, revere it, and honour it with their visits. The tomb of Joseph, the dutiful son, the affectionate, forgiving brother, the virtuous man, the wise Prince and ruler. Egypt felt his influence--the world knows his history."

For Allasake, there is an entire sura in the Koran devoted to him (#12: "Joseph - Peace Be Upon Him").

So how has it come to this?

There are so many answers!

1. The Moslem preacher's answer:

2. The US government's answer:
Mr. Obama's true feelings.
Mr. Obama's "clarified" feelings.

3. The Stanford professor's answer:

4. The American Anthropology Association's answer (make sure you read the comments):

5. Hadassah Hospital's answer:

6. The New York Times' answer (and a YU professor's critique of it):

7. The European press's answer:

Two weeks ago the question was, "When does life begin?" Last week the answer was: Now and the question was, How?

This week the question for your table is
8. What's the Jewish answer?

Shabbat Shalom

PS - Hint #1 -
PPS - Hint #2 -
PPPS - Hint #3 -
PPPPS - Hint #4 -

PPPPPS - Hint #5 - or or 

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Friday, October 09, 2015

KISS (when life truly begins)

The goal of this blog is to get back to the basics at your Friday night dinner table.... please print and share.
KISS BANDQuick - can you spot the two Jews in the photo? What about the Nazi-sympathizer?

(OK, so these ageing guys have some interesting material for their therapists.)

(And no, the moral of the story is not that we can all get along if we would only just try a little harder. Tragically, it's not that simple.)

Let's talk about a different kind of KISS.

I'll give you the background, then explain the KISS.

You may recall that a year ago we launched a new curriculum for middle- and high school teachers, called Amazing Nature for Teachers.

This week we launched a new version which now includes engagement questions for teachers.

Here are two samples - feel free to send to your favorite teachers, principals or even parents who may enjoy:

Unit #1 - Baby Octopus.

Click here if you are prepared to be amazed.

Unit #2 - The Living Camera

Click here and you'll never see the world the same.

Here's the KISS:

It stands for "Keep It Simple, Silly!"

Everyone is looking for happiness. As they climb up the ladder of needs, they find happiness more and more elusive.

Sometimes they make it too complicated: Just take a look around you!

Last week the question was, "When does life begin?" This week the answer is: Now.

Question for your table: How can a person learn to slow down and smell the roses (to coin a phrase)?

Shabbat Shalom

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Friday, October 02, 2015

When Does Life Begin?

The goal of this blog is to pursue and promote wisdom at your Friday night dinner table.... please print and share.
In honor of Keith on his 50th birthday! The doctor is in? (see below)

KeithImagine there is a bank that credits your account each morning with $86,400.

It carries over no balance from day to day.

Every evening, it deletes whatever part of the balance you failed to use.

What would you do?

Draw out every cent.

Each one of us has such a bank.

It's called "time."

Every morning it credits you with 86,400 seconds.....


The above is the intro to a three-minute video that is linked below.

I have watched it a dozen times.

I recommend you watch it.

And think.

But before you do, here is a rabbinic background.

The rabbis (of old) say that a person goes through 12 stages of development:

At five years old study the Written Wisdom
at ten years the Oral Wisdom,
at thirteen become responsible for your actions;
at fifteen dialectics,
at eighteen get married,
at twenty find an occupation;
at thirty for authority,
at forty for discernment,
at fifty for counsel,
at sixty to be an elder,
at seventy for gray hairs,
at eighty for special strength.

Maybe you're precocious, maybe you're a late bloomer.

The question for your table:

Are you en route to "special strength" or are you headed the other way ?

The three-minute time video is now playing on our home page:

Happy Sukkot and Shabbat Shalom

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Friday, September 25, 2015

From the Music Philes

The goal of this blog is to stimulate some harmony at your Friday night dinner table.... please print and share.

Haim AvitsurIn case you didn't hear it from me last week, Shana tova - happy new year.

Here's an opening question for your table, which some readers heard me ask in my high holidays classes over the past couple weeks:

What is a shofar?

Think about it.

I'm not asking you what it's made of. I'm asking you what it is.

My answer:

It's a musical instrument.

Think about it.

Isn't it interesting that despite all the rituals that we have for the holidays, the only thing the Torah mentions doing on Rosh Hashana is blowing shofar?

I.e., playing music?

So that leads me to my second question for your table:

What makes great music great?

If you agree with me that great music includes harmony, then you can tackle this week's third question for your table:

What's the secret to great harmony?

(I'll give you a hint: it's a one-word answer....)

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Sukkot


It is customary to increase giving tzedakah at this time of year. JSL's educational mission is supported by tax-deductible donations from individuals like you. Please become a JSL partner, or renew your partnership, today. (Please also consider supporting (or increasing your support for) your local Jewish schools.)

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Friday, September 18, 2015

To Bee or Not to Bee

The goal of this email is to create... yes, some buzz at your Shabbat table.... please print and share.
In honor of Todd and Calla's recent anniversary and Kyle and Shelli's upcoming anniversary. Mazal tov - you guys are amazing models of how to do a marriage right!

YellowjacketShana tova - happy new year.

Before I tell you about the lady on your left, it has come to my attention that some people out there in Email Land have lost their copy of my world-famous "25 Questions to Think About Between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur".

Here's the download link.

This year, you can also get the Yom Kippur Prep worksheet: here's the link.

(And if you'd like to hear the audio from San Francisco last week on how to use these two tools, shoot me an email.)

So now to the main story and question for your table....

Kids returning to school always hear that profound question, What's your best memory of the summer?

How come nobody asks, What's the worst memory of your summer? ??

Just askin'.

All that honey this week and an email in my inbox asking about the Jewish take on environmentalism reminded me of my own worst memory of this summer.

It was just a little bee sting.

But it wasn't an ordinary bee sting.

It was in fact a horrible, vicious, nightmare-inducing wasp sting.

Here's how it happened.

You'll undoubtedly be pleased to learn that your e-rabbi (iRabbi?) has a pretty good environmental record.

He conserves water.

He brings a reusable shopping bag.

He composts.

He plants trees.

He walks to work....sometimes.

He even sends out his annual Rosh-Hashana-Yom-Kippur mailer electronically (you're reading it right now) - think of how many trees did not have to die in order to send you this email.

(He does not hug trees.)

So now try to imagine him this summer, mid-July, innocently emptying the kitchen waste into the compost bin one early evening.

He goes to the shed to get the shovel. You may know the routine: good compost needs greens, browns, air and water.

He innocently shovels from the pile of last fall's leaves.

Evidently, a dead brach at the back of that pile is touching a wasp's nest behind the bin.

When the pile is shoveled in a certain way, the branch is distrubed, bumping the next.

This displeases the wasps.

Suddenly an insanely fast yellowjacket appears out of nowhere and aims straight for his head.

papabeesIt chases your unfortunate rabbi across the backyard like poor Papa Berenstain Bear, trying to defend himself with a heavy spade against an absolutely relentless vespula.

Fresh out of hap, your iRabbi ends up with a sting to the left ear that swells for three days and starts oozing puss on day 4.

And that's only the first time. Don't ask about the second time.

So this summer memory leads to three questions.

1. When I somehow disturbed their nest, I would have expected the entire colony to come out and attack me like Papa Bear in the picture above. Instead, it was one solo wasp. How did they decide which one would go out and sting?

2. The obvious next step is to call the Brody Brothers exterminators (their motto  is "nice Jewish boys with a license to kill"), but then I read that wasps like to eat those critter that have been eating my tomatoes. What do you think? Exterminate or accept our new insect overlords?

3. The first time I was stung in my left ear, the second time in my right ear. Is there a message in that?

Please let me know what the latter-day sages at your Shabbat table have to say about these three pressing issues.

l'Shabbat Shalom and l'Shana Tova!

May you and yours be sealed in the Book of Life for a sweet, healthy and restful-but-never-boring year.

It is customary to increase giving tzedakah at this time of year. JSL's educational mission is supported by tax-deductible donations from people like you. Please also consider supporting (or increasing your support for) your local Jewish schoolsdon't wait to be asked!

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Friday, September 11, 2015

Bent Into Shape

The goal of this email is to give some give-and-take for your Shabbat table.... please print and share.


It has been a few months since Table Talk went on an extended holiday so that I could complete my dissertation.

As of this week, I feel done.

But am I?

Who decides?

One man: my dissertation advisor.

Some good news in my inbox this morning:

"I agree with you that we are coming near a wrap and passing your work to a committee...."

That's my advisor writing.

It ain't over folks, but I have less of an excuse now not to write this Friday email.

Here's a question for your table: Which of the following doesn't belong:

a. The Jewish New Year
b. Blow the shofar
c. Dip apples in honey
d. Go to shul

The answer is: b - blow the shofar.

Why doesn't it belong?

It's the only one on the list that is actually mentioned in the Torah. The other three are customs.

(In fact, choice a is just wrong. If you want to know why, shoot me a reply.)

So if you want to get to the essence of Rosh Hashana, you gotta get into the shofar.

There are plenty of online articles about this beautiful mitzvah.

I would like to direct your attention to one aspect of the shofar that is often overlooked, especially by people who hear it every year.

Why a curved horn? There are animals with straight horns, but the shofar traditions that we inherited are all curved?

The rabbis say that the curve is to remind us that one of the most important ingredients in having a great year to come is to begin with a bit of humility.

You are great. You are an amazing, incredible, unique, wonderful, invaluable human being.

Just don't let it go to your head.

The year feels almost over. But when is it? Who decides? An advisor? A committee?
Shabbat Shalom and l'Shana Tova!

May you and yours be inscribed and sealed for a good life. May your dreams and hopes be fulfilled. May you enjoy health and wealth, family and friends, and meaningful things to do.

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Sunday, July 26, 2015

We Are Never Alone

The goal of this blog is to give you a meaningful way to think about the 9th of Av.

Today is the fast of the Ninth of Av.

I'm guessing that many people don't have it on their calendars, and are not sure what it's all about.

I can't think of a better way to start relating to the holiday than this amazing story (told by an excellent story-teller):

It's also available here:

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Friday, July 17, 2015

Champion of Justice

The goal of this blog is to evoke cathartic Shabbat-table discussion. Please print and share with someone tonight.
(To dedicate a future Table Talk, send an email.

Six Months Before He DiedAs promised in last week's anti-Cosby blog, here is Part 2 of a series in honor of my father's 10th yahrzeit.

1. Eulogy
2. Question
3. Special 4-min video.

The Eulogy is what I said ten years ago at his funeral. At the time I was speaking from notes and while people asked me for a copy of the speech, I just didn't have the wherewithall to type it up. It took a lot of work, so I hope that someone out there reading it, whether or not you were at the funeral ten years ago, will find something inspirational within this entirely inadequate summary of the life of my father.

After I agreed to speak, I felt I wasn’t up to task. I’ve only known my dad a short time, compared to most of you.

I was also a bit worried – how do I, coming from what appears to be a different spiritual take on life than my dad, speak about him, appropriately? Yet I was looking through some of his journal’s last night. When he traveled, he kept journals, detailed journals: when he ate, where he ate, what he liked about the food, what he didn’t like, the waiter’s name, how much the meal cost, what the exchange rate was….And I saw clues of a spiritual life there that looked very, very similar to my own.

But we never talked about these things in detail. Maybe because I was not trying to wear my spirituality on my sleeve (maybe on my head, but not on my sleeve). It just wasn’t a topic that came up. We were much more interested in what we had in common – we had so many things in common. It just wasn’t an issue.

There are seven people who are called “kerovim” – close family : the seven mourners: father, mother, brother, sister, son, daughter, and of course, wife. Those are the ones who are supposed to be comforted by everyone else. But I know, because I’m a product of this community, and I know, because I’m here now, and I know, because even though I don’t live here now I’m in touch with this community, constantly, that my dad was like a father or brother to many, many, many people. He wasn’t just a friend. He was a friend that was like a brother, like a father, a trusted counselor….

And what do I say, when someone like that calls me up to wish me comfort? What do I say to the G______s and the C______s and the W______s and the W_______s and on and on and on? We’re crying together. We kerovim are supposed to feel the greatest pain, the greatest agony and grief. Yet these words are empty compared to how we all feel right now. “Anguish” maybe. “Bereavement.”

As you know, I’m one of three children, whom my dad loved equally, and in addition to his children and grandchildren and extended family he had buddies. Someone called me yesterday who knew him since seventh grade. He had buddies from high school and college. I saw a picture last night from second grade with Freddy Warnick (that’s what it said: “Freddy” Warnick).

But who am I, what do I say, when Denny’s buddy from his childhood, or his friend from college, or his partner of many years, or his daily running mate, or his fellow board member, or the woman he hired, or the man whose business he helped save – what do we say when they call to comfort me? The extended family, the close and dear friends, the associates and clients, the employees and even adversaries, who felt that spark of closeness that none of us can even talk about him in the past tense?

There were so many people who were like kerovim to him, and I think the reason we all felt this way about him, why we all feel this way about him, is because he because he had this way, that I think was quite rare, of entering our lives individually. As if we were the most important people in the world when he was speaking to us – he was so empathetic in that way.

It doesn’t matter what the relationship was, whether it was professional, or whether it was friendly, whether you were a running buddy of his, whether he bought coffee from you once in awhile, or whether you were working with him on a big project.

There is something called kria which means tearing the clothing, which the seven kerovim do. It represents the feeling of someone having been torn from us. So many of us here today feel like we have lost a family member, we are all bereaved – of a person who was not just central to our lives, but essential to our lives and to the community. The shock we are feeling is the shock that someone would feel if he woke up without his left arm.  How do you cope? How do you process this? What do you do next? How do you say goodbye so fast? How do you sum up a life so quickly? A life that goes way back, and broad, and deep.

When people start talking about my dad, they use all kinds of words….


I’m not going to speak about all of these qualities, there will be time later today, people will be talking about these qualities, and people who knew him in ways that I didn’t know. And I think those are just starting to describe who he was. They are for sure all true and you could pick so many anecdotes to illustrate those.

I’m going to focus just for a couple minutes on three qualities that are not on the list.

You don’t hear people say these three qualities, but I think that that when you hear the depth of what I want to say, I think if you hear the concepts, you will agree with me that this touches upon something about my dad, about who Denny Seinfeld was. And not only what he was, what we admired about him, and what we all want to strive to be, and how we want to remain inspired by him.

My father had a very Talmudic way of discussing things. If you ever discussed anything with him, and I know you all did…. He called it Socratic: he would pose a question to you. Instead of tealling you his opinion, he’d ask you a tough question and make you think like, “Oh, he’s got me on that one”, and you’d really have to think fast.

So in Talmudic fashion, in Dad’s honor, I’m going to ask you a question. I’ll ask you about these three qualities that I found in the Talmud, and ask you to tell me if you think he was any of these three things, and why, and of course it’s a trick question:

Was my father a wise man?
Was he a strong man?
Was he a wealthy man?

The first one’s easy to answer, right? People went to him for advice. Isn’t that what a wise man is, someone you go to for advice? Could be…. But not in the Talmudic sense: that’s not what the Talmud means by “wise”.

My dad, Dovid ben Eliezer was also known as Dennis Gary – Denny – Dad – his eight grandchildren knew him as Saba…. We all knew him in our own special way, with our special name.

You know where he got that trait from? From his parents, his parents whom many of us escorted to this very spot only a couple years ago. I think his parents were optimists. They had two children during the painful depths of the Depression, while war was looming. Most of the country waited until after the war to have their baby boom, but the Seinfelds didn’t wait. Bringing not one but two children into the world named D-D and Denny was a simple (and very Jewish) act of pure hope and optimism. My Dad, a great empathizer, who really celebrated and suffered other people’s celebrations and suffering, also learned from his father how to say, “Life goes on.”

Some of you here remember him as a kid. His 6th grade teacher, Mrs. Marsh, had a different perspective on his social skills, writing that he “could show more initiative and exercise leadership by looking ahead and anticipating situations.” In other words, she was saying he was little short-sighted, not able to see the outcome of situations. However, Mrs. Marsh was also confident that he would develop those qualities as the elected class president, and by the spring report card, she reported that he indeed had.

So you know the Talmud does ask the question, “What does it mean to be a wise person?” and of course when a rabbi asks you that question, you know that the right answer is not “knowing a lot of stuff.” It says that wise means someone who foresees the outcome of a situation.

You know you read in the obituary that he served on so many committees, on so many boards, you have to wonder, why did they want him so much? Because he could foresee the outcome. He thought ahead. He was the kind of person you love to have on your committee and you hate to have on your committee at the same time. You love to have him there because he asks the tough questions. You hate having him there because he asks the tough questions. He had not only the ability but the all-important tenacity to ask the tough questions, to push us – believe you me, his children included – to consider all the possible outcomes. He didn’t mind that painful thing called thinking, and making other people do so too. I think he taught this to us too — all of us who are his disciples. All of us: his children and everyone else.

The Talmud’s other answer to the question is that a wise person is someone who learns from every one else. That’s what it means to be wise. It’s very interesting the way the Talmud says this, which is only clear in the Hebrew. It doesn’t say every other adult, it doesn’t say from every other Jewish person, it doesn’t say from every other man…. It says from every other human being. Is there a better description of my father’s relationship toward other human beings? All he wanted from people was to hear their ideas, their beliefs, their hopes and dreams – from the elderly to young children. My dad was a feminist before anyone thought of the term (although I suspect he may have picked some of this up from a certain woman he met in college). He didn’t mind learning from anybody, from his children, from his grandchildren. Everybody was a universe to him, and everybody meant something to him. He got their story. When he was on the TCC Board, he was so thrilled to be participating in those people’s lives, who would bring themselves up, and although he felt he had so little to do with it, he felt so inspired by them, taking htemselves from having a poor educational and economic foundation and making something out of their lives, and he wanted to learn about them and learn from them.

I know he talked that way about his family and his cousins.

His treatment of others was so natural to himself that it disarmed you if you weren’t used to it. Even when two of his children went (by local standards) off the deep end, if he was judgmental, he kept it to himself, he certainly didn’t ever make us feel ashamed of having chosen a different path than his own.

He simply had so few, if any, pretensions.  I remember when Jerry Seinfeld came to Tacoma. It was 1984 or 85, I think. Dad couldn’t care less that Jerry was a comedian – what mattered to him was that here was another Seinfeld and we didn’t know of any other Seinfelds before then. You see, my dad had this family tree that he made when he was a teenager, and there were some missing holes in it, and Here’s another Seinfeld! So he went down that night, a Saturday night, to the nightclub, and he met Jerry afterwards and came back with this new branch of the family tree all filled in, it was so exciting. The fact that Jerry became famous was interesting, but he wasn’t so concerned about that. He loved the idea that there were connections between people. Some years later he even flew down to LA for a taping of the show, because he was family. And I think this genuine love of people and respect for their wisdom is what drove him in all the non-profit work he did.

This wisdom I think is what drove his passion for Tacoma Community College. I don’t remember him more proud than when he told me about the award ceremony where they would honor students who had come from nothing – no education, no money, no support – and graduated from TCC..  Displaced people, people with no direction, who found their way. He loved getting to know the student, finding out their story.

I asked my mom, I understand why he served on the the TCC Board, but why did he go so far as to set up a scholarship fund there, not at one of his own prestigious colleges? And why did he put his name on it? That seems out of character. You know what she said to me? He was performing one of the highest levels of tzeddaka, which is: be a role model. Encourage others! If you don’t put your name on it and do it locally, then no one’s going to know about it. You have to show others, you have to pave the way. He wanted everybody to follow suit. He wanted people to be part of the community and to contribute. That’s what he was all about. You know that. And if you and I are not living up to that, well that’s our fault, because he certainly gave us all the signals of what we should be doing.

You know, both my Dad and Mom raised their children with this value from a very young age: A slice of what you make, you have to give back. How much? Oh, about ten percent. When I started learning in yeshiva in Israel I shared with my dad that it says in Jewish books that it’s supposed to be ten percent, and he said, “Wow, that’s kind of neat.” I mean, he had intuited that; no one had ever taught him that. He just felt that ten percent of what you make, you give back.

How many people in this community can we stand here and say that about them? How is this community going to replace that kind of attitude, which wasn’t a philosophy, it was part of who he was? Who is going to fill his shoes?

He loved to tell people how much “bang for your buck” everyone gets out of a CC education –for 1000/year you can have a year of education – nurses, dental technicians, people who would really benefit society.

We know how he loved life, how he cultivated things. He wasn’t necessarily so great at things. He wasn’t a world-class tennis player. But he could play tennis. And squash, and raquet ball, and down-hill skiing, and water skiing and cross-country skiing…. basketball? Did I mention he was an avid swimmer and runner? Not like a fanatic; he just loved doing it. He loved the pleasure of it. He cultivated drinking wine. He went berry-picking on a daily basis. He would call me and say, “I’m just sitting here eating these berries and I’m waiting for you to come here and share them with me.” And now we have the last bucket of berries that he picked. You know he was just preparing for us to come. And when I told my daughter Goldy what happened (she’s six years old), she said, “Saba just told me last Friday how he was looking forward to us coming.”

And we came….

You know the only thing my dad loved more than all these things I’m talking about? There’s only one thing he liked better, and that was sharing them with other people.

He used to drag me out of bed at five-thirty or six in the morning to go for a run with him. Why? Because he enjoyed it so much he wanted to share it! You would go visit him and he would overload you with whatever he had at that moment. He had these little “Poke Boats”, a type of kayak, and he’d make you go out with him, he’d be very disappointed if you weren’t into it with him. That was his personality: he got pleasure from sharing and being part of your life.

Some of you may remember something he did in 1986. As part of a charity auction for Stadium High School, he was determined to be the highest bidder for the right to conduct the Stadium High School Band. He won that right. It was to be for the final concert at the Pantages Theatre. And it was to be for The Stars and Stripes Forever — with the big fanfare at the end with the trumpets and trombones coming out front. You know he got a John Phillip Sousa tape from the library, and he walked around the house conducting, practicing. And he just couldn’t get it. He couldn’t get the beat. He listened, he tried, and I tried to help him, I coached him as much as I could, and when the final performance came we thought he was ready, and fortunately we in the band knew the song by heart because we played it all the time in parades and everything, because he wasn’t with us at all, but he was so happy. Because he was doing tzedaka, and his children were there, and he was participating, and he was having fun, and that’s what life is supposed to be about. He was living. He was living! He wasn’t talking about living, he was doing it! He knew how to live.

A simlar thing happened many years later when he was going on a trip to France. Here is a man who had learned German in college and had been fluent in German, but hadn’t studied a foreign language since then. But he was going to make a trip to France, and he knew that the way you really enjoy a country is you speak the language. So he started putting up French vocabulary words all over the house. My mother would open drawers and there were French words, here, there and everywhere, everything was labeled. For six months, and he taught himself French. And I was skeptical. I heard about this over the phone. I was actually living in France at the time. I was thinking, “That’s cute.” And he came, and… he was doing it. He actually was communicating in French, at a passable level — enough that Parisians were not snobbish towards him. He just lived life.

Did anyone here ever see my dad angry? Of course not. He never got angry. Maybe a little, everyone does once in awhile, but so seldom. He never had that problem. He had such self-control.

The first question I’ve answered, “Was he wise?” The second question is, “Was he strong?” The Talmud says someone is strong who is in control of himself. Someone who doesn’t let his ego get out of hand. That’s my dad: no ego. Nothing was for himself, it was for his wife, his children, his community.

And the third question, what about wealthy? Was he wealthy.

The Talmudic answer is that you’re only wealthy if you’re happy with what you have. If you have a hundred million dollars and you want a hundred million and one, you’re a poor man. If you have nine dollars a week to spend, as my parents had in law school, and my mother had to come up with seven different ways to cook the same potatoes, they were happy. It was an adventure for them. My parents were known in the community as people who would go outdoors, hiking and camping, They didn’t grow up with that. They got a little ten-dollar pup-tent….(maybe it wasn’t ten dollars, that would be more than a week of food, it was probably more like two dollars), and they just found a campground on the map and went up there. You know, here’s all the New Englanders in their fancy tents and their fancy camping stoves, and here’s my parents trying not to touch the wall of the tent because if it rains then you get soaking wet….and that’s how they were, and life was an adventure for them. And they shared that together, every step of the way. In my mother’s house right now there are three books from the library, tour books for their planned next destination this fall.

I think that if my father had lived to his father’s age, to ninety, if he had lived as he should have, twenty-five more years, we would all stand here sad, but fulfilled. We had a full Denny! We had a full Dennis! We got a full Dad. We got everything out of him. We had so much more to get from him. I had so much more – I’m speaking personally. I have a whole list of things I wanted to discuss with him this summer. I was saving them. I can’t discuss them with anybody else. In that way he was what we call in Judaism a “rebbe” for a lot of people. He would know you and he had the wisdom, and he could put them together in a certain way. How is that fair? This person who is written up in the Tribune as “Champion of Justice” — how is it just, that he is taken away, not only from us, we’re not the only ones: he didn’t get the life either. Another twenty-five years.

There is a midrash (story) about Jacob the patriarch, a very interesting story. It says that before Jacob lived, everybody died suddenly. Nobody got sick before they died. Everybody, they would sneeze and they were dead, and that’s where we get the expression “God bless you” or “Gezuntheit” when people sneeze, it goes way back, because someone could sneeze and that could be the end. And Jacob prayed and said, “You know what? Can it be, God, that I get sick first and give people a chance to say goodbye to me?”

And so that’s why people do get sick and they get that chance, but we didn’t have that chance with Dad! It happened like that! I mean I couldn’t even….

We want you to know up there, if you’re listening: it’s a really good guy you took from us, and you took him too early.

There’s one other story I’ll tell you. This is also in the Talmud. It’s about one of the most righteous, learned women in Jewish history. Her name was Bruria. She was one of the great scholars of her generation, about eighteen hundred years ago. And her husband was a rabbi named Rabbi Meir, who was maybe as learned as she was. They had two children, two boys, who passed away, suddenly and unexpectedly on the Sabbath. He was out – her husband was out – and she put them on their beds and covered them with blankets and didn’t tell him, because you’re not supposed to tell someone bad news on the Sabbath. She waited until afterwards. And what she said to him was like this:

“What’s the law if someone gives you a security deposit, and they come back and want to collect it.”
He said (thinking I guess it’s a strange question for his learned wife to be asking him), “You have to give it back right away.”
She said, “We’ve had a deposit… and it has been collected.”

We had our time, and he was a gift. It’s not ours to say when a person gets collected. And it’s not ours to say it’s too soon. Because we’re not in control.

Such a precious, sweet and pure soul. So full of spiritual attachments, so distant from material attachments. So distant from pettiness.

Dad, we’re really grateful that you didn’t suffer pain at the end, that it happened quickly. That was a gift. We’re glad that you went out that way, in a way, even though we couldn’t say goodbye to you they way we wanted. You didn’t suffer.

How fitting it is, I think, if you think about it that my dad went out while he was reaching up to the sky. That’s how he lived, and that’s how he went out.

We’re going to miss you more than anything, Dad. And we are going to be so enriched by these years. And they’re not just words, and they’re not photographs, they’re what you put into us. They’re right here. We’re going to try to lay your broken body down here, cover it with dirt, we’ll say a little prayer, and let you go where evidently you need to go right now. And we’ll carry you with us all the time.

2. Question for your table:

What do you you want them to say at your funeral?

3. The important video
that I hope you'll watch and share with as many people as you can (especially anyone who knows anyone in Mexico):
Shabbat Shalom

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