Monthly Archives: September, 2014

For Goodness Sakes

September 30th, 2014 Posted by Thought Tools No Comment yet

Pssst!  Hey guys, want to know a secret?  Ever wondered why so many women love being pregnant?  Though you might consider it presumptuous that I, a man, answer this very female question, I’m actually well able to do so.  You see, it is for the same reason that many people find a journey on an airplane to be quite relaxing.  Once a TSA agent with the charm of Torquemada has inflicted his attention upon us and once we’ve endured the cattle-slaughter-house-atmosphere of the boarding process, yes, we do find the rest of the trip strangely relaxing.

Even if you do nothing else but read and snooze while on an airplane, you are still advancing towards your objective. Every minute carries you ten miles closer to your destination. To a far greater extent, even if she does nothing but eat and sleep, every minute of pregnancy brings the future mother closer to a transcendent moment.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to simulate this aspect of pregnancy?  How gratifying to know that every minute of the day is carrying you closer to your destination.  How do we ensure that each moment of our lives is an investment that lasts forever?

Since good endures forever, we need only ask ourselves constantly whether the manner in which we intend spending the next hour is good.  Naturally, the term good needs definition.  What good means to an ardent Islamic fanatic in Iraq is quite different from what good means to, say, a faithful Christian farmer and family man in Fresno.

From a Biblical perspective, good comprises four categories of action. (i)  Improving our relationship with God.  (ii)  Advancing the interests of our families.   (iii)  Advancing our financial interests.  (iv) Serving the interests of our friends and fellow citizens.

Time and energy invested in these four activities is good, carrying lasting impact, and is thus never wasted.

Ancient Jewish wisdom teaches that the first time in the Torah that a specific letter is used to start a word, that word provides a key to the inner meaning of that initial letter.

Consider the first usage of the word good in Scripture.

And God saw the light, that it was good…
(Genesis 1:4)

 The Hebrew word for good is TOV.  Its initial letter Tet is the ninth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, with a numerical value of nine. In ancient Jewish wisdom, the number nine is linked to pregnancy. Since TOV is the first word in the Bible to start with a Tet, it is linked to good.

 Tet = 9 = TOV = good = pregnancy

 Pregnancy fits all four categories of good actions: (i) becoming a partner in creation with God (ii) family (iii) Having children provides a worthwhile reason for gaining wealth. (iv) A well-raised and productive human being blesses the society into which it is born.

The thirteen verses containing the second appearance of the Ten Commandments (Deuteronomy 5:6-18) contain at least one instance of every single letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Amazingly, the thirteen verses containing the first appearance of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:2-14) reveal one stunningly conspicuous exception.

The letter Tet is completely absent from the first commandments!

Anything good endures forever, and Moses was destined to cast down and shatter the first two tablets of the Ten Commandments.  Had they contained the letter Tet, representing the concept of good, they could not have been destroyed.  However, the thirteen verses comprising the second appearance of the Ten Commandments do contain the letter Tet, because these tablets last forever.  It is found in the Hebrew word NeTuYaH meaning ‘outstretched’. (Deuteronomy 5:15)

Therefore, in order to avoid a single wasted hour or a single wasted joule of our energy we need to strive to ensure that each waking hour is devoted to serving God, our families, our financial interests and God’s other children.

Failure to do so means looking back at wasted time and effort which can evoke the sensation of sickness of soul similar to the debilitating nausea of the first trimester of pregnancy or of a particularly bumpy plane ride.

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Five Star Cooking

September 23rd, 2014 Posted by Susan's Musings 4 comments

To the uninitiated, the scene would have looked strange. I presented first one and then another daughter with a gift for the upcoming holidays, causing their eyes to light up with joy. The gift came in a plastic container rather than a velvet lined jewelry box. It was ‘one size fits all,’ clearly not a new dress or sweater.

Here is what it looked like before its presentation:

Mandlen, pre-baking, Sept 2014
As you see, the pieces were rather plain looking, and truthfully, they will not win any cooking awards, even when they emerge from the oven, crispy and brown. Neither my family nor I can actually tell you how tasty they objectively are, though we eat them with relish. The enjoyment is completely entwined with our emotional history. These mandlen mean Rosh HaShana is coming and evoke memories of generations of women baking and celebrating the holiday.


Mandlen, post-baking, Sept. 2014

I inherited the recipe I use and a bite transports me to my grandmother’s teensy Brooklyn kitchen, where love was an ingredient in every morsel. When my mother-in-law shared her favorite recipes with me, the same recipe was in that treasure trove as well. So, rather than tackle some of the myriad chores on my to-do list, this past Friday I took time to make this labor intensive food, dividing the finished product into packages for each of my children.

My younger grandchildren did not understand the sparkle in their mother’s eyes. I pray for years of peace and health so that they will have time to absorb this small element of family history, prepared to take their place in transmitting it forward.


Food and Faith

September 22nd, 2014 Posted by Thought Tools No Comment yet

A four-week window of Jewish holy days is approaching. I understand why we will spend more time in synagogue than usual. However, we will also spend more time at the dining room table. This isn’t a concession to human frailty; it is recognition of human greatness.

Ever since the start of our lives as babes suckling at our mothers’ breasts, eating provides us with not one, but two benefits.  They are (i) physical nourishment and sustenance, and (ii) spiritual and emotional sustenance.  The link between eating and emotion is well studied.  Many of us have ‘comfort foods.’  Gloom and uncertainty are often banished by a meal that fills our heart as well as our stomach.

Have you ever wondered why so many young people nowadays suffer from eating disorders that were virtually unknown a generation or two ago?  Surely the answer is the spiritual desert in which so many young people live.  Eating disorders are more often treated by a psychologist than by a nutritionist because there is a powerful spiritual component to eating. In other words, food and faith go together.

Here is the first occurrence in Scripture of God issuing a commandment to man:

And the Lord God commanded the Adam saying, “Of every tree of the garden eat you must eat.”
(Genesis 2:16)

Many English translations get it wrong by translating, “…of every tree of the garden you shall surely eat”

The original Hebrew does not say “surely”.  Instead it repeats the commandment to eat.  Here is what the Hebrew looks like:

from all the trees of the gardenB

Reading from right to left, you will see five words.  [From all]    [the trees]   [of the garden]   [eat!]    [you must eat].

You can see that the fourth and fifth words look very similar, distinguished only by the one letter prefix ‘you must’.

Ancient Jewish wisdom explains that God’s first explicit directive repeats the verb ‘to eat’ to tell us to perform two separate and distinct acts with every mouthful. We are to eat for both physical and spiritual reasons.  That way we extract the full benefit from every morsel of food.

Our Creator surely knew that in the future scientists could find ways to fulfill our bodies’ needs through tablets or infusions, bypassing the fruits, vegetables and grains He provided for us. No! Machines need fuel. Humans need more than that; they must eat!

How weird is it that we absorb nutrition through the same facial orifice from which our voices emerge?  Dedicated functionality seems to be God’s design. After all, we don’t smell and hear through our ears. Mouths are different.

Speech is a uniquely human function while eating is not. Sharing the same orifice reminds us to take care to eat in a uniquely human way—one that provides spiritual as well as physical nourishment. In this vein, we prefer not to eat alone and to show gratitude to God for our food by blessings before and after eating, as we’ve written on in previous Thought Tools. Festival days are the perfect opportunity to create one cohesive totality in our lives. Yes, we pray a little more. We also eat a little more, sharing that experience with God’s other children.

Some of us face the danger of thinking ourselves to be sophisticated animals, forgetting that we have been touched by God. Others of us face the danger of thinking of ourselves as angels—spiritual beings at war with our physical selves. The dining room table reveals the truth, providing a place where our true selves can shine.

We place emphasis during this month on starting our year off in the way we wish it to continue. We can’t realistically reach straight for the stars, but we can commit to reaching for growth – maybe that way we will reach the stars!


The Eyes (Don’t) Have It

September 18th, 2014 Posted by Susan's Musings 13 comments

I have not watched the recent ISIS beheadings. Each time I come across links to the too frequent gruesome videos, I hover my mouse over them—and move on. The hovering is less a function of making a decision as much as a sign to myself that even though I am not going to click, neither am I ignoring the acts of barbarism.

I don’t want to see them because once I do they will be seared into my brain. When we see something, versus hearing about it, it is almost impossible to expunge from our minds. For this reason, I did not see the movie Saving Private Ryan, despite my interest in World War II. In general, I avoid violent visual content. I even limit my reading. I appreciated (the word enjoyed would be wrong) and am glad I read Ghost Soldiers by Hampton Sides depicting the treatment of American POWs by the Japanese in W.W.II. However, I wasn’t ready to read a similar book for many years. If the written word can haunt me, pictures and particularly video content interfere with my daily functioning.

I do not need to see the beheadings to know that ISIS and other Islamic terrorist groups are a threat to everything I hold dear. Nor do I need to see the beheadings to know that the human desire to focus on one’s own life and well-being leads us to ignore evil until it engulfs us. Phrases like “Better Red than dead,” from days of the Communist threat or foolish and untrue slogans like, “War never solved anything,” are often shortsighted and cowardly attempts to justify fear and selfishness.

Visual images bombard us. They speak to our hearts. While arousing sympathy and empathy is good, there is a downside as well. Our hearts are easily manipulated and they often lead us to make poor choices. Images such as the beheadings can properly arouse fury and indignation, but they can also cause us to become either overwhelmed with futility or, conversely, desensitized.

I choose not to watch. What do you do?

Guaranteed not to cause nightmares -though it might keep you awake discussing the things that really matter in life

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Back to the Future

September 11th, 2014 Posted by Susan's Musings 2 comments

Two of the books I read this summer made me simultaneously feel a bit better and a lot worse about current events. Bill Bryson’s One Summer: America, 1927, and Daniel James Brown’s The Boys in the Boat, both brought to life a fascinating period in history.

What amazed me about Bryson’s book was how dismal a picture he paints of government and society while also detailing the incredible strength of the human spirit. Some of the greatest names of that day, such as Charles Lindbergh, Babe Ruth and Henry Ford were deeply flawed, yet we still benefit from their achievements. There were immigrants to America who contributed immensely to our country and others who sought to destroy her. The media frequently focused on the wrong things, contributing to an uneducated and foolish citizenry. In other words, their times were somewhat like ours, including inept and corrupt government and civil unrest.

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown, chronicles the University of Washington crew team in the early 1930’s, It intimately follows one member of the University of Washington crew team, while also introducing us to the other protagonists including boat builders and coaches. The main character, pretty much on his own from the tender age of ten, made a man of himself and went on to a long and successful marriage and life. The almost unlimited capabilities of human spirit shine from each page of the book while the competition is as excitingly portrayed as last year’s Super Bowl (Go Hawks!).

Important questions shimmer beneath the surface of the book as well. I gathered that the author believes that America granted both a moral and public relations victory to Hitler by attending the 1936 Olympics in Munich. At the same time, he makes clear how devastating it would be to individual athletes who train and struggle for years to be Olympians, were participation in the games to be cancelled.

Drawn into the lives of ‘the boys in the boat,’ we desperately wish that their competition (and the victory of black runner Jesse Owens) were a thumb in Hitler’s eye. Yet, as is true today, ephemeral gestures feel good for a few days but they are not an effective way to combat evil. Had American and her European allies recognized Hitler’s threat earlier, the boys’ disappointment would have been minimal compared to the pain and suffering of millions that occurred because the world did not respond forcefully early on. Their dream tugs at our hearts, but in retrospect, it does not weigh more heavily than the dreams of thousands of American soldiers who a few years later went to war instead of school, to graves instead of marriages, to rehabilitation centers instead of athletic fields. Winston Churchill called World War II the “unnecessary war,” feeling that it could have been avoided with timely resolve.

Today, once again, America and her allies are refusing to recognize the severity of the threat against us. Neville Chamberlain’s blind optimism is more common than Churchill’s prescience. We feel present pain not future possibility. Both these books reminded me that history is cyclical. How wonderful it would be not to repeat the old mistakes.

Have you seen our newest book? Would you and your spouse agree on how to answer the questions posed? You and your children? How about your friends? Think inside, outside and all around the box with Dear Rabbi and Susan: 101 Real-Life Ask the Rabbi Questions (and answers).

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Built to Give

September 9th, 2014 Posted by Thought Tools No Comment yet

Do you know what a “men’s room” is?  When I first heard the phrase soon after I immigrated to the U.S. from England where I’d been studying, my mind conjured up a big screen television, a comfortable couch, and a BBQ emitting wonderful smells of cooked meat.  That’s my men’s room!  Instead, I discovered that the term, like washroom, restroom, and bathroom are really all euphemisms for a room designed for relieving oneself.

Why would a society so comfortable with public expression of so many things, appear to be so squeamish about the perfectly natural bodily function of voiding one’s bowels.  You’ll pardon me. I don’t mean to be vulgar. However, I do think it important to ask why a society so openly public about every possible variation of sexual pleasure is so uncomfortable about simply saying, “Excuse me but I have to go and empty my bowels.”  Why do people instead say, “Excuse me, but I have to use the washroom.” For what—a shower?  “Excuse me, but I need a rest room.”  Why, are you tired?

Clearly, there is deep-seated discomfort with publicly acknowledging our need to relieve ourselves.  Therein lies the clue.  It is called ‘relieving oneself’ and not ‘relieving society’ or ‘relieving the world.’  Going to the bathroom is one of the very few human activities that in no way benefits, helps, (or relieves) anyone else other than the person involved.  One could say that, necessary though it is, it remains one of the few utterly selfish things that each of us does.  Not surprisingly, our souls are embarrassed by it.  Not because it is a bodily function, but because we feel subconsciously uncomfortable doing things that benefit only ourselves.

Even when indulging ourselves, say, in the purchase of an ice cream, our action produces other beneficiaries such as the storeowner.  This is why we feel no shame at purchasing some desired object.  We feel most comfortable as givers and not grabbers.

This is one of the reasons we love bringing children into the world and raising them.  They allow us to be givers.  We enjoy the sound of ‘Come here, Daddy, I need you.”  Children allow us to become similar to that Ultimate Giver in heaven, God Himself who gives so much to His children.

Indeed, we find the great King Solomon emphasizing how giving is in tune with God’s creation.

 There are those who give freely and yet prosper while others withhold what they should rightfully give and only come to shortage.
(Proverbs 11:24)

How can giving somehow bring abundance while grabbing and retaining often lead to destitution?  This is surely counter-intuitive.  However, knowing how the world REALLY works means understanding the mechanisms that God placed into reality.

Whether we are farmers, florists or framers; whether we are ballerinas, builders or beauticians, our abundance depends upon other people purchasing our goods or services.  In practice, that means an employer hiring me for the job rather than all the other applicants.  It means people patronizing my used car business or my janitorial services.  Why do people pick me rather than my competitors?  Usually it is more based on my interpersonal skills than because of technical proficiency.

Few of us know where our doctor ranked in medical school or even from which medical school she graduated.  We depend upon word of mouth and reputation; in other words, we depend upon how people that we trust feel about the doctor.

Not only do we become embarrassed when we become takers rather than givers, but we are put off by others who appear to be takers.  A characteristic that repels potential patients, employers, customers, or clients is projecting the personality of a grabber rather than a giver.  The super aggressive salesman, the store clerk almost pleading with you to purchase something, the realtor whose eyes seem constantly focused on his potential commission; these make us uncomfortable.  They come across to us as takers not givers.  Sometimes it is subconscious.  We may not be fully aware of why we are repelled by one vendor and attracted to another.  More often than not, it is that our souls are repelled by takers and drawn to givers.

Thus, when I become pleasingly useful to many of God’s other children, I automatically prosper. And the way to do that is to focus on how I can give something long before I focus on what I can get.  In so doing I am virtuously imitating God who gives His children so much, asking so little in return.  We are indeed correct to feel embarrassed about do things that benefit nobody but ourselves.

One of the things Susan and I treasure doing is helping guide our readers through some of life’s confusing situations. Each week we answer one on the many questions sent to us as people grapple with their families, livelihoods, faith and relationships. We have gathered 101 of the most representative and popular questions and answers into a book, Dear Rabbi and Susan, which we are excited to present. We hope you’ll use it as a way to stimulate conversation and debate—a give and take that benefits everyone.

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A Sailor’s Life for Me

September 5th, 2014 Posted by Thought Tools No Comment yet

You don’t need the power of command in order to be a leader.  You don’t have to be able to fire, fine or imprison people in order to lead them. It is possible to influence others by evoking admiration.

Let’s survey the first chapter of the book of Jonah, focusing on the interaction between Jonah and the sailors who take him Tarshish in his attempt to evade God and His directives.

At first, the crew is merely “them”.

…[Jonah] went down to Jaffa; and he found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid the fare for it, and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish…
(Jonah 1:3)

Even on today’s large cruise-liners, people tend to socialize.  In Jonah’s day, ships were much smaller, carrying mostly cargo.  Not surprisingly, experiencing a terrifying storm, Jonah and the crew became acquainted. In Jonah’s eyes, they were no longer a faceless “them.”  They were sailors, idolatrous but nonetheless, professional mariners.

Then the sailors were afraid, and cried each one to his own god…
(Jonah 1:5)

At this point, Jonah surprisingly goes below deck for a nap.

The captain awakes him, asking him to pray as well.

Now the sailors evolve still further, becoming men.  The Hebrew word chosen for ‘man’ here is ISH ISH suggests more than a male human, rather a man possessing nobility of spirit.

And each man said to his colleague, come let’s throw lots in order to discover on whose account is this evil coming upon us…
(Jonah 1:7)

God responded to the sailors and the lots reveal Jonah to be the cause of the unnatural storm.

And they said to him, inasmuch as you are the cause of this evil, please tell us what is your profession and from where do you come, what is your land and from what people do you come?
(Jonah 1:8)

By their brilliant question, these sailors show themselves to be quite different from what one imagines sailors to be.  After all, since time immemorial, sailors separated from family, society, and the institutions of civilization, tend to be rough, rowdy, and unrestrained.

However, these men realize that how one contributes to the world through work reveals a great deal about a person.   So does examining those with whom he associates.  They attempt to make sense of Jonah through their questions.

Jonah responds by essentially explaining that the only relevant thing they need to know is that this unnatural storm is due to his relationship with God.

And he said to them, I am a Hebrew and I fear the Lord, God of heaven…
(Jonah 1:9)

They ask Jonah what they can do in order to restore calm to the wild seas.

“Throw me overboard” he calmly assures them.

These men truly reveal greatness by rejecting this answer.  Verse 13 describes their mighty, but futile, struggle to bring the ship safely into harbor. Eventually, they accept Jonah’s words and obey him, throwing him overboard.

Through their interaction, Jonah comes to recognize the Godly spirit in these men. He relates to them not as faceless, unimportant individuals—them–but as sensitive and morally aware men. In turn, they recognize his holiness and pray to Jonah’s God, rather than to their gods. After the storm abates, validating their actions, these sailors become God-fearing men, bringing sacrifices to the Lord and vowing to lead upright lives.

The sailors’ behavior led Jonah to grow in the way he related to people; his understanding of God and willingness to sacrifice himself for the ship and her crew similarly made its mark on the men.

Jonah was merely a passenger with no power.  The sailors were not society’s elite. Yet each exerted enormous influence by evoking admiration. Jonah learned how to better relate to people; the sailors learned how to better relate to God. This is something each of us can do at home and in our marriages and family.  By having deep faith and moral clarity and behaving towards others with consideration and respect, we can all practice this principle of leadership.

If you are intrigued as to why Jonah went to sleep in the middle of a storm and wish more insights into messages for your life from the book of Jonah, you might enjoy our audio CD Day for Atonement: Heavenly Gift of Spiritual Serenity.

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Defending Richard Dawkins

September 4th, 2014 Posted by Susan's Musings 6 comments

I don’t usually defend Richard Dawkins. My views almost always are polar opposites of the evolutionary biologist and atheism promoter. However, I feel that the recent attacks on Dr. Dawkins not only were unfair but they also represented muddled thinking.

If you missed the brouhaha, Dr. Dawkins, who is well known for his opinions, was approached on Twitter by a woman concerned about what to do should she become pregnant with a baby diagnosed in utero with Down syndrome.  His response was, “Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.” This unleashed a furious Twitter storm.

Of the responses I read condemning him, many were from parents of children with Down syndrome. They spoke of the love their child added to their lives and how treasured these children are. Those who know families in this category find these claims unsurprising.

Dr. Dawkins answered with a longer reply, apologizing for making a post that he thought would be limited to a small readership available to his million plus followers. He acknowledged that Twitter might not be the best venue for emotionally charged subjects. However, he stuck with his opinion, expanding on his views.

“If your morality is based, as mine is, on a desire to increase the sum of happiness and reduce suffering, the decision to deliberately give birth to a Down’s baby, when you have the choice to abort it early in the pregnancy, might actually be immoral from the point of view of the child’s own welfare.”

For this answer, I am grateful to Dr. Dawkins. There are different moral systems in the world. When issues like abortion get politicized truth is often the first victim. Since most people do not change their values on a whim, small, incremental steps are implemented. This leads citizens to legislate decisions they would have unequivocally rejected had they been promoted without the intervening stages.

It is not an accident that abortion rights were trumpeted by invoking pictures of poor girls dying from self-induced abortions. There was talk of pregnancies resulting from incest and rape. Had Roe vs. Wade reached the Supreme Court while women stood with signs stating, “I want a boy, not a girl. It’s my choice,” or “Abortion is my choice for birth control,” or “Pregnancy will interfere with my career,” the case might have been decided differently. Yet once abortion is solely a woman’s choice, her reasoning is immaterial.

Dr. Dawkins is honest. He believes that a child in utero is nothing more than a group of cells. He honestly believes that if human beings veer from an acceptable spectrum of perfection, their lives revolve around suffering and sorrow. His fellow traveler, Dr. Peter Singer, moral philosopher and professor of bioethics at Princeton, believes that even after birth, parents can ease a their own and their child’s suffering by killing a “defective” baby.

From what I have read, both Drs. Dawkins and Singer are well-mannered men who treat the handicapped with respect. I once read a book by Harriet McBride Johnson, a severely disabled author, attorney and disability rights activist. She was also an atheist and chairman of her local county’s Democratic Party. In 2002, she debated Dr. Singer and was greatly troubled with the gentlemanly help he gave her with her motorized wheelchair while he espoused his beliefs that she should have been killed at birth.

Personally, I appreciate both Dr. Dawkins’ and Dr. Singer’s willingness to speak the truth about their beliefs. I shudder at the thought that American law should ever follow their values, but they are offering people an honest choice. As in so many other cases, most Americans are too complacent and shortsighted to see the small, seemingly minor steps that lead to major conclusions. These two men do not disguise the end of the road to which their morality points.

In neither his tweet nor in the follow-up, did Dr. Dawkins suggest that when a pregnant woman learns she is carrying a child who will be born with Down syndrome, that pregnancy should be forcibly terminated. He did not promote the killing of people whose quality of life doesn’t meet the standard he thinks is worthwhile. He did not discount that parents around the world love their children despite disabilities. He does not look evil nor is he a cruel monster. Yet, he did not back down from stating that in his view the lives of children with Down syndrome have less value than the lives of healthier children. He did not refute his idea that these children do not contribute to a “sum of happiness,” for themselves or others. I think I am stating his views fairly by saying that he finds my religious beliefs stupid and irrational. I think that his views will lead to a world without the decency and kindness he personally upholds.

In a country where atheism is on the rise and medicine is marching into the control of government, I am grateful for those who make their positions clear. I come from the viewpoint that life is a gift from God and that He should be the One to direct life and death from the moment of conception through old age. I believe that the human spirit is greater than the human body. Yet, we are moving inexorably towards the time when, in practical law, either my view will prevail or the views of Dawkins and Singer will. Let’s indeed have an honest debate rather than the muddy jumble of thought that says that a society that insists that abortion is completely at the discretion of an individual woman’s choice is compatible with one stating that handicapped human beings have full rights to life.  


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