Dec 23, 2011

Freezer Lessons

My freezer made a very loud buzzing sound.  So loud that people commented on the noise.  It was audible at the other end of the house and when you were next to it, it was hard to talk on the phone or hear someone in the next room.  But .... I didn't call the repair man because I didn't know what was involved and what it might cost.  The sound didn't worry me (too much) because it seemed to me that something was vibrating.  When the compressor went on, the freezer buzzed.  When it went off, it was quiet.  I didn't think something was broken.  So it kept on buzzing.

Then the other day, someone came to the house and noticed the buzzing and asked why didn't I check it out.  After months of doing nothing, I finally turned the freezer around to take a look, and know what I found? A small cardboard tag on a metal fastener vibrated when the compressor turned on and it made a buzzing sound.  I couldn't believe it! I held the tag and the buzzing subsided.  I let go and it buzzed. 

I got a pair of scissors and cut off the tag and voila! When the compressor turns on, there is a normal sounding hum.  No more buzz.  What a relief.

I think my buzzing freezer is a metaphor for something; I'm not sure what.  I suspect there are two lessons to be derived from this episode, but what are they?

Number one: a huge noise was made by a little card.  The lesson is?

Number two: I allowed it to buzz for months when all it took was turning it around, taking a look, and snipping off the card.  The lesson is?

Dec 21, 2011

How Are We Different?

I saw a news item recently about a woman (apparently not Jewish) who needed a kidney who posted on Craig's List and got 800 responses.  She actually got a kidney from one of them.  That made me think about the items I've read recently about Jews giving kidneys to other Jews, to people they did not know.  It is a special thing to do but after reading about the 800 responses, it made me think about the phrase "Mi k'amcha Yisrael" - Who is like Your Nation Israel, which we use when a Jew does something special and we feel proud.  Kidney donations are not exclusive to Jews!

I was perusing an Italian cookbook in which the author describes her childhood memories of the elaborate preparations that went into making Sunday dinner which was eaten with the family after mass.  Jews are not the only ones who have a weekly, wonderful family meal! Nor are we the only ones to celebrate holidays.  There are non-Jews who take their holidays very seriously and make elaborate preparations and give them a lot of thought.  Shabbos and holiday meals are not exclusive to Jews!  And Americans, in particular, give a lot of charity, run many chesed organizations, do many acts of kindness, and are hospitable to strangers.

This got me thinking - when does the phrase "Mi k'amcha Yisrael" truly apply in a Jews-only sense? What do we do that is unlike any other group for which we can say, "Wow! Mi k'amcha Yisrael!"? Alternatively, maybe there are things that we do that other groups do too, but we do it in far greater numbers or in a special way.

Come on readers out there - share your thoughts!

Dec 16, 2011

How Rational Are We?


Sway is a quick and interesting read about why people, you and me, do irrational things.  For example, the authors show how we do things against our best interests in order to avoid a loss which leads to far greater losses.  Like a person whose stock value is dropping, who doesn't sell because he harbors the hope that it will go back up.

We draw conclusions about people or things and these conclusions color all subsequent information that we learn.  For example, if we perceive something to be cheap, we treat it as inferior regardless as to its actual worth.

The part that was most worrisome was about how we evaluate people for jobs and longterm relationships.  Seems we ask the wrong questions and even when we observe problems, we gloss over them if we have other reasons for favoring the person or thing that we are interested in.  We need to do a lot of praying when it comes to shidduchim if we cannot rely on ourselves to make logical decisions! The book shows how vulnerable we are, even as we think we are being rational.  It's a sobering look at ourselves.

Dec 14, 2011

Truth in Journalism

As a postscript to the previous post, I was dismayed to learn about the liberties taken with the truth by those who write for women's popular magazines.  Naive me actually believes when I'm told a story is true.  In Sybil Exposed it describes how certain journalists presented fiction as fact. 

The author of Sybil had doubts about the veracity of Sybil's abuse stories.  She actually went to the supposed scene of many crimes and discovered no evidence whatsoever for the abuse claims.  Worst of all, she read a letter Sybil had written to her psychiatrist, denying she had multiple personality disorder.  Her doctor, of course, said she was in denial. 

The author didn't know what to do with all this information.  Furthermore, the story as she knew it wasn't much of a story with a plot and dialogue. 

The ultimate solution? Fictionalizing the story and presenting it as the truth.  Subsequent to the book's becoming a major hit, the author and the pyschiatrist appeared on many shows talking about the book.  By that point, they had certainly convinced themselves that the book was true.

Leaves me wondering, what of what I read and think is true, is actually fiction? Some might say, it doesn't matter.  I've heard this before and been astonished as I've written in this post: click to read previous post

This world is described as Olam Ha'Sheker, a world of lies.  Nothing is as it appears to be.  Fiction can be masquerading as truth.

Sybil Exposed

I did not read Sybil but I am reading Sybil Exposed.  Sybil was a book published in 1973 that went on to become a bestseller and a movie.  It was presented as the true story of a woman treated for multiple personality disorder who had been so horribly abused by her mother that she became a psychiatric case.  The book described grotesque rated R scenes that had the public enthralled.  Not surprisingly, huge numbers of people were diagnosed as having a multiple personality disorder after the book became a hit (like anorexia became a "fad diagnosis" in Hong Kong after it was marketed there, see my post "Crazy Like Us"  click here to read post

The lives of three women are intertwined: the patient, her doctor, and the author of Sybil.  The author of Sybil Exposed shows how the patient's illness wasn't an illness, how her treatment was a sham, and how the fictional story Sybil came to be written and presented as the truth. 

As much as the book is an expose of the book Sybil, it is an expose of the quackery of the psychiatric profession.  As anybody who has read previous posts (labels: psychiatry and mental illness) on this blog have seen, I am not impressed by the pseudo-medical specialty of psychiatry.  The so-called treatments given by the doctor in this case as well as her colleagues back in the 50's till the present day, are a horror.  Forget about "first do no harm."  That is far from their guiding principle.  When will the public finally figure out that the emperor has no clothes? That the psychiatric/mental health profession in cahoots with the drug companies are making us into a nation of drugged, incompetent, invalids?

Dec 4, 2011

A Matter of Perspective

Yaakov is punished for hiding Deena from Eisav in parshas Vayishlach.  When you consider that Shimon and Levi were 13 when they killed the city of Shechem and Dina was younger than them; and when you figure out that Eisav was almost 100 years old, you realize that the Torah's idea of marriage and a husband and wife having a "relationship" is far different than ours. 

The most famous example of this is Rivka being 3 years old and Yitzchok 40 when they married.  Yaakov was 84 when he married Leah and Rochel.  The seemingly romantic scene when Yaakov kissed Rochel at the well occurred when Yaakov was 77. 

Our modern, Western sensibilities look askance at "child brides," and yet, Jewish girls in Yemen and Morocco were often married by 11-12.  The Chofetz Chaim married at 17.  It was commonplace for Eastern European Jews to marry in their mid-teens.

We seem to think we have some sort of monopoly on what is "proper" and what isn't, what is a perversion and what isn't.  Our views are colored by the culture we live in.  We would do well to remember that.

Nov 25, 2011


What a medical oops this was! A woman underwent IVF only to be told that the baby she was carrying was not her own, but someone else's embryo! She sustained the pregnancy because she believes in the sanctity of life.  This was a tremendously difficult challenge since the baby wasn't hers and she wasn't going to keep it (although she would have loved to).  The baby went to its genetic parents immediately after it was born.  The book is appropriately named, Inconceivable.

The couple who tells the story, alternating between the husband's voice and the wife's voice, are Catholic.  They wanted a large family and they are devoted to the church, giving it their time, energy and resources.  Interestingly, they defied the Church's position on IVF which is that IVF is morally unacceptable. 

Despite being religious people, they have ideas about G-d that are not what I would call "religious."  She says she does not believe "G-d only gives you what you can handle."  She does not believe G-d tests people.  She does not believe that G-d is in charge of His world, "that He sits up in heaven and decides who gets what tragedy or blessing."  She says, shockingly, "We are certain that G-d didn't do this to us.  We just know it happened."  And she doesn't believe in "gam zu l'tova," that something good will come of this. 

I don't know how widespread these beliefs are among Catholics or Christians in general.  I find it so surprising when these ideas are the bedrock of our emuna.  If she doesn't think G-d is running the world, what does she think G-d is about? That He created the world and retired? I don't want to get into Christian theology but I'd be interested in knowing whether this couple's belief system is shared by many church goers and what they think about reward and punishment. 

Nov 23, 2011

Can't Wait!

An analogy R' Frand gave many years ago made quite an impression on me, since I still remember it! His lecture was about Moshiach and he said that when Americans were held hostage in Lebanon, one of the wives said that every night she was so disappointed that her husband had not been released.  And every morning she anticipated her husband being released that day.  She was that sure it was going to happen.

The wording of the 12th Principle of Faith (Ani Maamin) is, "I believe with complete faith in the coming of Moshiach, and even though he may be delayed, nevertheless I anticipate every day that he will come."

In the 15th bracha of the Shmone Esrei, we say, "... for we hope for Your salvation all day long ..."

How many of us say the bedtime Shema, get into bed, and think - I can't believe it! Moshiach didn't come today! I'm sure he'll come tomorrow!

How many of us get up in the morning and think, "Today is the day! Moshiach is coming!

Let's walk (feel) the talk!

Boruch Hashem

There is lots of talk this week about gratitude, and many articles about feeling thankful and expressing it.  It has been noted that we are called Yehudim from the root meaning thanks, and that we are supposed to say 100 brachos a day.

I am reminded of my elderly great-aunts who have been through a lot in life.  It's good training when a child is asked what he feels grateful about.  However, when the elderly say, "boruch Hashem yom yom" (I bless/thank G-d every day), it is especially touching.  They've experienced sadness and loss and yet, they focus on Hashem's blessings.  May we do the same when we reach their age.

Nov 18, 2011

Positive Psychology - An Oxymoron?

Two days ago there was a news item which said: Medication to treat mental health disorders is soaring among U.S. adults.  20% of all adults said they took at least one medication to treat a mental disorder. Among women, 25% said they took such medication and 20% said they were using an antidepressant.

The number of children under 10 taking antipsychotic medication, which is reserved for the most severe mental illnesses, doubled from 2001 to 2010.

In short, we are either getting crazier and sadder or the psychiatric and pharmaceutical companies are doing a great job convincing us that we are. 

The crying shame is that the voice of psychologists like Dr. Martin Seligman, the father of “positive psychology” who was called “the Freud of the 21st century” by Newsweek, is drowned out by the doom peddlers.  Seligman shocked the world of psychology by focusing on what makes people mentally healthy instead of what makes them mentally ill.

Forbes had an article last week about the upcoming DSM V with an intro that said, "The new manual of mental disorders coins bizarre new psychological disorders, lowers the threshold for diagnosing old ones, and has some critics pulling their hair out."

We are a generation that wants to be victims, that wants to be able to blame our parents, our environment, our genes, our so-called chemical imbalance, anything but ourselves, for our problems.  If you as much as suggest that someone who has truly suffered at the hands of evil people can move past that and have a good life, you are vilified and accused of not understanding the depths of the person's trauma. 

In their sincerity to help molestation victims, they push those hapless individuals down and seek to keep them down.  I suspect it's because they believe that if the person goes on to lead a happy life, it demonstrates that what happened to them was not that egregious.  That's like saying that a Holocaust victim who was stripped of his dignity, who was robbed and beaten, who was a hairsbreadth away from death thousands of times and who lost his parents, spouse, children, extended family and community, could not go on to marry and live a good life.  But thousands did! And they are heroes of the spirit, particularly if they retained their faith and raised religious, upstanding children. 

"Positive Psychology" may seem like an oxymoron but it doesn't have to be.

Nov 10, 2011

An Extra Kidney?

The frum media has had many heartwarming stories lately, about people donating kidneys to those in need, strangers to the donor.  Poskim have ruled that it is permissible to do this.

What I wonder about is the comment, often made by those promoting kidney donations, that perhaps this is the reason why Hashem gave us an "extra" kidney, so we could donate it.  This is predicated on the view that we don't need two kidneys and that we can function perfectly well with one.

This pronouncement does not sit well with me.  Is this really the case, that for millenia, billions of people were given two kidneys by Hashem, so that in our generation, a few people can donate a kidney? It is reminiscent of the medical wisdom of yesteryear in which tonsils and the appendix were considered superfluous and were frequently surgically removed without a compelling reason to do so. 

I'm sure it's true that as of now, with the medical knowledge we have today, it looks as though a person can manage just fine with one kidney, and since a person in dire need of a kidney is in a state of pikuach nefesh, poskim have ruled that a person can donate a kidney.  However, to say that Hashem created us with an extra, unnecessary organ? I'm not convinced.

Oct 31, 2011

What would YOU do?

I was walking down the street this morning when I saw a 3 year old standing by himself.  He was on the corner of an avenue in front of an apartment house.  No adults in sight.  I figured he was waiting for his bus and hoped his mother was watching from the window (though she would be powerless from her window if someone decided to abduct her child). 

I asked him, "Where is your mommy?"


"Is she watching you from the window?"


"Are you waiting for your bus?"


Hmmm.  Should I just walk on? I couldn't leave him standing there by himself, so I waited.  A school bus came along and a mother put her child on the bus.  I wondered whether this was also the bus for the child standing alone.  A man came along who seemed to know the boy and put him on the bus.

I said, "WHERE IS HIS MOTHER? Haven't we learned anything from this summer? How could she leave him standing here alone?"

He said, "You're right ..."

End of story.

My strategy for the next time I pass that corner at that time is: 1) if the child is with his mother, I ask her where she was on Monday  2) if he is alone again, I call the Jewish auxiliary police patrol.

Even without the tragedy of this past summer, it is not acceptable to send a three year old to stand by himself in front of his house and certainly when it's not in front of his house! Parents beware!

Oct 29, 2011

Is It True?

"Fiction can often be the best vehicle for helping us see our behavior objectively and pinpoint our mistakes, especially when it's written with true-to-life characters that are easy to identify with."

This is why mashalim (parables, fables) have long been used by Torah sages.  The most famous are in the book of Mishlei by Shlomo Ha'Melech and many years later, the parables of the Dubna Maggid and the Chofetz Chaim. 

However, when contemporary Jewish authors think that their novels and short stories, works of fiction, will change the world, I think they're deluding themselves as to the importance of their work.  Frum novels, by and large, are for the purpose of kosher entertainment.

I was surprised when, in a discussion about fiction and non-fiction in frum publications, the person I was talking to did not particularly care whether the writing was true or not.  I maintain that just as I have no reason to empathize with make-believe characters, I have no reason to be inspired by characters that are the figment of an author's imagination.  When a real person does something heroic, that can be moving and inspiring.  Why would I want to read about fictional people in the Holocaust, for example? What impact can imaginary characters who do extraordinary acts of chesed or kiddush Hashem have on me? None. 

The parables used by maggidim were tools meant to highlight our foibles in a way that slips under our defensive radar.  The parable Nosson the Navi told Dovid Ha'Melech enabled Dovid to see his error when a direct confrontation would not have worked.  It's important to differentiate between the parable as a tool for improving middos as opposed to a work of fiction that is not primarily a teaching tool.

Oct 27, 2011

More Than Happy

I've been noticing superlatives lately.  Things like, "The bus is more than dependable."  Hmmm.  And if you merely said that it's dependable, why wouldn't that be enough to convey its reliability?

She said she's more than exhausted.  Is being exhausted not expressing her tired she feels?

"I'd be more than willing to help."  How much more than willing is that?

He said he's 1000% sure.  And if he said 100% would that somehow convey that he's a bit uncertain?

Why have words become meaningless so that we have to pump them up to express what we mean?

Oct 16, 2011

The Release of Our Murderers

I hope Israel has the sense to make Gilad’s return very low-key. Thousands in the street? I sure hope not. As happy as we will be at Gilad’s return, the release of the man who took part in the murder of Nachshon Wachsman and two of the people who took part in the Sbarro’s massacre is – I don’t have words strong enough to express this – reprehensible, immoral, sickening. These despicable individuals should have been executed long ago. Why does Israel hold on to them, feed them and care for them, if not for the purpose of giving them up when it caves in to terrorist demands?

Meir Schijvesschuuder, who lost his parents and three siblings in the Sbarro attack said said all five remaining members of the family would leave the country forever after the deal was completed.

“We feel betrayed and we are going back to Holland,” he said.

Thousands in the streets celebrating? No! Israel should be hiding its head in shame for not having forced Gilad’s return over 5 years ago. Kill a terrorist (or more) a day until his safe return; cut off all food, medicine, supplies of any kind to Gaza until his return; bomb Gaza nonstop until his return. The world will scream? They scream regardless, and since when does the world screaming take precedence over retrieving our soldier? Shame on Israel!

Oct 10, 2011

Beware the Yetzer Hara's Approval

Powerful thought heard at a shiur:

The Gemara says that the way the yetzer hara works is today it tells you kach (such), and tomorrow it says kach, and then finally it tells you to serve idols. It's not that the yetzer hara starts off by telling you to sin, because you wouldn't listen to that.  The problem begins when you do a mitzva and the yetzer hara approves.

There are things that are “off limits” that you don't even consider doing.  Aveiros should be in this category, not in the category of I could do it, or not do it, because I have bechira (free choice), but I won't.  Likewise, mitzvos should be in the category of “must do,” not “it would be a good idea to do.” It should be non-negotiable, not open to discussion.

The yetzer hara, by giving approval to a mitzva as a good thing to do, not as something that must be done, makes inroads and opens the possibility of not doing it.  The yetzer hara makes it about you and your decision, as opposed to being about Hashem and your obligation. 

Oct 6, 2011

Spiritual Spontaneity

I listened to an intriguing shiur by Rabbi Doniel Katz (a teacher at Neve) on the subject of zerizus - alacrity.  He said he had thought the chapter on zerizus in Mesillas Yesharim is for lazy people and he is the kind of person who is active.  However, zrizus is not so much about physical laziness (though Ramchal says it's one of the things that impede zrizus) as it is about not wanting to cause discomfort to oneself. Here are some points that he made:

We are drawn to pleasure and flee from pain, with pain including such things as getting out of a warm bed.  Pain is any subtle discomfort. Zrizus is about eliminating the obstacles in your way from A to B in avodas Hashem. The kveidus, heaviness, is coming from the nefesh ha'behamis, the animal soul within us, i.e. everything that gets in the way of my manifesting my spiritual potential.

Laziness is when we gravitate to the slightest pleasure and are repulsed by any discomfort.

Zrizus is to be morally/spiritually spontaneous, to be so identified with your soul that you take immediate action when it comes to mitzva opportunities.

Create a gap between the initial stimulus and the response.  For example, wait before you eat, before you check your email, before you speak.  Delay the gratification.

In an interesting paradoz, to foster zrizus, you need to delay physical responses. 

A Chassidic vort says everything spiritual should be done b'retzifus (continually) and everything physical should be disrupted. When you sit down to learn, commit to concentrate and not interrupt. When you sit down to eat, occasionally put down your fork and think about a dvar Torah.

We are not living in a time in which tolerating discomfort is seen as a value anymore.  Hence, the greater challenge.

Sep 27, 2011

Anthropomorphising Weather Reports

As heard on the radio:

Tomorrow, it's going to try and brighten up.

It's supposed to be ___ (sunny, rainy).

As the skies try to clear ...

We'll start to nudge the clouds out .

We'll try to get a little above freezing.

Temperatures are struggling to reach the freezing mark.

Some rain tomorrow unfortunately.

We may get rid of the warm weather.

Jack Frost is still in a fierce mood.

We'll have to watch that off the coast.  It shouldn't be there.

Meteorologists anthropomorphise (attribute human characteristics) to the sky and the temperature; They sound like they are in control when they are anything but; they introduce negativity into our lives with their negative commentary (rain unfortunately). 

You would think that a weather report should be harmless and not an attack on our Torah values, but no ...

Sep 26, 2011

I Was Touched

The person took my hand in their two hands and the blessings poured forth.  I was overwhelmed.  What an intense experience.  What heartfelt brachos.  More and more. 

What a beautiful thing it is to bless people, with all our heart.  Let's do it now, before Rosh Hashana.  Anytime. 

Kesiva v'chasima tova, shana tova u'mesuka, to all.

Sep 15, 2011

Musing about Bike Helmets

I read an article in which the young author wrote how her father was saved from far worse injury, when he was on his bike and hit by a car, because he was wearing a helmet.

The next day, I saw a very little kid riding his bike in front of his house as he waited for his school bus.  He was wearing a helmet.

I may be wrong on this; I haven't arrived at my final conclusion, but I think the helmet "thing" has gotten out of hand.  I'm not the first to write about numerous restrictions and safety measures that are forced upon us today when we did just fine without them years ago.  One minute, you might say.  What about head injuries? How can I recklessly say we don't need helmets?

Well, I think that we can differentiate between someone riding a bike in traffic and a kid riding his bike on the sidewalk or on a bike path with no cars around.  I haven't studied the risks, but it makes sense to me that when we were kids growing up and riding our bikes up and down the sidewalk without wearing a helmet, that was a very low risk activity.  As opposed to being a courier riding a bike in Manhattan!

Maybe what's needed to settle this to my satisfaction is a study done to show just how many people are seriously injured because they were not wearing a helmet when they rode a bike in an area that is away from cars.  I don't remember hearing of any bike related head injury accidents in my growing up years.  I'd like the number of bike-head injuries compared to how many people get serious injuries when they are in car accidents.  Maybe we should wear helmets when we enter a car.  Is it really less risky than riding a bike on the sidewalk? My guess would be that being in a car is more of a risk for serious head injury.  But maybe I'm wrong on that.

For that matter, people trip and fall and injure themselves walking down the street.  Should we wear helmets when we go outdoors? I'd like to see a risk factor comparison with various activities.

Taking this from another angle, do we think that we can take the proper safety measures that will ensure that we will be healthy and that G-d can't or won't intervene? I tend to think that if Hashem has His reasons for afflicting someone with a head injury, it will happen regardless as to whether he wears a helmet when he bikes or not. 

So I remain undecided.  I think that yes, we need to take precautions in life and that's a mitzva, but I don't know which are considered normal precautions and which are annoyances that are not justified by the low risk of injury.  And to preempt anyone who thinks - just one person seriously injured is reason enough for all to wear a helmet - with that reasoning we should all wear helmets and elbow and knee pads all the time and nobody (yet) is saying we should.

Now don't get me started on the laws about car seats for kids!

Sep 10, 2011

Is There A Connection?

The other day, someone told me about how a school applies after-school vouchers towards the during-the-day program.  It got me thinking.  There have been so many articles and lectures and gatherings about chinuch over the past two decades, so many angles explored, so many problems addressed.  And yet, I haven't heard anyone raise the possibility that children's chinuch is compromised when the schools they attend misappropriate funds or do other financial shenanigans. 

Is it because nobody considered this as a possibility? Is it because it's silly and one thing (cheating) has nothing to do with the other (chinuch)? Or is it too sensitive a topic and nobody dares to address it?

Sep 8, 2011

Idealism versus Filial Obligation


Within the past few weeks I have read two articles about Israeli soldiers that I have found disturbing.  I know that my view is derided by some people, but I stand by it. 

Here goes.

One article, in part, was about a mother who prayed for a child for ten years and finally gave birth to a son.  The IDF exempts "only children" from service but this young man insisted on fighting anyway.  On four separate military missions he was the lone survivor of his unit.

In another article, I read of a 19 year old, his mother's only son (though not her only child), who enlisted in the IDF.  He told his family that if the soldiers were drafted into war, he would waive his rights as an only son to fight on the front lines.

The choices we make in life are based on a combination of factors.  For example, if I host people for Shabbos my motivations can be a mix of 1) wanting to do a mitzva 2) wanting to ensure that people have a proper Shabbos meal 3) wanting to have a lively, interesting Shabbos table  4) wanting to see myself as a good person who hosts people.  Our motives are hardly, if ever, pure; that's being human, although we should strive to do everything l'sheim shomayim, for the sake of heaven and not in order to be rewarded in any way.

Both articles portray these young men as heroes, as selfless individuals, who fight for their country, for their brethren.  What perturbs me is that their decision to fight when the IDF considers them worthy of exemption is at the expense of their mother's feelings.  The IDF doesn't need them; the IDF is not desperate for soldiers; the IDF exempts them because of their special status, but they choose to fight anyway.  Did they consider their mothers' feelings when making this decision? The articles don't say anything about that.  Was a rabbi consulted to weigh their desire to defend their country versus their singular status and their Kibud Eim responsibilities?

As laudable as defending our Jewish brethren is, as commendable as love for Israel is, as expressed in idealistically volunteering to serve the IDF, there are other ways to serve one's country and one's people, ways that don't make a mother cry.

Sep 7, 2011

What Makes Us Human

In the 1950's and 1960's, linguist Dr. Noam Chomsky said that language is just too complicated for children to learn as fast as they do just by listening to and seeing others talk.  He concluded that infants are born with a sense, a "deep structure," an aptitude for syntax and grammar.

In more recent decades, however, researchers have analyzed every step of language and have discovered what the steps of language acquisition are, thus making it far less mysterious.

I read this and thought, they don't get it! Hashem created the world with four strata: domen, tzomeiach, chai, medaber - the inanimate (water, minerals), plant life, animal life, human beings.  The level of human beings is refered to as "medaber" - one who speaks, as intelligent thought expressed in speech is what sets humans apart from animals.  So Chomsky got it right.  There is a "deep structure" that is built into humans which enables us to master speech.  The fact that researchers can break down the steps of language acquisition doesn't alter the fact that humans are medabrim by definition!

I wondered how I could convey this point clearly and came up with this analogy.  The scientific approach would have us think that because there are chemical changes that occur when a person loves (seretonin, oxytocin, dopamine etc.), which can be measured, that love is merely a biochemical chain of events, not a state of mind and heart.  And yet, this science cannot explain situations such as the love of a couple like the Scharanskys who were apart for years and the love of parents for children who are grown.  As someone wisely put it:
"Love is a feeling, certainly, and chemicals may contribute to that feeling, but like all emotions, that aspect of love comes and goes. Love that becomes a constant is a state-of-mind and heart. It survives because we nurture it, and plant the seeds of the relationship in our soul.

Choosing to love someone is what keeps us in love, even though we know that at various times we may become angry, sad and frustrated towards our loved one. Choosing to love is remembering the good times in the middle of the bad times.

Chemicals cannot make our choices. We choose to open our hearts or not everyday, and this freedom of choice is what makes us human, and fully capable of rising above chemical reactions in order to make spiritual decisions of the heart."

That we are now able to see which part of the brain "fires" when different emotions are felt, doesn't reduce these emotions to nothing but chemical reactions.  The chemical reactions are just that, reactions to and visible manifestations of, human emotions. 

If someone would venture to articulate this more clearly for us, I'd welcome that! 

Sep 4, 2011

One Day to LIve

Long ago, a famous teacher was asked what she would do if she knew she had one day to live.  She said she would cook a big pot of vegetable soup for her family.  Her point being, she would nurture her family which is her primary role.

A famous rav and teacher was asked what he would do if he knew he had one day to live.  He said he would do whatever he was up to in his daily schedule.  In other words, he would do nothing different.  He was a disciplined person with every hour of his day accounted for, and if in his schedule it was time to give a shiur, he would teach; if it was time to eat lunch, he would eat lunch.

A wonderful young bachur became a chassan and on the day of his wedding he was in the beis medrash, learning as he usually did. 

Each of these people sounds special and yet each story bothers me.  I will try to articulate why.  I think it's because it seems to me that under extraordinay circumstances, you do the extraordinary, not the ordinary, as special and important as the ordinary is.

What do you think?

Sep 3, 2011

The Prime Ministers - Recommended Reading!

I thoroughly enjoyed  this book.  All 715 pages of it.  Very readable, fascinating personal anecdotes by the frum Avner who was an aide to four Israeli prime ministers.  Personal stories about the prime ministers, riveting descriptions of meetings with US presidents and highlights of Israeli history.

Here is an interview with Avner in OU's Jewish Action magazine:  Up Close with Yehuda Avner

Sep 2, 2011


I just heard another sad story of a patient who celebrated his supposed cure of cancer with a seudas hodaya, only to have the cancer come back two weeks later.  I don't know whether the people celebrating heard what they wanted to hear from the doctors or whether the doctors misled them, but I get majorly annoyed about celebrations made within days, weeks or months of aggressive treatment.

My peeve is not with those who make a seudas hodaya in advance, when the person is still sick, as an act of faith that the person will recover.  If they can truly muster that bitachon and not just go through the motions, that's marvelous. 

There is what is called cancer cure and cancer remission.  Doctors almost never use the term cure; rather, they usually talk about remission.  Complete remission means that there are no symptoms and no signs that can be identified to indicate the presence of cancer. However, even when there are no signs of cancer, there may be microscopic collections of cancer cells that cannot be identified.  In this story I just heard, the patient joyously said, "I am healthy!" How devastating for him to hear a mere two weeks later, that he was sicker than ever.

As I read in a doctor's article, "So can we ever really talk about a cancer cure? In general, the answer is no. Practically speaking, however, the odds of a recurrence may be so low that the person is essentially cured. To put it another way, depending on your age, the doctor may tell you that the odds of your dying of cancer are lower than are your odds of dying of something else." 

So it sounds like the time to make a seudas hodaya is when enough time has elapsed, that the doctor says the odds of a recurrence is so low that it is accurate to say the person is cured, or that he has as much a chance of having cancer again as someone who never had it. 

May all the cholei Yisrael be cured and this particular ugly illness be eliminated. 

Aug 31, 2011

A Study in Contrasts

I cannot vouch for either of these two stories, but the message they convey is powerful.

Story #1

Salach Taomri was a heroic figure for the Palestinian world. He received his recognition before the Lebanon War–1982 when he managed several big terrorist attacks against the Israeli army.  There isn't one single Palestinian child that hasn't heard about Salach Taomri. By the time he turned twenty-four, his picture was hanging on the wall in almost every Palestinian household.

At the time that this story takes place Salach had already given up hope. He thinks, despairingly, that the Palestinians will never rule over the Israelis, never get even and never get their own Palestine. The only hope that he had left was that, if he fights, the Palestinians might get a tiny portion of land of Israel.  He was convicted for his terrorist attacks and became a prisoner in an Israeli jail where he stayed for many years. 

Salach Taomri says, " I was in solitary confinement, absolutely closed off and disconnected from the rest of the world. Only through the bars that divided me from the long hallway was I able to look out. In this hallway, for twenty-four hours a day walked an Israeli guard with his arms full of guns and ammunition. I called him to me, because I had noticed that he was eating a pita sandwich, with great gusto and relish."

"Are you Jewish?" I asked him. He shook his head yes, his mouth full with the pita. " If so, why are you eating Chametz on Pesach? Don't you know that Jews are forbidden to eat Chametz on this holiday?" The guard was astonished and shocked to hear these words coming from a top terrorist. There was a moment of silence and then he replied." I am not obligated to the wonders that happened to my people more than two thousand years ago. I am secular, I have nothing to do with that."

Salach Taomri continued "...I sat on my dirty mattress, absolutely in shock. I said to myself, " A nation that has no connection to their history and past, and is capable of publicly desecrating its own credibility and beliefs, is a nation that has cut their roots from the land. Therefore, we, the Palestinians can achieve our goals."

The next day, the guards allowed me to go to the regular prison room. I gathered together all the leaders of the Palestinian prisoners that were there. I told the story of what had happened to all those who knew my opinion that we had no chance to win the war against the Israeli's. I told them about the shocking event that I went through and my conclusions.

"We are changing our approach," I told everybody. "From this very day on, we are going down a new path, a new war. We want everything. We shall demand everything. Not just a little percentage of Israel, not just the little bones that they throw down to us when they feel like it. We want all of the Holy Land, because standing against us is a nation that is not connected to its past. We will fight against the Jews in Israel for amongst them there is no concern for their history. We are fighting against the Jews in Israel, because they don't care about their roots anymore. Since the Jewish people don't care about their religious laws and traditions, they will have no strong motivation to fight and to go to battle. Therefore, we are going to win."

Story #2

The story is told of Napoleon walking through the streets of Paris. As he passed by a shul, he heard the sound of people weeping inside. He turned to his assistant and asked, "What's going on in there?"

"Today is Tisha B'Av," came the reply, "and the Jews are mourning the loss of their Temple."

Napoleon looked toward the shul and said, "If the Jews are still crying after so many hundreds of years, then I am certain the Temple will one day be rebuilt!"

Aug 30, 2011

Author's Candid Observation

"I used to think that by writing about my various struggles and sharing them with others, I would end them, exorcise them forever.  But I was wrong."

How refreshing! Someone in a frum publication who has not only discovered, but let us know, that talking or writing about something is not synonymous with eliminating the problem! We have been subject to numerous exposes on a wide range of ills, epidemics, and crises and have been patting ourselves on the back for our willingness to face our problems.  Many people have "come clean," sharing very personal life stories with or even without pseudonyms.  We have been told that this is the first step in dealing with our society's problems. 

However, there is never any follow-up research done to inform us whether the ills, epidemics and crises have receded, been mitigated, or done away with as a result of airing our problems in public.  What were the statistics before the exposure and what are they now.  Nobody knows. 

If this author's experience is any indication, I'm afraid that the results of our "tell all" approach are disappointing.

Aug 29, 2011

Who By Water; Who By Fire

We bentched Rosh Chodesh Elul the day before Hurricane Irene struck.  Boruch Hashem it was much more mild than anticipated.  However, two tragedies in the frum world were reminiscent of the tefillos we will soon be saying on the Yomim Noraim.

A man was electrocuted by fallen live wires as he was helping a child, and a woman drowned when the motel she was staying in was flooded.  In וּנְתַנֶּה תּקֶף we say מִי יִחְיֶה וּמִי יָמוּת (who will live and who will die) and specifically, מִי בַמַּיִם. וּמִי בָאֵשׁ (who by water and who by fire). 

May the new year bring only simchas to Klal Yisrael.

Aug 24, 2011

Missed Opportunity

I was sitting out on the porch, enjoying the gorgeous weather, when I began to feel vibrations.  Since my washing machine was not in use, it wasn't the spin cycle that was causing my chair to shake.  What was going on?

Upon entering the house and seeing everything shaking, the bookcases, light fixture, the entire room, I knew this was an earthquake, a rare occurrence in my part of the world.  The last earthquake I remember was about 25 years ago.  I was in bed and felt some gentle shaking.  But this time, I was up and about and the house was being shaken! It was mild and nothing was falling, and so it was mostly an exciting experience.  I looked outside and people were walking down the street as though nothing was going on, so perhaps they didn't feel anything.  Someone told me that she was on the third floor of her house and felt it, while those downstairs did not feel anything.

Later that night I was dismayed when I realized I had missed a bracha opportunity! There is a bracha to be said  over an earthquake.

There are those who view earthquakes purely as natural events which doesn't mean anything unless you acknowledge Who is behind all of nature.  Some see it in negative terms, as Hashem expressing His anger.  I like hearing that the Gemara says earthquakes are Hashem's way of showing His compassion and love for us, though I don't know how that fits with the earthquake of 1837 in which Tzfas was completely destroyed, 4000 Jews were killed, and somewhere between 700 and 1000 Jews were killed in Teveria.

There was an upbeat American spiritual with the words, "He's got the whole world in His hands" which I was reminded of.  Hashem holding the universe and giving it a little shake to remind us He's there.

Aug 12, 2011

Choosing to Disconnect

Rabbi Wallerstein of Ohr Naava in Flatbush is calling for the Jewish world to disconnect from the computer, Blackberry and iPad for a single day to focus on family and Torah.  The designated day is in October, Tzom Gedalia.  The goal is for thousands of people to voluntarily unplug their gadgets for some time – an hour, two or even all day. During this time, those who choose to disconnect from technology will reconnect with spouses, children, family, self or G-d.

Many people have commented that this is what Shabbos accomplishes, but I think this initiative serves another purpose.  As shomer Shabbos individuals, using technology is not an option.  I think what R' Wallerstein is seeking to accomplish is to get people to set aside their preoccupation with their gadgets even when it halachically permissible to use them.  He sees the great detriment of people not connecting with people in a personal, face-to-face way, throughout the week.  He described standing behind someone at the checkout counter who was yapping away on her phone while the clerk rang up her purchases.  Upon moving away from the counter and examining her receipt, she had questions which prompted her to go back and question the cashier.  Because she hadn't been paying attention when she was being checked out, she caused the people behind her on the line to be delayed and prompted a nasty remark from the cashier.  This is an example of what R' Wallerstein is talking about.  Unplugging.  Shutting the cell phone.  Greeting people.  Paying attention to people. 

Although there have been people who spent hours on the phone, at least, up until recently, they were confined to their homes and the only people who suffered were their immediate family.  Now, with mobile phones, the interruptions and rudeness are everywhere.  I've been to a shiur when various phones have rung and been answered several times over the course of an hour.  That's inconsiderate to the speaker and other participants.  Checking messages and ringing phones in shul, at the Kosel, at weddings and funerals are further invasions.

R' Wallerstein's point is "connection."  I think an equally important goal is discipline.  To ensure that our technology serves us and is not our master.

Aug 10, 2011

Life Isn't Fair, or Is It?

A popular book with insights as to how to keep little things from getting to us has a chapter called, "Surrender to the Fact that Life Isn't Fair."  It says that one of the mistakes we make is that we think life should be fair, or that some day it will be.  It's not and it won't, says the author.

It reminds me of the high school teacher who told us the same thing, "Life isn't fair."

Well, that a non-Jewish author claims this to be so is one thing, but that a frum Jew should say this?! If it was put, "Life doesn't seem fair, but Hashem is in charge, and He is perfectly fair," that would be altogether different.  But that is not what was said.

It says in parshas Haazinu, "Ha'tzur tamim pa'alo... tzaddik v'yashar hu" - Hashem's actions are perfect... He is righteous and straight. 

All of Shaar Ha'Bitachon in the Chovos Ha'Levavos is predicated on Hashem being all loving and doing what is best for us.  We believe that "gam zu l'tova" - this too, is for the good.

There are so many things in life that seem unfair to us.  As it was written in Pirkei Avos millenia ago, "R. Yanai says "Ein b'yadeinu lo mi'shalvas ha'resha'im v'lo mi'yisurei ha'tzaddikim", by which he means that - we cannot understand why on the one hand there are wicked people who live tranquil lives, while there are righteous people who suffer.  This is nothing new.  The reason we think life should be fair is because we have an innate sense that G-d is in charge and that He is good.  Ultimately, we will see how everything is as it should be.

There is a Medrash (Seder Ha'Doros) that tells how Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi asked Eliyahu Ha'Navi if he could accompany him.  Eliyahu refused, saying R' Yehoshua would not understand what he saw.  R' Yehoshua pleaded until Eliyahu agreed, on condition that as soon as R' Yehoshua began questioning him, they would part company.  R' Yehoshua saw some puzzling things but kept quiet until he couldn't restrain himself any more, at which time Eliyahu explained what he saw. 

There are answers, but we are not privy to them.  There is a famous story that is told (with various names) about someone who explained that the reason he enjoyed longevity is because he never questioned G-d.  He said, others ask, "why me?" and so on, and Hashem takes them from this world so their questions are answered. 

Life is fair.  May we merit to see how this is so with the coming of Moshiach.

Aug 1, 2011

The Pilot Light is Always On

It's the 9 Days and there are many things we do or not do to mourn the Mikdash.  How do we balance this with the injunction to serve Hashem with simcha? Should simcha be put on hold at this time of the year?

I heard a nice mashal to answer this.  If you remember the old gas stoves, you know that they had a pilot light inside that was always on, even if you hadn't turned on any of the fires to do some cooking.  So too, our simcha always has to be there, in the background, even as we are in this more somber time.  Perhaps a good modern version of this mashal would be putting your computer into a sleep state or hibernation when it's not completely off, or those programs that run in the background while you're working on something else.

So like the smiley face in the oven picture above, keep smiling!

Jul 31, 2011

Age is a State of Mind

I just received a special phone call. 

S is 87 today, 29 Tammuz, and she called to tell me it's her birthday and to bless me.  I take blessings from whoever wants to give them so her brachos were appreciated.

I told her that she's a role model for women decades younger than her.  S moves like a dancer.  She's light on her feet and graceful.  She drives, usually to shiurim.  She attends shiurim and gives shiurim.  She calls into radio shows and tries to make shidduchim.  She eats sparingly and follows an alternative health regimen.  She said she doesn't generally think about her age; when the thought occurs to her, she's startled.  Who me? 87?

We pray that Hashem grant S and all of us good health so that even as we age, we are as young as we feel and we should feel vibrant and eager to do more and more.  No retiring. 

Jul 28, 2011

Reverence for Parents - A Lost Midda?

As heard from the speaker:

She attended Gateshead Seminary and the school was going on a boating outing on Lag B'Omer.  She knew that her parents were opposed to her going on boats, even if it was a school activity and even if it was Lag B'Omer, so despite the importuning of her friends ("Your parents didn't mean this trip ...") and her great desire to join everyone else, she remained behind. 

She sat in the seminary and read until, to her enormous surprise and delight, there was a knock and there were her father and uncle! They had something to take care of in the vicinity and decided to drop in, unannounced, and see her.  Of course, had she gone on the trip, she would have missed seeing them and she felt oh so good, having followed what she knew her parents wanted her to do.

As heard from another speaker:

She grew up in a little town in Europe and there was a childless woman who would frequently give her rides on her bike.  One day, the woman came by to give her a ride, but her mother inexplicably refused to allow her to go.  Shockingly, the woman on the bike was in an accident and was killed.  Her mother had been guided by Heaven to protect her from going with the woman.

What I "took" from these stories, particularly the first one which involved a young lady, not a child, is how powerful family loyalty is, how priceless it is when children are proud and committed to doing as their parents say.  When a child of any age can say with pride that they do or don't do something, "Because that is what my parents do," the parents have done something right in the raising of this child.  The woman of the first story reveres her parents.  How many frum children today revere their parents? They may like their parents and think they're "cool," but reverence? Not doing what you know they wouldn't want you to do even if they are not around to see? Sounds like a firm foundation for yiras shomayim which entails not doing what Hashem doesn't want you to do, even if it doesn't look like He is around to see.

Jul 26, 2011

Seeking Inspiration

I've read a number of Artscroll biographies, which I've enjoyed. Maybe I've chosen to read about interesting personalities. I don't agree with the complaint that the subjects are boring and interchangeable. Anyone who has read the books about R' Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, R' S.R. Hirsch, and R' Pam would have to agree that each one stands out as an individual and their biographies do not consist of: he was a child prodigy, he learned a lot, he learned some more and had students whom he taught.

In an interview, Rabbi Nosson Scherman, Artscroll's general editor, said, "Our goal is to increase Torah learning and yiras shamayim. If somebody can be inspired by a gadol b’Yisrael, then let him be inspired. Is it necessary to say that he had shortcomings? Does that help you become a better person? What about lashon hara? You know in today’s world, lashon hara is a mitzvah. Character assassination sells papers. That’s not what Klal Yisrael is all about."

Is it that I'm not remembering or are the critics exaggerating when they say - the subject was a child prodigy who held from every conceivable chumrah (stringency) and who never said a word of lashon harah.  One reads nothing about the obstacles within their families or society that they had to overcome to become the great people they became.

The reason I've been thinking about this is because I heard a lecture about the Cairo geniza in which they found writing by the Rambam.  The lecturer was very pleased to see that the Rambam doodled.  The geniza expert explained that Rambam's pen was running out of ink, he filled it, and made the squiggle before he continued writing.  The lecturer loves this as he sees it as making the Rambam human, a person like us.  He asks, does it do anyone a favor to read of a great Torah leader and how he mastered this and that at very young ages?

I don't understand his question.  Favor? If the man was a prodigy, should we hide that information? The fact is, the overwhelming majority of our great Torah leaders were brilliant and mastered unbelievable amounts of Torah before they were 20.  I like knowing that the Torah leaders who have shaped Jewish life were great intellectuals.  I also like to know that they were kind, but I see nothing wrong, on the contrary, I want to hear that our Torah greats were extraordinary men! The fact that the average child or person can't measure up to them in brilliance is just fine.  It's good to know our place.  That shouldn't deter the person looking for inspiration because it's there, if you want it.  I am reading the revised biography of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein.  Yes, he was brilliant but the average person can be inspired to be a masmid like him and as kind as him.  We can use these biographies as an excuse or an inspiration; the choice is ours.

Jul 25, 2011

Is Our Picking and Choosing Valid?

I am going to differentiate between the murders of the Fogel family and other terrorist attacks such as in the Chabad house in Bombay, and the murder of Leiby Kletzky which was done, sad to say, by a Jew. My question is, why aren't we even more shaken up by the legalized daily murder of Jews by Jews via abortion in Israel? According to the information I looked up, over 50,000 abortions are done yearly in Israel! In addition, there are, tragically, numerous Jews in jail in Israel for murder.

I understand that what shook people up with Leiby Kletzky is the fact that a child was supposed to meet his mother and instead, he trusted a Jewish man who took his life. This is indeed terrifying, but it seems to me that we, the frum community worldwide, pick and choose what constitutes a tragedy and what should be made a "big deal" of. Where is the outrage about the daily legalized murder of Jews in Eretz Yisrael? Where are the divrei chizuk and kinusim? Why are there numerous articles offering perspective and lessons to be learned about the Kletzky murder while other murders don't even register on our collective consciousness? Do some Jews count more than others? Do frum Jews care more if it's one of their own that is killed and is that right?

Jul 22, 2011


I was pleasantly surprised to read in a May issue of Hamodia's magazine a little note appended to an article.  The article referred to ADD and this acryonym is followed by an asterisk and a note which says:

Attention deficit disorder or ADD/ADHD, is a psychological term currently applied to anyone who meets the DSM-IV-TR diagnostic criteria for impulsivity, hyperactivity and /or inattention.  The diagnostic criteria are subjective and include behavior that might be caused by a wide variety or factors, ranging from brain defects to allergies to giftedness.  ADD as currently defined is a highly subjective description, not a specific disease (

How refreshing! And how daring to include this when it was likely to result in letters screaming about the author's insensitivity.

For those who want to believe that normal children's inattention and behavior are medical disorders which often require medication, this definition is quite an affront.  After all, it says:

1) it's a "term" - not a medical diagnosis
2) "currently" - implying that we don't know for sure and the next DSM might not include it
3) "subjective" - as opposed to a real medical problem which can objectively be observed
4) it is a behavior that can have numerous reasons to explain it
5) it's not a disease

Jul 21, 2011

What Makes for Effective Teaching?

The psychologist, Dr. David Pelcovitz, often tells audiences of the following experiment. A school showed a video to young children about "stranger danger". The message was simple: don't accept rides from a stranger, don't accept gifts, etc. There was a brief question-and-answer period. The children seemed to "get it".

At the end of the day, the children exited the school where they saw a man with a van, who was asking some children to enter his van where he would show them his cute puppy. Most of the same children who saw that video entered the van!

I'm not going to address the topic of "stranger danger" here.  What I'm wondering about is why did the lesson fail? And it did fail.  The message did not get through.  And I don't think it's because (or only because) kids will be kids and they needed to hear the message many more times for it to penetrate.  Is it because the children were shown a video and that medium did not work for this message? How old were the children? Would the video have been more effective for a different age child? Maybe the factor that was missing was role playing.  If they would have asked the children, "What would you do if when you left school there was a man in a van who wanted to show you a cute puppy," would the same number of kids have entered the van?

An experiment like this should have educators questioning what makes for effective teaching.  We can't always measure that, particularly in the areas of emuna and yiras shomayim.  In this case, if all the children would have rejected the man's overtures, the lesson would have been proven to be a great success.  However, since most children entered the van, it was easy to see that the lesson failed.

We read so much these days about how girls and boys go through 12 years and more of Jewish education and too many of them emerge lacking basic knowledge of fundamentals.  Maybe the lesson from this experiment is that teachers and parents have to think of ways of really getting through to children and figuring out ways of assessing whether their lessons were effective and finetuning them if necessary.

Jul 20, 2011

Passionate About Food?!

I'm seeing one new Kosher Cooking magazine debuting after another (three so far, in addition to the recipe pages in the frum magazines and newspapers) and the comments I read hail this innovation as utterly marvelous.  Is it really all that marvelous though from either a spiritual or material perspective?

Obesity is skyrocketing so I'm not convinced that magazines devoted to FOOD is the best thing for us.  A recipe column in a magazine is a nice thing; an entire magazine devoted to food is another thing entirely! It is particularly irksome when the word "inspired" is used in one of the magazine titles.  Food is as "inspiring" as the latest hit song is "awesome".  The devaluation of the meaning of words is not doing us any good.

From a spiritual perspective, I fail to see how a title like "Dairy Decadence!" belongs in a publication targeting frum readers.  Nor "Unlimited Ways to Create the Ultimate Grill Fest." Should a frum publication be advertising itself as a "Gourmet Food Magazine for the Kosher Epicure"? Should a kosher magazine with a website describe itself as being "for people with good taste who are passionate about food"? Passionate about food?! Does this fit with anything we've learned in our Jewish studies? I think not.

R' Avraham David of Botshash, a posek and a Chasid of R' Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev, ate very little.  He would often say, "Eating makes a man unspiritual.  Adam sinned through eating; the angels maintain their lofty spiritual heights because they don't need to eat."

We need to eat, and Shabbos and Yom Tov are days that we honor and celebrate with special food.  Seudos mitzva are also occasions for special food.  However, it seems that our preoccupation with food and its presentation has gotten out of hand.  Special occasions like an upsheren, bar mitzva etc. are not reason enough to celebrate and a theme is sought.  I thought the upsheren, bar mitzva etc. are the theme!

I read an interview with a woman who has produced some popular cookbooks which I found quite distasteful (ha).  Her mission is to put gourmet, high-class kosher cooking into the hands of every cook, in an attempt to spark a renaissance in kosher cooking.   To me, this is Artscroll promoting "naval b'reshus ha'Torah."  As far as I know, neither the Chofetz Chaim nor any other gadol sees promoting gourmet kosher cooking as a way to bring Moshiach.

In terms of recipe hunting, this particular author says she leaves no stone unturned. Having mined the best of friends and family members' repertoires, she now works with seasoned chefs to develop novel and creative formulas. She's an avid reader of menus from kosher and non-kosher upscale restaurants. The chefs she invites to her home help her cook up exciting new recipes as she observes and takes notes.

Why are frum publishers glorifying this? Are we so lacking in recipes for good food that we need to "develop novel and creative" new ones? Or is it more likely that this is about making money and without new and exciting recipes (what's an exciting recipe?) there are no new cookbooks and no sales.  And this also explains the outrageous recent advertisement by a "gourmet kosher supermarket" that was in such poor taste (ha).  We can sustain gourmet kosher supermarkets because we buy the cookbooks that present us with recipes with gourmet ingredients.  Then we sustain the gastric bypass industry, nutritionists, the eating disorder programs, personal trainers, and weight loss programs ... and wonder why we feel spiritually empty.

I'm in favor of good cooking. I'm in favor of making special things for Shabbos and Yom Tov.  I'm in favor of showing not-yet religious Jews that kosher cooking is delicious.  But I don't think we need a renaissance in our cooking or an entire aisle of kosher snack food and another aisle of kosher cookies, and I do think we, as a frum society, need to put food in perspective and use it in positive ways, in our service of Hashem.

Jul 19, 2011

Hashem Caused It to Come About

The way I think of the Kletzky tragedy is, as Rashi says in parshas Mishpatim on the words "v'ha'Elokim ina l'yado" (Hashem caused it to come about): Two men, one who killed inadvertently and one who killed intentionally and there were no witnesses to these acts so the one who killed intentionally wasn't put to death and the one who killed inadvertently was not exiled to the Ir Miklat.

Hashem brings them together at one inn and the one who had killed intentionally sits under a ladder and the one who had killed inadvertently climbs the ladder and falls on the one who killed intentionally and kills him. Witnesses testify to this and the court sends him to exile, to an Ir Miklat.

Consequently, the one who killed inadvertently is exiled and the one who killed intentionally is killed.

In summary: Hashem arranged it all.

We don't know what took place in previous gilgulim but the yad Hashem is obvious here in that He sent Leiby directly to the person who killed him. Leiby could have met his parents. He could have asked someone else for directions. But Hashem set this up. Why? We don't know what cheshbonos were at work here. Not that this absolves the killer. But to think of this as happenstance (as the police commissioner did) is not only wrong but not at all comforting; on the contrary, it is much more frightening to believe that there are random acts of violence. G-d runs the world and all is accounted for.

The "Three Weeks" begin today.  On Tisha B'Av, one of the kinos describes the "Ten Martyrs," the ten great rabbis who were brutally murdered by the Romans.  The ten rabbis are said to correspond to the ten shevatim and they were killed, says the Medrash, for selling Yosef over a thousand years earlier! Great souls are sometimes snatched from us for reasons we don't know.  There are accounts to be settled and the only consolation is that "ha'tzur tamim pa'alo" - Hashem's ways are perfect and precise.

Jul 11, 2011

Noticing the Good

The following two incidents happened within the span of two minutes  

Scene 1:
I saw a Chassid standing and talking to a non-Jewish black woman who was clearly in need of help in finding the address on the paper she held.  She was not dressed modestly, i.e. was sleeveless etc.

Scene 2:
A Chassid was about to enter a building when he saw an elderly person being pushed in a wheelchair by her aide.  He held the door open for them.

Two "random" scenes but nothing is random.  Let's remember these acts of kindness on the part of Jews who look obviously like Jews.  Oftentimes these small good deeds are overshadowed by rhetoric in which "ultra-Orthodox Jews" are stereotyped as rude.  There is plenty of good among us.  We need to be on the lookout for it and we'll see it.

Jun 21, 2011

School - Then and Now

A woman from Hungary described what school was like there:

"Schools in those days (in the 50's) were very different from today.  Public schools had professional educators who were experts in their academic fields, and were fierce disciplinarians.  They were there to teach, and we were there to learn.  We truly feared them.  There was no talking back or fooling around.  They did not care about making us feel good, nor were they interested in our self-esteem.  They never praised us.  We were called by our last names.  We were like little soldiers in boot camp."

Is there any evidence that the school system today produces children who are any more well-adjusted, more knowledgeable, with greater character?

I am not in favor of school being a terrifying place but there is much to praise in a school system that fosters respect for authority, conformity to the rules, proper behavior, and an atmosphere in which one learns! From our perspective, these are vital lessons for life as Torah Jews.  Is it a coincidence that just as frum schools and homes are adopting the touchy-feely values of modern-day psychology that we are reading more and more about children who are acting out, dropping out, hurting themselves, and are miserable?

Jun 2, 2011

So, You Want A Boycott ...

News item: Why Health Authorities Are So Worried About Europe's Mutant E. Coli Outbreak

By Bryan Walsh Thursday, June 2, 2011

Health officials were worried enough about an unusually virulent outbreak of food-borne illness from the E. coli bacteria, which has infected more than 1,500 people in Germany and killed at least 17. But the concern jumped to another level on Thursday when the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that the responsible pathogen was a strain of E. coli that they believe had never before been seen by scientists.

News item:

BERLIN, March 16, 2011 – (EJPost) Germans “Kauft nicht bei Juden!” (“Do not buy from Jews!”) - under that name the National-Socialist regime staged his boycott of Jewish businesses and factories in 1933.

In today’s Germany you can no longer say that, because it is forbidden. But what will you do as a staunch “S“ocialist “A“ctivist in Germany, if you’re a Jew hater, and do not want to be punished, but want to be progressive in a modern sense?

Simply hide your anti-Semitism under a new cloak and call it “anti-Zionism” – then you can ideologically clean, stand with signs in front of shops and calling for a boycott of Israeli products.

On March 11, at 4 pm a guard of activists from the Bremen-Peace-Forum (Arbeitsgruppe Nahost), positioned itself before the REWE-market in the Wachmannstrasse, in the city district of Bremen-Schwachhausen.

With posters, they called for a boycott of Israeli goods, distributed Information material and tried to talk with passers. On the Posters you could also read the slogan, “Save the Palestinian people”. (To what Palestinians are able to do and what we must know about the Palestinian people, can be found here… )

Their reasons: “Israel holds the West Bank occupied for decades, contrary to numerous UN resolutions, more and more illegal jewish settlements be built and Israel exports the harvested fruits from there. They say this is all against international law and the exports from the occupied territories are illegal”.

Today's News Item: Produce farmers across the European Union are hurting, as consumers have stopped buying vegetables and fruits, afraid that anything might carry the pathogen. The situation may only worsen; Russia announced an immediate ban on all European fresh produce in response to the outbreak. Although the E.U. has protested, if Russia holds up its ban, it will hurt: the Russian market for European produce is worth $5.5 billion a year.

After numerous calls for boycotts of Israeli produce and goods from numerous European countries, Europeans are getting a taste of their own medicine.

May 30, 2011

Finger Pointing in the Wrong Direction

A rabbi is quoted as saying, "Cell phones have wrought devastation in people's lives.  Before the advent of cell phones, we would never have believed that people could stoop to such levels of rudeness and worse." 

He doesn't think people necessarily have to get rid of their phones (that would be a futile goal) but says, "If a person feels that his cell phone is beneficial or indispensable, he does not have to discard it, but he cannot become a slave to it.  A cell phone does not have to be attached to him at all times.  Nothing will happen if he leaves it at home when it is not absolutely necessary."

Seems to me that the problem is not the cell phone at all.  For just as knives and fire and numerous other even more innocuous items can be used for the most beneficial purposes or in harmful ways, cell phones are no different.

The issue is one of discipline with which we, as a generation, are struggling.  Lack of discipline is adversely affecting us in numerous areas of our lives and cell phone usage is yet another way we demonstrate our lack of control.  So it's not the poor phone that should be vilified for wreaking destruction but we ourselves.  It's not helpful to shift the blame.  Let's confront ourselves and see where in our lives we need to "tighten up" the discipline and take responsibility for our actions.

May 17, 2011

Say "May I"


Two reasons for Restricted Refrigerator Access:

1) As related by Shaya Ostrov: A rosh yeshiva wanted to help his children understand that we don't "just exist."  Everything in life is a gift.  He told R' Ostrov that when his children were young, they were taught not to go to the refrigerator and take any food without first asking permission.  "We never refused them.  They just needed to remember to ask."  His reason was that a child needs to learn that nothing in life is a given.  Everything we have is a precious gift for which we need to experience gratitude.

R' Ostrov goes on to say: When a child is hungry, he says to himself, "I am hungry and therefore I will eat."  This translates into, "I am hungry and therefore entitled to eat -es kumt mir."  Of course, children need to feel secure in knowing that they will always be cared for, loved and fed.  However this rosh yeshiva did not want his children to confuse their need with the feeling of entitlement that leads to taking.  The rosh yeshiva was teaching his children that the gift of food can never be taken for granted, "I'm hungry, so I'm just eating what is rightfully mine."  The attitute of the child who believes that the food he is holding is his because, "I was hungry and I took it," is very different from that of the child who believes that the food was given as a gift from his parents because, "I was hungry and my parents understood this and they love and care for me."

2) As related by Rabbi MM Gluckowsky: "I remember when I was a child, we were not only not encouraged to be independent, we weren't allowed to be independent. We could not open the fridge without permission! We weren't considered mature enough to make decisions about what and when to eat without parental involvement, and we weren't! There were strongly enforced rules ...Somebody older and wiser was making decisions for us and we had to abide."

The emphasis here was on teaching obedience, rather than the currently very popular goal of encouraging independence.

It is likely that the parents in both these examples would be condemned by many as control freaks.  Perhaps we as a society wouldn't be suffering from obesity-compulsive eating and many other problems due to feelings of entitlement and/or lack of discipline if we were raised with some more control!

May 13, 2011

Clashing Beliefs

If you took a poll among frum people and asked them whether they believe Murphy's Law ("Anything that can go wrong will go wrong") to be true, what do you think they would say?

I've heard people refer to to Murphy's Law and although it might be done jokingly, I think they believe it to be true to some extent.  How does this fit with what we believe? Does it take into account R' Bachya ibn Pekuda's Chovos Ha'Levavos, Shaar ha'Bitachon? He writes:

If we knew we had a friend who:

1) never ceases worrying about us

2) is able to fulfill our wishes

3) knows our exact needs and what is good for us

4) controls all the people and powers in the world and does not allow any of them to harm or benefit us without his consent

5) is overflowing with kindness and compassion even if we are undeserving

we would completely relax and stop worrying about ANYTHING.

Hashem is merciful and gracious; He neither slumbers nor sleeps, He is your Father, He made you, Hashem is good to all and His mercy is on all His creations etc.

Can you refer to Murphy's Law and simultaneously take "gam zu l'tova" seriously?