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Torah study: antidote for instant gratification

Posted on 12 July 2018 by admin

In our June 28 article, we noted the great difficulties human beings have with overcoming the pull of instant gratification and the psychological basis for this human paradigm, according to the study of behavioral economics.
We also introduced the advice dispensed by scholars in the social sciences to utilize our propensity for nearsightedness to our advantage in battle by implementing immediate pains or pleasures that encourage self-control and disincentivize succumbing to instant gratification (for example, I can only listen to my favorite podcast when I work out at the gym, and if I smoke a cigarette, I have to give $5 to the KKK). I was curious what traditional Torah sources had to say about the subject of overcoming the pull of instant gratification and if they were, in fact, in line with the findings mentioned above.
The Torah sources that immediately came to my mind were two mishnayot in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers). The first mishna comes at the very beginning of the second chapter.
“… weigh the loss (that may be sustained through the fulfillment) of a commandment against the reward [that may be obtained] for (fulfilling) it. And (weigh) the gain (that may be obtained through the committing) of a transgression against the loss (that may be sustained) by (committing) it. Keep your eye on three things, and you will not come to the hands of sin: Know what is above you: an Eye that sees, and an Ear that hears, and all your deeds are written in a book.”
Based on what we have learned, this mishna’s advice seems, well, futile. Yes, a proper cost-benefit analysis of any particular sin or mitzvah should surely lead to a religiously sensible reaction, but human beings, as we have demonstrated, suffer from a serious inability to properly evaluate different options in the face of temptation. After all, how accurate are your mental determinations when you’re a heaping pile of emotions and drives? (It is for this very reason, by the way, that another mishna in Pirkei Avot, 4:23, warns us: “Do not seek to appease your fellow man at the time of his anger, or to comfort him when his dead lies before him.” For, as long as someone is shaken and agitated, he isn’t amenable to rational suggestions.) And thoughts of future divine retribution from an all-knowing God? For many of us, that’s way too far off in the future to inhibit pleasure seeking in the present.
Here’s the second mishna on the topic, found at the very beginning of the third chapter:
“Akavia ben Mahalalel says: Keep your eye on three things, and you will not come to the hands of sin: Know from where you came, and to where you are going, and before Whom you are destined to give an account and a reckoning. From where did you come? From a putrid drop. And to where are you going? To a place of dust, worms and maggots. And before Whom are you destined to give an account and a reckoning? Before the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.”
The problems with the advice given in this mishna are similar to the problems introduced in the first mishna. Thoughts of one’s humble beginning and eventual end, as well as considerations of a future day of reckoning, are distant from life in the present, and therefore infinitely less persuasive. Such thoughts similarly require rational thinking processes, something humans carry in short supply during periods of enticement.
I knew there were vital points of consideration that would open up the gates of wisdom for me, but I didn’t know what they were. Luckily, I would soon find the missing link I was looking for in former Chief Rabbi of Israel Yisrael Meir Lau’s magnificent commentary on Pirkei Avot. Rabbi Lau notes most interestingly that these mishnayot do not reference methods to avoid “sin” itself. Rather they depict practices that would ward off “the hands of sin,” “li’dei aveira.”
“In Hebrew, the word for hands can also mean handles. Sin is stored so to speak, in a container whose handles are corrupt personality traits, such as ego and lust. The more pronounced these traits are in a person, the more he is prone to sin. When a person does not possess these handles, he will not come to sin” (Volume II, page 323).
According to Rabbi Lau, the advice laid out in these mishnayot was never meant to aid someone currently in the grips of sin itself. These mental considerations were rather intended for quieter, less turbulent times in one’s spiritual life. For in moments of personal calm and quiet, far away from the intoxicating snare of the lesser angels of our nature, soulful contemplation indeed finds its place. And within these calm confines, thoughts of one’s purpose and place in this life and thoughts of the consequences of one’s actions have the ability to resonate deeply within us and potentially neutralize or at the very least lessen many of our worst personality traits which serve as the “handles to sin.”
This, indeed, parallels that which we referenced earlier from the findings of behavioral economics: “When we can hold all alternatives at a distance, our evaluations of them remain true to their values in our lives.” Like a healthy diet or regular exercise that wards off obesity and the host of physical side effects that come with it, focused soulful contemplation acts as preventive medicine for the spiritual life, keeping the negative character traits that lead to sin at bay.
As far as what might stand in as curative medicine for the spiritual life, a Talmudic passage (Kiddushin 30b) seems to describe a panacea of sorts for the spiritually entrapped: “So says The Holy One to Israel: My children, I have created the evil inclination and I have created the Torah as its antidote.” And as the Talmud continues further on the page, “If this scoundrel (the evil inclination) accosts you (seeking to tempt you to sin), drag it to the study hall (and study Torah). If it is like stone it will be dissolved (by the Torah). If it is like iron it will be shattered (by the Torah).”
In this latter passage, we find that the evil inclination is close at hand. It has, in fact, accosted you and infected you. Now you need a cure, or an “antidote” as the Talmud calls it. The advice given is notably unlike the advice given in Pirkei Avot. In fact, there’s no mention at all of any sort of silent meditation or contemplation to keep sin at bay. Rather, we are instructed to “drag” our evil inclination (nobody said this would be easy) to the study hall and learn Torah.
Just as the findings of behavioral economics suggest, instant gratification must be met head-on with another immediate counterbalance that encourages self-control. In this case, that immediate counterbalance is Torah study, a spiritual shot in the arm and a bit of Godliness to dispel the powers of negativity and sin. In this emotionally charged space, we are told to meet negative emotion with positive emotion and unholy passion with holy passion. An immediate antidote indeed. A power great enough to dissolve stone and shatter iron.
On a deeper level, the Torah study functions as a positive channeling of the passionate desires once focused on sin, now refocused and directed on a passion for God and His Torah. Not only, then, do we have an immediate counterbalance to instant gratification, but even the satisfaction of fulfilling one’s fiery passions! (See Afikei Mayim Shavuot, Page 228, which explains that this is the deeper meaning behind Maimonides’ oft-quoted dictum: “A person should always turn himself and his thoughts to the words of the Torah and expand his knowledge in wisdom, for the thoughts of forbidden relations grow strong solely in a heart which is empty of wisdom.”)
As we’ve seen, there is a place for mindful meditation as spiritually preventative medicine, and a place for prompt reaction in the form of Torah study as spiritually curative medicine. Both strategies are needed for any long-term success in the spiritual life, and both beautifully parallel the modern findings of behavioral economics.

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Prayer is, above all, a personal connection

Posted on 12 July 2018 by admin

Prayer is a broad but tricky subject. Some may view prayer solely as an opportune time to ask for things — a more mature version of a kid going through the aisles of a grocery store, pulling attractive items off the shelf. Another unrefined conception is the prayer is like pleading with a grand judge, trying to change God’s initial plans. But Jewish prayer is not only requesting or beseeching. In fact, if one examines the bulk of the passages in the formal prayer book, only a small portion contain requests.
The opposite extreme — equally wide of the mark — is the mistaken notion of prayer as a passive means of communicating, whether intuitive meditation, opening oneself up to receive messages or guidance; submitting information and seeing what comes back. Jewish prayer is anything but passive.
So what purpose does prayer serve?
The simple answer is that although God does not need our prayers, there is a created system wherein our words, our effort, can have a powerful effect — “Call out and I will answer you! I long for your handiwork” (Job 14:15).
More notably, prayer is meant to affect ourselves, used more for internal growth and benefit than to achieve desired results. We pray to remind ourselves that ultimately our existence is dependent on God. We reflect; we listen to what’s going on inside us. In this sense, when we experience a renewal, a change, we also tap into the heavenly source, alter our path and cause an adjustment in the current situation.
Tracing the grammatical root of the Hebrew word for prayer, tefillah, is a subject of discussion. Some trace it to pileil, which can mean praise. In psalms, this word means “to struggle” or “battle.” Other scholars link it to tofel, which means to glue together. And both of these translations come closer to the essential concept of prayer in Judaism.
More than any request, the purpose of Jewish prayer is about connection. Connection comes through change, and any significant change comes through struggle. This is not to say the struggle has to be bitter, burdensome or unpleasant, only that there is a goodness that is a gift and other blessings that we must earn.
We find ourselves stuck within a physical body and an ever-evolving external world. The goal is to connect. There are two general modes of connecting. One starts from “below” — our standpoint — and we work to elevate. The other seeks to draw light into the world, and within us. These are prayer and Torah study, respectively.
Prayer is referred to Jacob’s ladder, “set on the earth and its top reaching to heaven.” It has many rungs. Each step upward is a movement from the confines of physical existence toward the expanses of heavenly realm.
The set order of the daily prayers in the siddur (from the word order) with select scriptural and lyrical passages, was carefully designed to incorporate all spiritual and material needs, as well as progressive stages of meditation. The mystical commentaries further explain how, climbing the rungs of prayer, the layers of the soul are lifted until the essential soul becomes unified with the source within the infinite luminary from which it was hewn (during the pinnacle of prayer, the Amidah).
For this reason, kabalistic texts describe the time of tefillah as an intense communion — “a marital union,” where the “children” are the internal changes, the renewed appreciation and resulting emotions.
The Talmud (Taanis 2a), explaining a scriptural verse, refers to prayer as “service of the heart” (avodah shebalev). The Hebrew word “avodah” means more than “service” or “work” — it suggests exertion in refining our character and the world around us. “The heart” refers to emotions. The main effort during prayer is to arrive at the feeling of love. Love is the fuel that brings us to connection. One may wonder: Can someone really increase love? While love is in the heart, it is the focused reflection within the mind that stimulates the feelings. For this reason, the line of “Shema Yisroel” — contemplating God’s unity — comes directly before the command “you shall love…” And when you love something enough — “with all your might” — you will do whatever it takes to maintain that connection. This pathway includes removing all obstacles to connection, which leads to the second facet of prayer — to weaken the natural “animalistic energy and impulses,” or self-absorption, that builds a barrier to transcendence, ranging from muddled fears to excessive pride and ego.
There are moments when we are struck with a sense of being so small within something much larger. During the daily routine, however, it’s rare, unless we are able to get quiet. Prayer is the time to implant awareness in our heart, to sort through emotions and align feelings with knowledge.
The prerequisite to approach God in prayer is a basic consciousness and humility. As the Talmud puts it, a phrase that is displayed over the ark containing Torah scrolls in many synagogues, is “Know Before Whom You Stand.” Then, during prayer, as we gaze at the words, there’s the pervading attitude of sincerity — remaining pure and simple in our approach. If the heart is not involved, if it’s just rote recitation, then there is no real tefillah.
Outside of periods of intense inspiration, or desperation provoking profound pleas, the process of prayer rarely flows smoothly. Our minds are oriented toward fleshly needs and pleasures, pressing tasks or enticing distractions. Prayer — aligning the mind, awakening a dull heart — is comparable to a spiritual workout; just as daily physical exercise increases the blood flow and promotes our biological systems, prayer causes the divine spark inside us to surface and expand — boosting the soul’s circulation. Just as workouts are meant to be hard — an athlete embraces the struggle and pain — likewise, with focused prayer.
To get going in tefillah requires channeling the body’s vitality, pushing through laziness, pulling the drifting mind back, gathering strength — from the depth — to remove internal blockage and resistance, until “wringing out the soul.” It’s a battle, a test of character. How hard we try during these installed periods of refuge is often a measure of what we accomplish.
Because prayer is such a staple of our religious sustenance, most of us are well aware of the personal challenges we face in this area. For some individuals, it’s simply a strain to follow the prayer service, or the need to get acquainted with the Hebrew language, or the structure of each service. Others know what to do, but struggle with follow through — staying mindful during the recitation, trusting that what should be happening during prayer is actually taking place. It is sometimes difficult to believe that we are reorienting ourselves toward God and spirituality, polishing or refining our minds and emotions with the formula that the sages set down. Or sometimes people are so rushed or robotic, they forget to try.
So, the primary purpose of prayer is to change ourselves, the joining with God. Transitioning from the period of tefillah to meet the workday, a person has increased confidence, as the soul is sturdy, less vulnerable to the chaotic vibrations of the surrounding environment. As one closes the prayer book, the mindset should be: “I just had a private connection and conversation with the Master of the Universe — what could possibly go wrong?”

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Readers respond with their own polio memories

Posted on 12 July 2018 by admin

Two readers responded to my recent column on polio with very different — yet somehow connected —stories of their own, plus permission for me to share them. One is frightening, the other enlightening. Let’s be grateful for them both.
Roy Edenson shares his “vivid memories” of August 1953, when, at age 4, he suddenly couldn’t swallow the ice cream his father was feeding him from a Dixie cup with a wooden spoon. A quick trip to the doctor was followed by immediate admission to the local polio hospital. Roy had the bulbar strain, which affects swallowing and breathing. For weeks he was in an oxygen tent with an iron lung; raw eggs and milk were fed through a rubber hose threaded from his nose down to his stomach. Many “get-well” gifts included an RCA portable record player, which Roy credits with inspiring his engineering/electronics career.
During Roy’s recovery, his microbiologist father learned about the Salk trials; when the vaccine was finally approved, he took a part-time job as health officer in East Brunswick, New Jersey, organizing clinics to vaccinate children free of charge.
“I learned how lucky I was to have an aware parent who saved me from certain death with his early intervention,” says Roy, who was largely unaffected for 50 years afterward. But now, he calls polio “the gift that keeps on taking.”
About 20 years ago, his overworked neurons started weakening and dying, causing fatigue, muscle weakness and pain that finally necessitated back and neck surgeries. But hand, finger and leg problems continue to escalate. Still, Roy says, “I often remind myself of the 65 extra years I was gifted. Our eldest daughter gave birth to identical twin girls on the first anniversary of my initial back surgery, and our only grandson was born six weeks early – on the same day as my neck surgery. Life is what happens.”
Eleanor Eidels tells of her strikingly different involvement with polio, which also illustrates the early preventive efforts of that fear-filled time.
“As a third-grader in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, I was one of many kids in the field trial for the Salk vaccine,” she recalls. Testing involved three shots, so “Three times, virtually all the first-, second- and third-graders in my school were lined up to go through the high school cafeteria, where dozens of tables were set up with doctors and nurses ready to give the vaccine.” Since one of the girls always fainted when she got shots, the other kids would warn them in advance. “Sure enough, that girl became a physician,” Eleanor comments today.
She continues: “One of the cool things was that they taught us kids what a ‘double-blind’ study is, so we all understood that not even the doctors knew who was getting the real vaccine. It wasn’t until I was in fifth grade that they revealed who got what. Fortunately, I had received the actual vaccine, though they decided to give us a booster shot. The poor kids who got the dummy shots had to go through the whole series again.”
But: “It was such a big deal because polio was a terror. A girl in my grade needed braces on both legs. A little boy down the street from me got polio one summer. Why not his brother? Why not me? He ended up with a brace on one leg. A couple of streets over was a boy in an iron lung. We were not allowed to drink from the water fountain at the playground.”
Eleanor concludes: “I still have the card that proclaims me a ‘Polio Pioneer’ — signed by me, Eleanor Royster, in third grade. And to this day, I still never let my face touch any part of a water fountain, a habit drilled into me in those awful years.”
(Postscript: 56 years ago, July 29, 1962, almost a million Dallas children received the Sabin sugar cube, replacing the Salk shots as protection against polio.)

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‘Ghetto of two’ keeps our heritage alive

Posted on 12 July 2018 by admin

Dear Rabbi Fried,
In the June 14 edition of the TJP, there appeared a dispute concerning the commencement speech by Jewish author Michael Chabon to graduates of the HUC in May, where he railed against in-marriage, calling it a “ghetto of two,” and urged the graduates to embrace intermarriage as an ideal. One article called his views abhorrent to Judaism and the respondent, although not against in-marriage like Chabon, was also not against intermarriage and called for its inclusion as a viable expression of Judaism. Obviously, I would expect you, as an Orthodox rabbi, to not welcome intermarriage as does Chabon, but is there a middle ground that you can accept within this debate?
Cherie Z.
Dear Cherie,
You struck a nerve with me on this one, as I have been profoundly pained by this discussion.
This, unfortunately, is not the first time in our history that Jews have suggested that the path to solve our problems would be to assimilate, essentially to disappear. It is, however the first time that such an opinion has been expressed under the banner of a mainstream movement of Judaism (at their graduation ceremony, without a condemnation by that movement but rather a defense that those views are worthy of being expressed at that hallowed forum).
Over the course of Jewish history, we have had two categories of those who would seek to annihilate our people. There have been those who attempted to destroy us physically and others who attempted to destroy us by erasing our spirituality and have us melt into their culture and cease to exist.
Our patriarch Jacob, fearful of the threat of his brother, Esau, who sought to kill him, prayed, “Save me from the hand of my brother, of Esau…” (Genesis 32:11). The commentators raise the question of the redundancy of adding “of Esau”; since Jacob had only one brother, obviously “my brother” meant Esau?
The answer is, Jacob was fearful of two dangers. The obvious peril was Esau’s plot to kill him outright. The more subtle danger, although no less sinister, was that he would seek to be together with Jacob as a loving brother, with all his wickedness, in order to water down Jacob’s holiness and slowly but surely assimilate his brother into his own camp, rendering him a spiritual non-entity. This is the meaning of Esau’s offer to “…let us travel together and I will travel adjacent to you” (ibid. 33:13). Jacob explained how that would not work and said he’d meet up with him at Mount Seir, hinting to their final showdown before Messianic times (see Rashi loc. cit. and Beis Haleivi, Parashas Vayishlach, for overall explanation).
Haman was one of the first to propose a physical “final solution” and kill every Jewish man, woman and child in one day. We celebrate his defeat in a physical way, by eating and drinking on Purim. The Greeks sought to destroy us spiritually with their decrees against Torah and its observance, forced intermarriage and rendering the holy Temple a museum. We celebrate our victory against that attempt in a spiritual way, by kindling candles on Chanukah.
The first proponent to annihilate us is not so well-known, Laban, who sought to kill Jacob and his camp, as we read each year in the Haggadah of Passover. Later Laban, with the nom de guerre of Balaam, sought to destroy us by curse, a spiritual way to wield the sword. When that didn’t work, he finally attempted to destroy them by enticing them with assimilation, sending the Moabite women to seduce the Jewish men. This caused a plague that cost us 24,000 Jews and could have even meant our end if not for Pinchas saving the day and putting an end to the plague caused that assimilation.
Chabon rallied for the cessation of all Jewish practice besides what he deems relevant in today’s world, namely thought processes related to critical thinking such as “learning, inquiry and skepticism.” In his world, any practices other than these create dangerous walls between us and the nations and prevent the assimilation of all peoples into one mass of humanity with no differences.
In fact, it is precisely that “ghetto of two” that preserves our identity, our holiness and our essence. Marriage is called Kiddushin, which means holiness and separateness, which are two sides of the same coin. This is the very essence of the Jewish people, who were commanded “kedoshim tihiyu,” be a holy, separate nation (Leviticus 19:2).
As we approach Tisha B’Av, we lament the many attempts at our destruction. The famous story tells of Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues on Mount Scopus who burst our crying when they observed a fox exiting what was the Holy of Holies in the Temple after its destruction (Talmud, end of Tr. Makos). The fox, of all animals, epitomizes the utter obliteration of the Temple, as the fox represents the sly, sneaky attempt to wipe out the study of Torah and end the spiritual world of the Jews (see the story of Papus and R’ Akiva, Talmud Berachos 61b). That is why Balaam, on his way to curse the Jews, was caught in a mishol hakeramim, literally a tight place in an orchard, but hinting to a place of foxes attempting to destroy the Jews who are compared to a vineyard (see Midrash Rabah Balak 20:14 and Tanchuma Balak 8 to Numbers 22:24).
Chabon and those in his camp join the foxes — the Esaus, the Greeks and many others in our history who sought to destroy us through assimilation. We have to realize that the Chabons of the world mean nothing less than the annihilation of our people. This, today, is a lot of what Tisha B’Av is about; when we sit on the floor and mourn the destruction of our Temple, we mourn the assimilation of our people.
With the utmost respect to our neighbors with whom we work, befriend and appreciate, we only ensure our Jewish continuity by retaining our separation through the practices and beliefs which truly and eternally make us different.

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All we’re asking for is to show a little respect

Posted on 12 July 2018 by admin

Dear Families,
We all want to do good things for the world — to do our part in making the world a better place. How do we know what we should do? How do we decide on a tikkun olam project that is right for us? Here are questions to ask:
• What are you good at?
• What do you like to do?
• What bothers you about what is wrong in the world? What really makes you mad?
• Who are your heroes and what is it about them that you admire?
• What are you not good at, but might do anyway because it would make a big difference in someone else’s life?
Text of the week
Ben Azzai was accustomed to say, “Do not be scornful of any person and do not be disdainful of anything, for you have no person without his hour, and you have nothing without its place.” —Pirkei Avot 4:3
• There are two words in this mishnah that we don’t often use. Look up “scornful” and “disdainful” in the dictionary. What do they mean?
• What does it mean that every person has his hour? What does it mean about everything having a place? What does this tell us about respect?
• How do you show respect for animals and things? Is it different than with people? In what way?
Value of the week:
respect (kavod)
Respect is an attitude that has to do with the way we treat one another, the way we speak and the way we treat others’ belongings. Being respectful also include self-respect. A good way to practice respect is to think about how you would like to be treated. When we respect people, animals and property, we show that we value each and every person and thing.
Things to do
• Treat everyone the way you would like to be treated.
• Honor other people’s need for time and space to themselves.
• Follow the rules of the place you are; i.e., school, camp, a friend’s home.
• Demonstrate ways to show respect for yourself.

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Jews made large contributions to U.S. independence

Posted on 05 July 2018 by admin

Hopefully, TJP readers both enjoyed and survived the Fourth of July fireworks and festivities without any negative results.
If you consider the more serious aspect of the holiday, remembering to give thanks to those who over 242 years ago fought to bring us independence, you must include the Jewish community as well.
While a small number of Jews chose to remain loyal to the King of England, the great majority joined the cause of freedom, contributing what they could in the fight for independence.
Haym Salomon is given credit for raising the necessary funds to help supply George Washington’s Army, but he also helped American prisoners escape even after he was arrested.
Salomon lost most of his savings in the process of helping fund Washington’s army.
Another who lost most of his fortune helping the Revolutionary cause was Aaron Lopez, supposedly the wealthiest Jew in America.
After he donated most of his savings to the patriots’ cause, his fleet of merchant ships and other property was confiscated by the British.
Francis Salvador, a South Carolina plantation owner, became known as the “Paul Revere of the South” for rousing and forming an army of over 300 men.
Salvador, the first Jew elected to a state colonial assembly, was sadly the first Jew killed in the Revolution.
Other notable Jewish patriots included Isaac Moses of Philadelphia, who donated 3,000 pounds to the war effort.
Mordecai Sheftal, a merchant, as colonel, was the highest-ranking Jewish soldier in Washington’s army. He was placed in charge of acquiring supplies for the revolutionary troops of Georgia and South Carolina, but was captured by the British.
Eventually released in a prisoner exchange, Sheftal sold shares in a privateer that joined other privateers in attacking, ransacking and destroying British merchant ships.
British ship owners and merchants in turn, began pressuring the British government to end the war in order to end further losses.
The Jewish population in 1775 numbered no more than 2,500 total, less than one-tenth of the total colonial population, but their influence in the successful outcome in America’s War for Independence was unquestionable.

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Reflect on ‘miracles of the bad’ during the 3 Weeks

Posted on 05 July 2018 by admin

Dear Rabbi Fried,
With regard to the three-week mourning period we’re now observing, I’m struggling a bit to find a way to make this meaningful in my life. How does one gain inspiration by mourning for Temples that were destroyed thousands of years ago?

Marla K.

Dear Marla,
This three-week period is known as “bein ha’metzarim” or “between the borders” (Lamentations 1:3). It marks the remembrance of 10 calamities which befell the Jewish people, five on the day of the 17th of Tamuz, which was the fast day this past Sunday, and five more on the Ninth of Av, which will be the second fast day ending this period, on Sunday, July 21 (beginning on the Saturday night of the 20th).
The first five, at the beginning of the period, were like warning shots — breaking of the tablets, laying siege to the city walls, cessation of the offerings, the burning of a Torah scroll. These were all things that could have been stopped or rectified. The five of Tisha B’Av, however, were calamities of finality — a decree that the generation of the desert would all die there, the final destruction of both Temples, etc.
In my opinion, one of the most important points to focus upon during this time is an idea that permeates the writings of our sages and is a foundational understanding of our diaspora history, all beginning with the above calamities.
Tisha B’Av is, despite its sadness, a “holiday.” It is referred to by Jeremiah as a “moed,” which is Hebrew for holiday: “…it is called upon me as a moed, to break my youth” (Lamentations 1:15). This seems to be as antithetical to a holiday as can be.
Moed literally means a “meeting place”; a holiday is a time that we are elevated to “meet with God” in our higher state. That is why our holidays, beginning with Pesach, are based upon miracles. The Hebrew for miracle is nes, which literally means “elevation.” A miracle elevates us to a place where we can connect to God, hence a miracle brings us to a moed. We are able, through the miracle, nes, to view things and connect at an elevated level.
On Tisha B’Av there were, in fact, miracles performed, as well. At the time of the destruction of the First Temple, the Babylonians found the cherubim on the ark embracing each other and paraded them through the streets to shame the Jews. In their holiest place, they feature a male and female in loving embrace.
Truth be told, that embrace was the greatest joy of the Jewish people, as the cherubim represented the embrace of God and Israel. There was a standing miracle that the degree of their embrace was a barometer of the relations of God and Israel. Although there were no moving parts, they would swivel in or out depending on the Jews’ piety. The fact that they were embracing at the time of turning our back to God and our destruction was a miracle within a miracle. It was to expose our nakedness.
This is a new type of miracle, a “miracle for the bad” (see Rit’va to Talmud Yoma 54b). A similar miracle occurred at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple when Titus pierced the curtain before the Holy of Holies and it gushed blood, allowing him to think he had “killed God.” Another “miracle for the bad” that revealed the extent that the Jews had severed the connection between the upper and lower worlds, the very connection that canopy represented.
Miracles for the good — splitting the sea, etc. — obviously catapult us to higher levels of connection. Bad things that befall us, like hatred, exiles, destructions and massacres, don’t seem to bring us to higher places. But when we view the miraculous perspective of these occurrences, to the extent they are completely inexplicable in any human terms, shows us that we are connected to something higher and can potentially elevate us through that realization.
The level of fixation on the Jewish people throughout our exile, up until the complete fixation of the world upon Israel today, makes no sense. The entire world has nothing to worry about besides a piece of land around the size of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex and two-thirds the population of New York City. Article 7 of the United Nations “Human Rights” Commission mandates this committee to hold a discussion on the Israel-Palestinian conflict at every meeting.
Beginning with the destruction of the Temples, we have witnessed and suffered pogroms, inquisitions, blood libels, a Wansee Conference and finally the unspeakable Holocaust…not ending there, but suicide bombings, BDS, condemnation after condemnation from the U.N. when other nations are murdering hundreds of thousands like Syria today…it doesn’t matter, it all about the Jews. It may be a “miracle for the bad,” but a miracle it is.
My late mentor once pointed out that the sum total of all the reasons and rationales for anti-Semitism provided by sociologists, historians and scholars will possibly account for 5 percent of what has actually transpired. What about the other 95 percent? A miracle. Albeit a “miracle for the bad,” but a miracle just the same.
We don’t have the space to discuss the nature or the “why” of these miracles. For now, let it suffice to say that it would be far worse for God to have forgotten about us, to have simply given up on us and no longer care, than to be involved with us…even in a way which seems as bad as can be. A child would rather have his parent angry at him than not care about him at all.
Let us remember that the destruction was in the month of Av, which means “father,” because — when we witness this inexplicable behavior toward us — it reminds us that this all happened, and is happening, precisely because we have a Father.
Let us focus on this during this time and, perhaps, the lessons we will learn will bring an end to the need to teach us anymore.

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Perfection not required to make a difference

Posted on 05 July 2018 by admin

Dear Families,
When you strive to make a difference, you don’t have to be perfect. Sometimes just doing anything is a step in the right direction.
The responsible actions to take are those that will help others when they are in need. When we don’t act when others need help, we close our eyes to the world. We must not say that someone else will do what is needed; we must do our part to make the world a better place.

Text of the week

Hillel was accustomed to say, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, when?” —Pirkei Avot 1:14

  • Why does Hillel focus first on taking care of yourself? Why is that the responsible thing to do? What happens if you do not take care of yourself?
  • Hillel goes the next step and wonders what kind of a person we are if we care only about ourselves. What kind of person cares only for themselves?
  • The last phrase of this mishnah tells us to act now and not wait. Why is that important?

Value of the week: Responsibility (Achrayut)

Being responsible means that others can depend on you. It means you are willing to be accountable for what you do or not do: You accept credit when you do things right and you accept corrections when things go wrong.
When you take responsibility, other can count on you. Making excuses is not something a responsible person does. You want to be trustworthy.

Things to do

  • When someone asks you to do something, do it to the best of your ability.
  • Focus on your own part, not someone else’s.
  • Are you willing to accept credit or correction when you do something?
  • Admit mistakes without making excuses.
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The Fourth of July is always memorable

Posted on 05 July 2018 by admin

What did you do to celebrate our country’s 242nd birthday yesterday? I went to hear a patriotic concert by Dallas Winds, wearing my Fourth of July T-shirt.
My daughter bought it for me when she made her first visit to Dallas with her first child. I rented a crib for that baby — not even near a year old then — who will turn 29 this coming November. We found it in Olla Podrida. Who else remembers that wonderful, multilevel shopping experience that repurposed an old airplane hangar? But it was those multilevels that ultimately killed it — no way to make the place handicapped-accessible.
So, I’ve worn that shirt every Fourth of July for 28 years and still counting. After all: How much wear does a shirt get if you put it on only once annually? Of course, it’s more than a bit faded from its original fire-engine red, but the great little “portraits” of everything patriotic are still clearly visible. I had a red, white and blue handbag that wore out much faster.
For me, the best memories of the Fourth of July always involve fireworks. I love them. A most unusual Fourth came when I was living in the Chicago area; the weather turned so cold that year on that day, we actually had to wear winter coats to go outside and watch them. (I decided then that it was no longer necessary to put away “seasonal” clothes.) Here in Dallas, Fred and I tried everything firework-ey over our 34 years together: We went to Fair Park — to Rangers games — to occupy chaises in friends’ excellently located driveways with our bodies stretched out and our heads lifted upward. But the best was always watching Shakespeare in the Park with fireworks lighting up in sky in the background. Now, I’m content to stay indoors, listening to the noise and seeing the flashes outside my front windows, courtesy of the kids whose parents still allow them to set off things that are at least potentially dangerous. When there were cats in our house, they always chose to hide under a bed after the first bang. (Truth told: Sometimes I feel like doing the same.)
But my most memorable Fourth was when I was still at home with my parents, still young enough to want to go places with them on holidays like this one. That year we went to a big park and sat in the bleachers for a fantastic aerial show, which was followed by an even more fantastic show of “ground works,” something I’d never even heard of before and have never seen since. Can you imagine a huge American flag spread out in front of you, just lighting up before your eyes? Does anyone do that any longer? Or are those displays so much more dangerous than the dangerous-enough “normal” fireworks that an end has been put to them? Whatever: That was one fabulous, truly unforgettable Fourth, for the flag lasted much longer than any of those ephemeral things that fly and die so quickly over our heads.
All patriotic holidays seem to have dimmed in recent years. I remember public flag-raisings that attracted crowds on Flag Day. I remember Armistice Day marking the end of World War I every year until the ’60s, when it became Veterans Day, recalling all wars. I remember when Memorial Day was Decoration Day, when people took flowers to cemeteries for the graves of their fallen war heroes.
I’m grateful that our Jewish War Veterans posts now put flags on the graves of our departed vets, but not many people remember to wear poppies any more — one of our dying legacies from that first World War. We may never fully recover from what Vietnam and the wars that followed did to our country’s vision of those who fought and died in them, but I hope we will forever honor our national birthday, and that there will always be celebratory flowers, flags and fireworks.

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Thank heaven for the polio vaccine

Posted on 27 June 2018 by admin

The heat of the season has come upon us and threatens to continue. I passed a church recently that made the shortest, smartest statement possible about the whole business on its outdoor message board: “Hell Is Hotter!”
But this kind of weather always takes me back to the ’50s, the worst time ever for polio, which peaked in 1952 with some 20,000 U.S. cases of paralysis. I remember that year especially because it’s when the boy next door became one of them — three years too early for Dr. Jonas Salk’s breakthrough vaccine.
I also remember 1955 because that’s when my father did something quite unusual. Doctors everywhere were receiving the new vaccine and being encouraged to give children the shots as quickly as possible. Salk’s preparation had to be refrigerated, but even so, it had an expiration date. So my dad — a physician whose practice was adults, not children — took a bold step. His office was on the second floor of a corner building, over a pharmacy, and there was a newspaper kiosk at the corner.
As the vaccine’s expiration date approached, Dad took a folding chair and small table down to the corner and, receiving permission from the pharmacy and the news vendor, parked himself there and buttonholed all people walking by with small children in tow. If they said, when he asked, that their kids had not yet been vaccinated, he said “Now’s the time,” and proceeded to give Salk’s miracle away. The AMA was not amused, because there was supposed to be a charge levied for those shots. But my father made his case: Better that children be vaccinated for nothing than have the polio paralysis antidote lose its effectiveness while he waited inside for young patients who never came.
Of course, things became much easier in 1961, when Dr. Albert Sabin’s liquid vaccine — easily drinkable from a tiny paper cup — was available. But by that time, the worst was long over…at least for most. However, a recent Dallas Morning News article told the story of a longtime survivor who’s been, since age 6, confined to an “iron lung” — the metallic tube that 60-plus years ago did the breathing for victims with paralyzed chest muscles. And, for this man, still does. Nobody makes iron lungs anymore; his is at the potentially dangerous “held together with spit and baling wire” stage. But he is remarkable for his drive, stamina and achievement: He received all his schooling and continues now as a practicing attorney, with his body encased in the machine that still draws breath for him. He is not just one in a million; he is the only one.
So I recommend to you Philip Roth’s book Nemesis, which of course is polio. He fictionalized a young Jewish man from New York as the central character around whom polio rages — with the fear of the disease raging even more violently than the disease itself. And of course, those with the most fear, those who are most cautious and take the most precautions, can become — to their immense surprise — its victims. For me, a lover of everything Roth, this book is my favorite because it’s an affectingly true picture of that time.
The boy next door survived without the iron lung, never showing any of polio’s aftereffects. Not then. But when I see him now, he’s a man saddled with the characteristic limp that returns in old age to those who have had polio, years after they thought they were completely healed. Because of him and my father, I work hard on behalf of Rotary International’s efforts to wipe out polio across the globe. And we’ve gotten tantalizingly close but have been stymied by two small African countries where parents refuse immunizations. This has been enough to keep the disease alive and active.
Read the Roth book while it’s hot outside and give thanks that we here in the U.S. today are the luckier beneficiaries of Salk and Sabin.

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