Posts by Rabbi Daniel Lapin

Afraid? Who, Me?

January 12th, 2021 Posted by Thought Tools 34 comments

Unexpected political developments can be scary.  Over the past year, Americans have been barraged by disturbing events and images on an almost daily basis. 

It was really scary for people living comfortably and securely in England when they awoke on Wednesday morning, December 5th, 1914. A nation that hadn’t seen rationing or military conscription in living memory was at war with Germany.  Many people stayed home that day in sheer panic about what was to come.

It was soon after lunch on Sunday, December 7th, 1941, that Americans in New York and Washington discovered that their Pacific naval base in Hawaii had been bombed by Japanese aircraft.  People were rightly frightened by the unknown terrors that lay ahead.  For almost an entire day, most people just sat at their radios.

On Tuesday morning, September 11th, 2001 Americans were glued to their television sets in uncomprehending numbness as they watched the Twin Towers fall.  Like most frightened people, they remained passively watching the attacks again and again as news outlets replayed the frightening footage.

Well, of course once you allow fear to grip you (which is exactly what it does – hence the figure of speech, “he was gripped by fear”) you discover that there is no short- age of things to feel frightened about. Your health, your finances, your children, earthquakes, spiders – I’d better stop right there! I certainly don’t mean to get you started now. But what is one to do when feeling utterly demoralized by fear? 

To find a clue, I high tailed it to the Bible and found this verse: 

Be not afraid of sudden fear. 
(Proverbs 3:25) 

In Hebrew, the word “fear”, PaCHaD, is made up of three letters and looks like this (remember: Hebrew reads right to left): 

פ ח ד
D CH P 

In Hebrew, many important words read forwards and backwards with opposite meanings in each direction.

Thus, looking at PaCHaD backwards is important – and we find the word DaCHaF. 

No, you haven’t caught me in a mistake. In Hebrew the letters P and F are the same and as languages evolved this left its stamp as you can see by looking at the word “fish”, which derives from the same word as the astrological sign “Pisces.” Just change the P of Pisces into an F, and you’ll see how this works. 

Back to DaCHaF – what does it mean? It means to propel or to push forward. We can see it used in the Bible here: 

And Haman was propelled into his house. 
(Esther 6:12) 

The word used for propelled is DaCHaF. Well, if DaCHaF means propelled, then not surprisingly, its reverse, PaCHaD which we know means fear, also must mean restrain, handicap, keep back.  So being paralyzed with fear is exactly what fear does and so it makes sense that the opposite of fear is advancing forward. 

Isn’t that precisely what fear does to us? Fear freezes us in place. Ever read anything like this? “He stood rooted to the spot with fear” or “paralyzed by panic.” It is therefore obvious that ancient Jewish wisdom’s advice when gripped by fear is: start moving! Overcome the tendency of fear to suppress action. Deliver yourself from the trance of passivity. 

Yes, but how? Again, a Biblical clue: In Exodus 14, the Israelites, just out of Egypt are transfixed by terror. The ocean stretches out in front of them and the mighty Egyptian army rapidly approaches from the rear. Trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea, one might say: 

…they were utterly terrified and they cried out to God. 
(Exodus 14:10)

Their fear completely dominated them. 

God’s response was not to split the Red Sea as you might have thought. It was the momentous lesson you and I can learn from verse 15: 

And the Lord said to Moses, “What are calling to me for?
Direct the Israelites to march forward! 

What do you mean? Into the ocean? Yes! And it wasn’t until Israel marched forward into the water that God told Moses to initiate the miracle of splitting the Red Sea. Verse 22 soon confirms the sequence of events. The Israelites went into the midst of the sea, and only thereafter come the words: on dry land. 

They activated their own miracle and contributed to their own deliverance by conquering fear generated inertia. If you want your own Red Sea to split, you’d better “March Forward.” Do not retreat–in that direction lies your personal equivalent of the Egyptian army. But above all, don’t become paralyzed and passive. March Forward. 

Regardless of what geopolitical, epidemiological, or economic crisis is terrifying you, do not allow it to immobilize you.  March forward and take care of your essentials; your family, your finances, your faith, your fitness and your friendships. 

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Wonder Bread

January 4th, 2021 Posted by Thought Tools 5 comments

I am a fan of population growth. To survive and thrive, both societies and economies need children brought into the world and raised properly. Knowing this, you might expect me to sympathize with a request for advice that I received from an individual starting a non-profit educational organization created to encourage large families. While I do appreciate his goal, I found one striking omission in his message. Nowhere did he discuss the importance of earning a living and managing finances while raising these families.  

As regular Thought Tool readers have learned, the Five Books of Moses are divided into 54 portions or sedras, each with its own name and theme.  (In Rabbi Daniel Lapin’s Recommended Bible, the start and end of each sedra is clearly marked.)  Which one would you guess contains the most frequent usage of the word ‘bread’? (Yes, we are still discussing the same topic!)

Would it perhaps be Bo*, the third sedra in the Book of Exodus, containing extensive instructions about eating unleavened ‘bread’ or matzoh on Passover?  Wrong!

Okay, how about Beshalach*? The fourth sedra in Exodus does describe ‘bread from heaven’ or Manna. But you would be wrong again.

Terumah*, the seventh sedra of Exodus, mentions bread several times in the context of the Tabernacle table upon which the bread was displayed.  It too is not the correct guess.

It turns out that Emor*, the eighth sedra in the Book of Leviticus contains no fewer than fourteen mentions of bread, making it an easy winner.  Yet the theme of this sedra seems to have little to do with bread.  It is chiefly about developing and maintaining closeness to God; first by means of purity (Leviticus 21 & 22), then festivals (Leviticus 23), and finally by rule of law (Leviticus 24).

To understand why bread is so central to maintaining closeness to God, we need to remember what bread means in Scripture.

He who works his land will have enough bread*…
(Proverbs 12:11)

In Scripture “bread” means money just as it does in colloquial slang: “Got any bread?” “Can you lend me some dough?”

Similarly, ‘field’ means the work you do to obtain your bread.  To this day, when inquiring about professional activity, people ask one another, “What field are you in?”

Prepare externally your work, and make it fit for yourself in the field;
afterwards, build your house.
(Proverbs 24:27)

Acquire from outside yourself a means to earn a living.  In other words, find out what people around you need that you can supply. Once your field is producing, get married (build your house).

A lightweight who can afford servants is better
than one who honors himself but lacks bread
(Proverbs 12:9)

This is amazing! It’s better to have enough bread to pay for the services you need in life and be considered a lightweight by some, rather than thinking a great deal of yourself but being poor.

Again and again in the Bible, the word bread plugs us into reality.  Bread/money reminds us to keep our feet on the ground.  Unless you are in the fraud and robbery business or doing something immoral, making money means you are serving other people as well as helping yourself.

Regardless of what drives you, forgetting finances is sheer folly.  By repeatedly mentioning bread, Emor teaches that being deeply dedicated to getting close to God means being rooted in the reality He created. That is a world in which money allows us to live with dignity, follow His commandments and form positive relationships with many other people. It is what allows us to provide shelter, food, medical care and clothing for our families. Our children do not need luxuries and we do them a disservice by providing too many material goods, but we are responsible for supporting those we bring into this world.

Faith is not a justification for stressful poverty. Articles that discourage having children because “experts” reveal how much it costs to raise a child are usually foolish and biased. Ignoring the importance of establishing a livelihood that allows one to provide for a large family similarly presents only part of a picture. God does not want His children to make their love for Him, including His commandment to “be fruitful and multiply” a refuge from reality, but rather a part of the total vision.

References in our recommended Bible:

*Bo – p. 190, in the margin, 2 lines from the bottom (see English transliteration on p. 191, 3 lines from the bottom).

*Beshalach – p. 204, in the margin around ⅓ of the way down the page (see English transliteration on p. 205, spelled Beshallah.)

*Terumah – p. 238, in the margin around ⅔  of the way down the page (see English transliteration on p. 239, spelled Teruma).

*Emor – p. 368, in the margin around ¾ of the way down the page (see English transliteration on p. 369.)*bread = לחם, for example, p.1992, 8 lines from the bottom, last word on the line.

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The Snake that Roared

December 28th, 2020 Posted by Thought Tools 19 comments

We knew a frustrated father whose 20-year-old son was enrolled for the fourth year in some go-nowhere-course at a local college while emerging from his room only for the occasional meal. The manner he displayed towards his parents was typical of that displayed by those living on charity towards their benefactors, which is to say generally sullen and resentful.  The many long and loud conversations during which dad tried to motivate his son were about as productive as that college course, “Women, Culture, and Society” in which Sonny Boy was enrolled. 

After some family coaching sessions with us, during which we not only advised dad what to do but helped him find the strength and determination to do the necessary,  Sonny Boy returned home one night to find that his key did not work on the front door.  He circled to the rear of the house in order to find an open door or window, but to no avail.   Regardless of the late hour, he tried to phone his parents. There was no response but he did find a text on his phone from his father. 

It detailed the monthly rent that would henceforth be charged, a separate fee for meals, and at what times of the day the father would be available to the son for a phone conversation.  The next three months went by painfully for both parents and son, but thereafter an almost magical transformation occurred.  The son found a job in which he excelled, the silly college course long forgotten. He discovered a new respect for his parents and their relationship became loving.   

Sometimes, talk eventually becomes counterproductive. Only action helps. Have you ever  found yourself frustrated by endless conversation while you knew that the time for critical action was passing?  Here is your roadmap to transformation.

Genesis chapter 46 enumerates Jacob’s children and grandchildren by name, arriving at a total of seventy souls who came to Egypt.  All is as expected until we arrive at Jacob’s fifth son, Dan.

Dan’s sons: Chushim.
(Genesis 46:23)

That’s right, Dan’s “sons” suggests a plural, yet there is only one—Chushim*.  Strangely, his name ends in the manner that masculine plural nouns end in Hebrew—IM.  So yeladIM means boys; sefarIM means books, and susIM* means horses.  Though Dan only has one son, ChushIM, there is an important hint in the ending of his name that he is actually plural—two people.

We see another unmistakable sign of  a duality in the tribe of Dan:

When blessing his sons, Jacob compares Dan to a snake:

Dan will be a serpent on the highway, a viper by the path…
(Genesis 49:17)

By the end of Deuteronomy, Moses compares Dan to a lion:

…Dan is a lion cub…
(Deuteronomy 33:22)

From snake to lion is quite a leap.  It certainly seems that Dan has undergone major transformation in the few centuries separating the two verses.  In fact he is assigned a prestigious and protective post north of the Tabernacle during the desert journey. (Numbers 2:25)

What started this transformation? Ancient Jewish wisdom describes a rather strange story. When Jacob’s sons arrived at the Cave of Machpelah to bury their father (Genesis 50:13), their Uncle Esau confronted them saying, “That burial plot belongs to me.”  The stunned sons reminded Esau that he sold his inheritance to Jacob, but he refused to give ground. The brothers then dispatched Naftali, the swiftest runner,  back to Egypt to fetch the contract to prove that the plot indeed belonged to Jacob. Meanwhile they waited.

Chushim, the son of Dan, was deaf and did not hear the entire discussion.  When he asked, “What’s the delay?” his uncles explained how Esau was holding up the burial. This outraged Chushim. “Must my grandfather lie in disgrace until Naftali returns?” he yelled.  He immediately jumped up to strike Esau, killing him.  Jacob was then buried.  

What caused Chushim to have such an instantaneous and strong reaction?

Lengthy, protracted  conversation and negotiation can eventually start having  a numbing effect.  It can gradually erode the certainty of one’s position.  One begins to “understand” the other side.  Think of how many today have begun to “understand” those who claim that being born white is proof of being privileged.

By contrast, the deaf Chushim who heard none of the interaction with Esau knew only what he saw, namely that, “Grandpa lies in disgrace.”  He recognized Esau’s intent for what it truly was—a desire to remove Jacob and his descendants from continuing the heritage of Abraham and Isaac.  The delay was for the sole purpose of demeaning Grandfather Jacob rather than a valid confusion over a contract.

We are certainly not meant to model our behavior exactly on that of Chushim. However, those of us with ambition to improve our lives can learn from him. Sometimes we need to transform ourselves radically from snakes to lions as it were.  Such transformation is best brought about through action rather than talking, arguing, organizing or coordinating.  Often we can get ourselves out of the rut by a convulsive leap rather than by endlessly discussing detailed drawings and descriptions of the obstacles in our path.  Chushim really was two people—Chushim the First before transformation and Chushim the Second thereafter.

Are you ready for action? As 2021 begins, get off on the right foot with Chart Your Course: 52 Weekly Journaling Challenges with Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin. On sale now, this book guides you to make the most of every day. 

* Recommended Bible references:
Horses: SusIM – סוסים. p. 1826 – 6th line from the bottom – 2nd to the last word. The ב at the beginning of the word means ‘with.’
Dan’s son, ChushIM: חשים – p. 146, 15th line, last word

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Not FaKING

September 15th, 2020 Posted by Thought Tools 15 comments

Have you noticed how politicians in every country, even those only slightly influenced by the teachings of Karl Marx, tend to drive wedges between segments of the electorate?  They specialize in fanning the flames of resentment of the poor against the rich.  They encourage women to see men as their enemies.  And of course they increase hostility between people on the basis of the color of their skin.

Marx encouraged communist leaders to divide the population by class, race, and gender and to exacerbate grudges between them.  Secular fundamentalist seekers of political prestige do this almost instinctively.  They do it because it consolidates their power.  When your constituents are busy fighting each other, they have little time and less energy to oppose you. What is more, they all turn to you as referee, peacemaker, and allocator of rewards.

If you’ve noticed this in politics, you may also have encountered it in business.  Many so-called business leaders foment savage battles among those they lead.  Doing so makes them more difficult to topple in any boardroom battle.  They believe that making team members see one another as competitors is more effective than defeating real marketplace competitors.  It is not only for-profit businesses; some churches and synagogues are plagued with this kind of leadership. I have even seen parents who deliberately fuel ferocious fights among their children.  It makes them feel more loved by the children who, deprived of sibling support, vie for parental affection.  Increasingly we see, masquerading as leaders, men and women who specialize in splitting their followers into warring factions.  People are now accustomed to leaders who foster dissent, dispute and division.

A leader does not need to be maliciously intent on this mischief I have been describing.  Because squabbling is the default condition of humanity, a “Do-Nothing” leader will have exactly the same effect.  In his desperate desire to avoid conflict and escape decision making that will inevitably disappoint somebody, this kind of leader produces the same state of simmering tension in his organization.

Only the rare leader, possessing both a sense of security and a strong character builds unity in his organization as part of his mission.  Yet this is precisely what ancient Jewish wisdom expects from leadership.

Though Hebrew words such as ‘manhig’ meaning ‘leader’ have found modern usage in Israel, they don’t exist in Scripture.  This is because Scripture is more specific, preferring words for military leaders, religious leaders and so on, rather than a generic leader. The point is that just as a driver of a car is not necessarily able to drive a motorcycle, a jet plane, or a railway locomotive, a leader of one type of organization is not necessarily adept at leading other kinds of groups.

Nonetheless, the Scriptural word most relevant to our exploration of leadership is MeLeCH, translated as king.

As usual, when trying to probe the inner meaning of a word, we locate its first usage in the Torah.

And it came to pass in the days of Amrafel, king [MeLeCH] of Shinar,…
(Genesis 14:1)

That chapter continues to contain more than 25 usages of MeLeCH, king, which is fully one-third of all the usages of ‘king’ in the Torah.  No other Torah chapter contains more than five uses of ‘king’.

This non-uniform distribution of a word like king, tells us that Genesis 14 discloses important insights into king and leader.  Clearly, we are intended to study the contrast between the 9 kings engaged in the first world war of history, and the ultimate victor of the entire conflict, Abraham.

In reading Genesis 14 we learn that much of humanity then was locked into rebellion, subjugation and warfare.  Not only was each king incapable of maintaining unity among his own people, but he wasn’t even able to keep the peace with his fellow-kings.

By contrast, Abraham led only 318 men.  The Hebrew text alludes to them as those Abraham raised and educated.  (Genesis 14:14)  Isn’t that a wonderful way of viewing those you are responsible for leading?

The unity that Abraham engendered among his small band of followers was a main factor in the defeat he administered to the large military forces of the kings.

Not only does the Torah’s first usage of a word disclose secrets but also the last.  The final use of the word ‘king’ in the Torah is this:

And it was that when there was a king [MeLeCH]  in Yeshurun [Israel] the heads of the people were gathered together, the tribes of Israel were unified.
(Deuteronomy 33:5)

Which is to say that only when Israel had a real leader, a king worthy of being called a king, did unity reign among the people.  As a leader, it is very tempting to allow disagreement to fester among your people as it appears to make you indispensable.  However, this is a very short term strategy.  If your field of vision extends beyond the next election or the next annual report, you will want to lead Biblically and train others in your group to lead in the same way.

This coming Friday night begins the festival of Rosh HaShana, the head of the Jewish year and the time particularly suited for reemphasizing God’s kingship over us and our world. On these two holy days, through Sunday night, our store will be closed. Ten days later, we celebrate  Yom Kippur (this year falling on September 28th). Our audio CD exploring the benefits everyone can get from that Day of Atonement is on sale at this time.

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Napoleon’s Jewish Insight

August 6th, 2019 Posted by Thought Tools 16 comments

Once upon a time, the great Napoleon paid a state visit to Russia.  Proud of the enlightened way his country, France, treated its Jewish population, he asked to see some Russian Jews.  His hosts brought him to a St. Petersburg synagogue.

Entering the synagogue lit by only a few flickering candles, they found it filled with Jews sitting on the floor weeping in the dark.  Napoleon swung around accusingly to his Russian hosts and asked, “What did you do to them?”

Just as astonished, the Russians hastily denied complicity in whatever horrible calamity had produced this misery.  Napoleon turned to the bereft community and asked what tragedy had befallen them.

The rabbi stepped forward and softly sobbed, “Our Temple has been destroyed.”

Turning a reproachful face to his Russian guides, Napoleon asked why the Czar had done such a terrible thing.  His hosts insisted that they were baffled by the accusation.

Questioning further, Napoleon soon discovered that the Temple in question had stood not in Russia but in Jerusalem, and had been destroyed not recently but over 2,000 years earlier.

Napoleon is said to have proclaimed, “Any nation linked so powerfully to its history that it agonizes over such an ancient loss will ultimately outlive both France and Russia.”

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The great author and playwright, Herman Wouk, today returned to the Lord, aged 104

May 17th, 2019 Posted by AAJC Happenings, On Our Mind 4 comments

Herman Wouk spent time with Susan and me in our home in Los Angeles while his classic books, Winds of War and War and Remembrance were in television production.

His book that I tend to recommend more than any other is his depiction of Judaism entitled This Is My God.  It is named for the Bible verse   This is my God and I will beautify Him (Exodus 15:2) and I don’t think it has ever been improved on.  In that book Herman Wouk described what Shabbat meant to him.  This is part of what he wrote:

 

The Shabbat has cut most sharply athwart my own life when one of my plays has been in rehearsal or in tryout.

The crisis atmosphere of an attempt at Broadway is a legend of our time, and a true one; I have felt under less pressure going into battle at sea. Friday afternoon, during these rehearsals, inevitably seems to come when the project is tottering on the edge of ruin. I have sometimes felt guilty of treason, holding to the Shabbat in such a desperate situation. But then, experience has taught me that a theater enterprise almost always is in such a case. Sometimes it does totter to ruin, and sometimes it totters to great prosperity, but tottering is its normal gait, and cries of anguish are its normal tone of voice.

So I have reluctantly taken leave of my colleagues on Friday afternoon, and rejoined them on Saturday night. The play has never collapsed in the meantime. When I return I find it tottering as before, and the anguished cries as normally despairing as ever. My plays have encountered in the end both success and failure, but I cannot honestly ascribe either result to my observing the Shabbat.

Leaving the gloomy theater, the littered coffee cups, the jumbled scarred-up scripts, the haggard actors, the knuckle-gnawing producer, the clattering typewriter, and the dense, tobacco smoke has been a startling change, very like a brief return from the wars.

My wife and my boys, whose existence I have almost forgotten in the anxious shoring up of the tottering ruin, are waiting for me, dressed in holiday clothes, and looking to me marvelously attractive. We have sat down to a splendid dinner, at a table graced with flowers and the old Shabbat symbols: the burning candles, the twisted challah loaves, the stuffed fish, and my grandfather’s silver goblet brimming with wine. I have blessed my boys with the ancient blessings; we have sung the pleasantly syncopated Shabbat table hymns.

The talk has little to do with tottering ruins. My wife and I have caught up with our week’s conversation. The boys, knowing that Shabbat is the occasion for asking questions, have asked them. We talk of Judaism. For me it is a retreat into restorative magic.

Shabbat has passed much in the same manner. The boys are at home in the synagogue, and they like it. They like even more the assured presence of their parents. In the weekday press of schooling, household chores, and work — and especially in play producing time — it often happens that they see little of us. On Shabbat we are always there and they know it. They know too that I am not working and that my wife is at her ease. It is their day.

It is my day, too. The telephone is silent. I can think, read, study, walk or do nothing. It is an oasis of quiet. My producer one Saturday night said to me, “I don’t envy you your religion, but I envy you your Shabbat.”

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Notre Dame Will Rise Again

April 16th, 2019 Posted by On Our Mind 1 comment

Landing an American on the moon and bringing him home again in 1969 was a multi-year project that involved all Americans. A few directly but most through willingly paying their taxes that underwrote the huge expense. Building Notre Dame Cathedral on its island, with its sandstone walls, its rib vaults and its flying buttresses took about a hundred years and must have also involved a large part of the population. For the 12th century, it was no less a technological miracle than was the moon landing in the 20th. So ahead of its time was Notre Dame that it retained its title as the tallest building in Paris for hundreds of years. Wars, riots and revolutions over the centuries inflicted severe damage on the cathedral but it was always restored and often improved. Again this time, many generous benefactors along with the French government promise repair. They do so because to many, the cathedral is no more than an irreplaceable artistic and cultural legacy; a national monument. The fervent Christian faith that inspired its creation and made it possible has faded into obscurity in modern day France. But in reality, it was the fuel of Christian fervor that hoisted those colossal oak beams two hundred feet up in the air to form the base for 200 tons of lead sheeting as the roof. Along with many massive stone blocks, all this was raised and placed into position with no electrical power, no steam power, and no hydraulic power. As has happened on many occasions during the past few hundred years, Notre Dame will again be restored but let’s not forget that regardless of the secularization of France today, that cathedral was built by the Christianity that shaped western civilization and for the best part of a millennium it has stood as a monument to the faith that built it and that was practiced within it. That won’t change.

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First Baptist pastor Robert Jeffress is attacked by Jewish journalist quoting his rabbi

June 21st, 2018 Posted by On Our Mind 5 comments

Pastor Robert Jeffress displays what I believe to be admirable courage in resisting the invidious idea that Judeo-Christian, Bible-based faith must to be stuffed out of sight where it can inflict no influence on American culture. He and his church, Dallas’ First Baptist erected a bill-board advertising the church’s commitment to faith and freedom and mentioned the name of Pastor Jeffress’ sermon for this coming Sunday-America is a Christian Nation.
This triggered macro-aggressions in Jewish journalist Robert Wilonsky who wrote an angry polemic slamming Pastor Jeffress in the Dallas News. Why do I mention the Jewish faith of this journalist? Only because he himself drew attention to it right near the beginning of his furious tirade against Pastor Jeffress. “My rabbi warned me there would be days like this.” Well, I have no idea of who his rabbi is, but I am deeply distressed that again, secularized Americans of Jewish ancestry should play conspicuous roles in the attempt to create a post-Christian America.
I have written extensively elsewhere and spoken many times explaining why Jews and other non-Christian minorities should be grateful that this is indeed a Christian nation so I won’t go into that again here. Politics is really nothing more than the practical application of our most deeply held values and the crusade to make sure that all values have a place at the political table other than Christian is dangerous. I support Pastor Jeffress’ work in bringing Judeo Christian Bible based values to greater relevance and prominence in the culture.
Whether one agrees with Pastor Robert Jeffress’ politics and theology or one does not, anyone passionate about freedom and open debate in America has to be troubled by the attempts to silence the good pastor which resulted in the removal of the billboard for which he paid. Even if it is only his opinion that America is a Christian nation, that opinion needs to be censored?
This rabbi finds that development deeply disturbing.

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Mitt Romney Supremely Unqualified for Public Office

May 15th, 2018 Posted by On Our Mind 5 comments

One vital characteristic for leadership is knowing how the world REALLY works. By this sure standard, Mitt Romney is supremely unqualified for public office. He labeled the pastor of First Baptist in Dallas, Robert Jeffress a bigot for professing normative Christian doctrine. How shocking! A Christian leader believes in Christianity. Every morning I awaken grateful to be living among millions of devout Christians, many of whom aren’t sure whether I am destined for heaven or hell but who do absolutely nothing to hasten my arrival at either destination. America has been a place where we have traditionally accorded others the freedom of belief along with the freedom to speak what they believe. Now, Mitt Romney and the New York Times wish to abrogate those freedoms for Christians but grant them only to Moslems and atheists. Every group that stands for anything defines itself exclusively. That is how the world REALLY works.

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Finding The Off Switch: Four Reasons I Observe Shabbat

April 10th, 2018 Posted by On Our Mind 1 comment

This terrific piece by Peter Himmelman appeared in Forbes. Peter is a musician and businessman and also the son-in-law of Bob Dylan the musical icon of the 60s:

“With the pace of technology and its demand for our attention increasing month-to-month, comes the challenge of occasionally leaving it behind. I’ve found some answers in my over thirty-year observance of Shabbat, (the Jewish Sabbath), a time when the use of technology is prohibited. While I don’t believe that the strict tenets of this observance are appropriate for all people, I am strongly convinced that many of its ideas would be helpful if they were incorporated on some level.

Technically speaking, there are thirty-nine types of labor that are prohibited on Shabbat. They include things like using money, making fire, planting, carrying things from a public to a private domain, sewing, cooking, fastening two things together, and writing. Over time, each of the thirty-nine prohibitions was extrapolated on to prohibit the use of things that weren’t in existence at the time these laws were instituted. Some examples include driving a car, which runs on a combustion engine and is a violation of the prohibition against the use of fire; and using electronics of any sort, which demands a completed circuit and is a violation of the principle of joining two things together. This last prohibition effectively renders all cell phones, computers, and televisions completely off-limits during the twenty-five hours of Shabbat.

I was recently involved in a creativity symposium in San Francisco. Among the speakers was a former senior editor at a well-known technology publication with whom I had a chance to speak about the idea of stepping back from technology, and how the rituals of Shabbat echoed a very important, if often missing, dimension of technology: our ability to shut it off. Not just to shut it off once a year, or for a few moments throughout a day, but by a regular, systematized means. He observed that the ritual of Shabbat seemed to point not to some ancient and irrelevant past, but to a decidedly postmodern view of our integration with technology.

When people talk about some thing or some idea they feel is outmoded I’ll frequently hear them say, “Seriously, it’s 2018…” (Or whatever year it happens to be.) It’s often assumed that we live in a “modern age” and that things that are not modern, such as a 3,300 year-old Jewish ritual like Shabbat observance, should be discarded, or worse, placed in the same hermetically sealed box one puts all things anachronistic; things worthy of occasional review as cultural curiosities, but certainly not as something to take seriously. Even as a kid I never could help feeling there was a flaw in this kind of thinking. Sure, technology has sped up the pace of our lives, but in terms of real change, there’s been no difference made at all in everyday human experience, in spite of all our so-called advances.

Take the delivery systems of music for example. First, there was the piano roll, then the clunky 78 played on the old Victrola, followed by the 33 and a third LP, the 45 single, the eight track, the cassette, the CD, the DAT, and most recently, digital streaming services like Spotify and Pandora. Interestingly, none of these music delivery systems, no matter how sophisticated, has changed the visceral effect of music on the human spirit. At no time did any technology ever feel old-fashioned either. We never laughed at the eight-track when it came out; it wasn’t quaint, it was cutting edge. The idea of having your own music in your car at the touch of a button was revolutionary.

People also felt they were living in the modern age in 1716, and in 1116, and also in 116 BCE. They felt this way because nothing has fundamentally changed. Fathers love their daughters the same today as they did in the past, the sun was bright back in 1916 too, and it burned your eyes if you stared at it too long. The touch of a loving hand on the skin of a person in 1416 felt identical to the way it feels on your skin in 2018. The worried face of the moon still looks the same, and a cold November wind on your neck feels just like it did since time immemorial.

To say that something as central as the regulated cessation of creative effort —which is in essence, what Shabbat is about—so that one can focus on what has already been achieved, is somehow old fashion, is to miss the point. Shabbat is by nature, timeless. It cuts to the essence of what so many of us lack: a regularly recurring time of reflection.

Any good composer or painter knows that as important as it is to be immersed in the sound of the symphony he or she is working on, or to be engrossed in the images he or she is setting down on canvas, it is equally important to step away from one’s creative work and to observe with clarity and renewed objectivity just what it is that has been created. Shabbat brings with it an opportunity to step away and better see life, not as a series of compartmentalized actions, but as a unified whole. Here are a few ways the tenants of Shabbat can help you in your life.

Improve creative thinking

It’s an axiom, of physics that two things cannot occupy the same space. And just as this applies to things, it also applies to ideas. To be at our creative best we need to make an empty space through the cessation of our creative endeavors. Only by stopping our constant output can new inspirations take hold.

Slow down life’s hectic pace

As we learn to breathe more slowly in the practice of meditation, adopting the rhythms of Shabbat-time into our lives has the same beneficial tendency. To many people the world feels chaotic, out of control. Too often it seems, we are guided by demands and situations, rather than by our own volition. Shabbat is the bedrock in time that cannot be moved aside for anything other than life-threatening situations.

Improve relationships

When I got my first recording contract in 1986, I decided I would work to protect my most valuable resource. It wasn’t artistic control over what songs to record, or the power to decide what my record jackets would look like —my most valuable resource was my time.

I made it known that I would not perform on Shabbat no matter what the reason. It wasn’t as if my convictions weren’t tested. There were slots on The Tonight Show that I turned down, opportunities to be the opening act for top artists like Sting, that I waived away —all because these prospects, while good for my career, would have violated my observance of Shabbat, and as a consequence my understanding of time as something precious, something that belonged to me (and later, to my family) alone.

Shabbat is time away from iPhones and computers and errands and shopping and every conceivable distraction. We humans hunger to be heard, to be seen, and to be known, but we suffer from a paucity of attention-giving and attention-getting. Just as it’s impossible to make music without an instrument, it is impossible to create thriving relationships without making space and time for them to flourish.

Gain a more mature life perspective

As children we couldn’t help but be burdened by our unfulfilled desires. We wanted the things we wanted —immediately. Waiting for any length of time just wouldn’t do. Our immature minds were not yet sophisticated enough to realize that staving off a momentary pleasure for a longer-term gain would, in the end, bring us far more pleasure. Shabbat is about honing our sense of gratitude.

Most of us work to make a living and strive to achieve the things we desire, but we also need to feel as if we’ve come home again, come back to some midpoint. By regularly postponing our manic ascent up an assumed ladder of success, we come to see life from a broader, richer perspective.

By first finding, and then being brave enough to use the “off-switch,” we gain the sweet, and all too rare sense, of having finally arrived at our destination.”

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