Whats in a Name 3/2/2017

Today, an item published in the “Journal of Personality and Social Psychology” caught my eye. A team of researchers led by Ruth Mayo found that a sample group was able to pick the correct name of a person nearly forty percent of the time.

According to Mayo’s research, the findings show a noteworthy increase above the chance level of a random guess and the outcome was true even when controlled for age and ethnicity. “We hypothesize that there are stereotypes about names, including how someone with a specific name looks, and these expectations really do affect our facial appearance,” said Mayo.

Now, I didn’t choose my name and I may not even like it but it is mine, and I carry it around with me every day of my life and now, according to Dr. Mayo’s research, I even look like my name.

So what is this about a name?

Did you ever notice that in our regular prayers we refer to the “Name of G-d” and at times even just address “The Name?” And, when referring to G-d in casual talk, we use the name Hashem which literally translates as “the Name” from Hebrew.

A name has two opposite qualities. On one hand, a name does not contain any of the substance of a person not even a single physical cell. It is merely a way to identify the substance that is me. On the other hand, when a person is called by his name the entirety of the person responds both physically and psychologically. And that is why one of the ways to revive a person who has fainted is by calling the person by their name.

Furthermore, a name is only useful when in presence of others who need to identify you. When one is alone, a name has no practical use or meaning. Another interesting aspect of a name is that it alone can be a powerful force as for example merely declaring that something is being said or done in the name of the President can open many doors and have a very consequential impact.

Getting back to G-d, the reason we use the Name of G-d when referring to Him is to emphasize that all of creation is a merely the product of the power of His Name and not His essence. G-d Himself remains unchanged and unaffected by the act of creation and the course of human events that unfold in this world. Despite this, because creation does involve His Name He is able, and does by His own choice, place a value in the actions of man and takes a keen interest and reacts to every last detail of what transpires here below.

So, does G-d look like His Name? I wouldn’t venture a guess. Particularly, since I am not exactly convinced that I look like a Shmuel either.

Choseness 8/5/2016

The American election is not just about electing a President but is also to choose an executive team that will run the government for the next four years. In a way this is similar to the concept of G-d electing/choosing the Jewish people to represent Him to mankind.

Indeed, the notion of the Jewish people being a chosen people is one of the most fundamental ideas in Judaism. The very nature of our national and religious identity, as defined in the Bible, is bound up with the story of the Divine revelation at Sinai and the election of the Jewish people as a chosen and special people (Exodus19:5/6).

Yet, ‘choseness’ is an idea which, perhaps more than any other in Judaism, makes many Jews uncomfortable. The claim of ‘choseness’ is seen as clannish, parochial and exclusionary. As a result, many try to soften the idea in various ways.

The truth be told, the Jewish idea of a chosen people is, in fact, the most liberal and tolerant approach to religion possible and here is why.

Early Christianity was an attempt to universalize the Jewish idea of monotheism. In order to do this the first thing that had to go was the notion that the Jewish people were chosen and special. All of mankind was brought into the big tent of ‘the covenant’. It was no longer the private domain of a particular people it was universal to all. It was also a great success.

Some six centuries later Islam followed the same basic prescription and became the next great universalistic religion.

But let’s take a look at the other side of this inclusiveness. If one religion is the only true religion for all of mankind then anyone who is not part of this religion must, for their own good, be brought into it in any way possible. This tragic reasoning lies at the root of the centuries and indeed millennia of human conflict which has led to more carnage and destruction than any other ideology in history.

What seems on the surface to be a noble and inclusive idea when put into practice turns out to be the very foundation of intolerance. To this day neither Christianity nor Islam has been able to fully come to terms with legitimizing or even just tolerating the existence of other people’s religious truths. (Although, in more recent years, some Christian denominations, particularly Catholics, have done so to a greater or lesser extent.)

Judaism, on the other hand, has always been tolerant of others precisely because of the notion of choseness. The Jews are the ones who have been chosen for a particular mission, others do not have to accept this religion. (This is also why Judaism is not a missionary religion and does not seek converts.) Any society or belief system which recognizes one G-d and conducts itself in accordance with the basic principles of civilization (called the seven Noahide laws) is considered acceptable according to Judaism. By giving up on universalism and insisting on choseness Judaism can be tolerant and accepting of the beliefs of others.

The next time someone tells you they are uncomfortable about being one of the ‘chosen people’ tell them about the other alternative and its consequences and then let history offer the irrefutable evidence of which of these is the true tolerant value.

Cast Your Bread Upon The Water 8/4/2016

This week, I’d like to share a short story.

In the course of my work, over these many years, I have been called on to assist many different individuals under many unusual circumstances. (And yes, I could have written a book – if  only I had kept track of them!)

This was brought home to me about a week or so ago when I received the following email:

Hi Rabbi Kaplan…….I do not know if I am writing to the correct “Rabbi Kaplan” so I apologize if what follows is not relevant to you.

If you are the “Rabbi Kaplan” I hope this reaches, I wanted to offer a VERY belated debt of gratitude for your kindness to me way back in 1985!  In the summer of that year, I had been struggling with some difficult issues and lived on xxxxx St. near Chevy Chase, MD.  At that time, on more than one occasion, you came to show your concern for me, in one case driving me to a place you felt could be of help to me. Long story short, I eventually moved back to my hometown of NJ, went to law school in NY and have been “Chabad Friendly” for many years.

There are more details to add, but at this point I wanted to just see if I am reaching the “right” Rabbi Kaplan who would have been with Chabad in DC/MD around 1985. Even if this is so, I realize you may not recall the above incident.  Either way, I want to express my very belated gratitude for your caring and help at a difficult time in my life.  It was something I’d long wanted to do, but I came across a Chabad calendar from the Chabad Center with your name on it which reminded me to finally write over 30 years later!



Last night I had the opportunity to speak with Gary on the phone. He shared with me some additional details about the help I extended to him at the time but, try as I may, I am unable to remember him or any other part of the story.

The fact is, that most often we are not privy to the long term results of what we do. But that is not what is really important anyway. Our task is to extend ourselves in every way possible to help others and it is according to the energy and effort that we invest in the process that we are ultimately judged.

At times, G-d does grants us the pleasure of actually seeing the results of our labor. And, when that happens some thirty years later, it makes the experience just that much sweeter.

Addendum to last week’s blog:

Providentially, an article published in this Monday’s New York Times also discuss the issue of violence and religion. However, it ignores the model of Judaism and the notion of choseness brought up in the blog. You can see it here.  http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/01/opinion/how-religion-can-lead-to-violence.html

Fish and the Seas 8/18/2016

My initial thought for these “dog days of August” blog post was to simply write two large words: “Gone Fishing!” But then an actual fish story hit the news so how could I ignore it?

An article in Science Magazine reported: “Greenland sharks, living in the cold, deep waters of the Arctic and North Atlantic Oceans, are one of the largest sharks in the world — they can grow up to seven meters in length. Now, scientists have discovered that Greenland sharks can live for hundreds of years, making them the world’s longest living vertebrates.”

This brings to mind a verse of Psalms, “Praise G-d from the earth; sea monsters and all the depths (of the ocean)” (148:5) .

The ocean is the lifeblood of Earth, covering more than 70 percent of the planet’s surface, driving weather, regulating temperature, and ultimately supporting all living organisms. Throughout history, the ocean has been a vital source of sustenance, transport, commerce, growth, and inspiration.

Yet for all of our reliance on the ocean, 95 percent of this realm remains unexplored, unseen by human eyes.

The Talmud states that, “everything that exists on dry land has a counterpart in the sea” (Chulin 127:a). Yet, while we have reached for the heavens with space exploration and invested trillions of dollars in this quest, we have neglected the seas and know precious little of what goes on there.

The Talmud also notes that the law of the sea is that the big fish eat the little fish and if not for governments the same law would apply to humans on dry land (Avoda Zara, 4:a). As the Mishne comments, “Pray for the welfare of the government (even if it is not completely just) for without it each man would swallow his neighbor alive.”

Another association that is made in the Talmud between fish and a Jew is that just as fish of the sea die as soon as they leave the water, so too, a Jew who departs from the study of Torah and the observance of the commandments cannot continue to survive as a Jew.

Summer should be a time of rejuvenation and health both for our physical bodies – and our spiritual selves. I should have never even entertained the thought of skipping a week of this Torah blog!

Standards and Torah 9/22/2016

We are just at the mid-point of the counting of the “Omer” the period of days from when the Jewish people left Egypt and counted the days in eager anticipation to receive the Torah at Sinai. The Torah relates that G-d informed Moses in their first encounter at the burning bush that after the exodus the people would come back to that same mountain and serve G-d there. The revelation at Sinai is not just an extraordinary event to prove G-d’s existence and His interaction with mankind but is the bedrock upon which our entire lives, history and religion rest.

Here is one way to look at it.

Just off Route 270 in Gaithersburg there is a huge, little known, government agency that occupies about a square mile of land called the National Institute of Standards and Technology which has a budget for fiscal year 2017 of over three billion dollars! If you are not in the manufacturing business you may not have ever heard it, but in fact, it affects every single aspect of our lives. In the late nineteenth century as the national economy became based on manufacturing (which integrates multiple parts into a single item) it became apparent that someone had to decide the on standards for measurements, what exactly is a foot; a two by four piece of lumber or how much is an ounce. This was essential in order for everyone to know what they will receive when they order a particular item. Obviously as the complexity of manufacturing has multiplied many fold over the years so has the task of the National Institute of Standards.

The fact is that without exact standards nothing can be measured or evaluated. Life is no different but more so. The values, ethics and morality by which we live also need standards in order to have any meaning beyond the passing whim of the moment. We often talk of the ‘progress’ that human beings have made over the years and indeed if we are talking about technology; i.e. how fast we can travel; how tall we can build buildings etc how many millions of calculation we can make per second it is demonstrably true because we have the standards by which to measure space and therefore speed and height etc. (thanks, indeed to the Institute of Standards and Technology). But when we talking of human progress the fundamental question is, what is the standard being used to measure this? Without first establishing the measuring stick how can we evaluate anything? It could very well be that what we conceive of, at this particular time, as forward progress is actually a regression – going backwards!  Have you ever experienced being on a train and observing a train on the next track and not be able to tell if your train is going forward or the other train is going backwards, until you glimpse another stationary object?

That is exactly what the Torah is; a G-d given ‘World Institute of Standards’ the yard stick by which we can determine if the values we espouse and the ethics we live by are actually going forward or backwards. Life is a combination of change and permanence. The only way to distinguish between them is by our age-less G-d given Torah.

Technology 9/20/2016

I just bought a new cell phone, while it is not an ‘IPhone 7’, it is a fancy Android piece. And if I am to believe all that the promotional material says about it, it can do just about everything, even slice bread if I have an automatic bread slicer at home which is web connected.

I needed a new phone not because the old one stopped working but just because it is old and can’t keep up with all the latest programs and ‘apps’ that are supposed to make life even more easy (or complicated, depending on your point of view) than it already is.

Which leads me to think about what life would be like if we roll back technology to the way it was just fifty or sixty years. Can you imagine a world with the current population but without computers or the internet? Clearly the entire machinery of government and of much of commerce would be gridlocked beyond anything we know.

Or if we go back an additional fifty or sixty years (to the beginning of the twentieth century)  and imagine a world without cars or trucks? In fact a scientific conference in London in the late 1880’s concluded that within twenty five years the entire city of London would become covered with horse manure to a depth of ten feet! That is in addition to the world running out of the ability to provide basic food and shelter for the exploding population.

The point is that fortunately technology and science have managed to roughly keep up with the growing population and the increasing complexity of society.

For sure, we constantly face problems and challenges and that is why I used the world ‘roughly’ to describe the general balance between the two. But when viewing this today with the perspective of the past hundred and twenty years the correlation becomes quite clear.
Would you suggest that this is just an accident of history and quirk of nature?  

In the dawn of the scientific age in the nineteen twenties the previous Lubavitch Rebbe, Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneerson commented that we cannot fathom the great secrets that G-d has hidden in nature and that scientists will never be able to get to the bottom of it. It is now close to a hundred years since this observation and it has proven to be right on the mark.  

Technology is a wonderful gift from G-d and there is much more to yet to come. Trust in G-d, embrace the future and oh, also upgrade your cell phone.

Values 8/20/2016

If there is something we all agree on is that we are fortunate that we live in a democracy undergirding be the principal of  government of the people, by the people and for the people where majority rules. Not that this is a particularly efficient form of government (do I need to point to the current political circus) but, as Ben Franklyn observed, it is better than anything else available, so I am ok with it. Now however I think this is going too far. We are beginning to see popular opinion becoming the basis for determining core values and the very definition of right and wrong.
A recent NY Times article brought to light a Maryland program whose goal is to determine, based on popular sentiment, who should receive priority medical treatment  in an emergency. 
“For the past several years, Dr. Lee Daugherty Biddison, a critical care physician at Johns Hopkins, and colleagues have led an unusual public debate around Maryland, from Zion Baptist Church in East Baltimore to a wellness center in wealthy Howard County to a hospital on the rural Eastern Shore. Preparing to make recommendations for state officials that could serve as a national model, the researchers heard hundreds of citizens discuss whether a doctor could remove one patient from lifesaving equipment, like a ventilator, to make way for another who might have a better chance of recovering, or take age into consideration in setting priorities…. Participants in the forums tended to favor saving the most lives or years of life by prioritizing people who were expected to survive their current illness or live the longest after being treated. 
So there you have it. We have entered the age of “mob values” – whatever the mob decides is now the governing value for society.
 Whatever happened to “these truth’s (that were) self-evident, and the inalienable “rights that are endowed by their Creator” of the declaration of independence?
Truths are values that endure for the ages; rights that are endowed by the creator are similarly permanent. But now all this doesn’t matter any more. Life and death decisions are a matter to be decided by popular opinion. If there ever was a slippery slope this is it.

The political season 8/25/2016

Before the political season reaches its crescendo after Labor Day I want to offer a few words of caution.

Most everyone is familiar with the Biblical story of Adam and Eve and how their downfall was brought about by the snake who convinced them to eat of the ‘Tree of Knowledge.’  The Torah  describes the snake as “the most cunning of all the wild animals.” The word for cunning – ‘arum’ can also translate as ‘deceitful’ which refers  to a more sophisticated form of cunning enabled by the snake’s ability to communicate verbally. Indeed, the snake was punished for its misuse of this power by losing the faculty of speech it possessed earlier.

A human being functions with three distinct forms of expression:  thought, speech and deed, each of which expresses the intelligence or emotions of a person. One distinction between these forms of expression is that the thoughts going through a person’s mind, be they academic or emotional, reveal the genuine self; you are what you think and you are what you feel. Speech however, is an entirely different matter. People talk out of ‘two sides of their mouth’ saying whatever they want whether or not it reflects their genuine stance. A crook can talk about the most sublime values of truth and honesty and no one may be the wiser (you might recall a U.S. President who emphatically said “I’m not a crook” though he turned out to be storied one).

The downfall of man revolved around the faculty of speech. The snake was the first to introduce speech as a means of deception and not only as a means of genuine communication.  

This is why our sages describe the world we live in now as ‘a world of falsehood’ because the way we communicate with each other is through speech which conveys the message the speaker wants you to hear and disguises what is truly in his heart.  In the future, perfected state of the world (when Moshiach comes,) people will only be able to speak what is really in their mind and heart.  

So here are my words of caution:

A political election campaign is mostly bluster and appearances, when candidates say whatever they think will get you to vote for them.  But to understand who they really are and what they really intend to do if elected, we need to read very carefully between the lines.   

The serpent presented Eve with a whole spiel of smooth talk, but all along it was merely fanciful deceit.           

Voter beware!

Vacations 8/28/2016

Are you dreaming of squeezing in one last vacation before the end of the summer? Well perhaps, it is an opportunity to examine what the nature of rest and vacation is and why we feel so compelled to pursue it. After all, vacation is not one of the three essential human needs of food, clothing, and shelter that we are forced to work for in order to survive.

The travel and tourism business is a huge international industry. In 2016, the industry is estimated to contribute about 13 trillion dollars to world GDP and directly produce 105 million jobs. Throw into this another 4 or 5 trillion dollars for other forms of relaxation and entertainment and it becomes clear that this is one of the larger segments of the world economy.

But, let’s examine this a bit. Humans are biological beings and our biological machines maintain a consistent level of function twenty-four hours a day, three hundred and sixty-five days a year without a single day of rest or vacation. Animals, which are also biological beings, don’t take vacations at all (though I did once visit a full service ‘pet hotel’). In fact, biologists are still baffled as to why our bodies need sleep as there is no biological imperative for sleep. So why do we need to sleep or vacations?  

To find the answer, let’s go back to the very beginning, creation. In the story of creation the Torah states, “And G-d completed, on the seventh day, the work (of creation) and He rested on the seventh day from all the work that He made” (Gen. 2:2). There is an inherent contradiction in this verse. If G-d completed the work of creation on the seventh day, then how did He rest on the (entire) seventh day?   

The answer given by our sages demonstrates that both statements are actually compatible. Indeed, during the six days of creation G-d made everything yet there was still one item missing and that was rest itself. So, on the seventh day G-d created rest, by resting – “and He rested on the seventh day.” So, G-d did finishe the creation the seventh day and yet no work was done on the seventh day. In this respect, rest is not a separate factor from work but rather an integral extension of it. Rest and leisure are the completion of the process of work.  

The verse in Job states “Man was created to work ” (7:5),  but that also means to work in a way that imitates the work of His creator. G-d created rest at the conclusion of the work process but also made it a completely separate day from the other six days of creation. This is why rest is not a biological imperative but it is a special Divine edict. “And G-d blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, for on it, G-d rested from all His creative work” (Gen. 2:2).

And this is exactly what Shabbat is all about: a beautiful day of Divinely sanctified rest and also the source of the inherent human drive for all the other kinds of rest and leisure activities.    

So here I am, just having observed a delightful Shabbat with my family, sitting in my office with my feet propped up on my desk, looking out the window at a beautiful clear, blue late summer sky and dreaming about my next vacation!

Modesty (Berkini) 9/8/2016

Throwing caution to the wind, I will wade in to the brouhaha surrounding appropriate dress on French public beaches which has become an international controversy and exposed some very glaring cultural contradictions and contrarian opinions.

The fundamental questions are: what is modesty, where does it come from, and should government be setting the standards and enforcing them?

As I wrote last week, food, clothing and shelter comprise the three essentials of human survival.  In each of these, humans are radically different from animals. Animals find their food in their natural habitat, are born with the clothing they require and make do with temporary shelter when necessary. Humans have to produce their food, make their own clothing and construct their shelter. And this is what drives most of human activity. Why?

To address the clothing category, we need to go back to the Bible and the first story after creation.

When Adam and Eve sinned by eating of the tree of knowledge their entire conception of evil changed from dispassionate intellectual awareness to an internal driven compulsion. Sexuality for example was no longer an enjoyable biological function necessary to produce the next generation and to populate the world but a powerful (and in many an overpowering) lust which is barely containable and often leads to much havoc and emotional pain.  As a result it became necessary to conceal the parts of the body which could overstimulate this powerful force. And this is where modesty entered the picture.

But modesty is much more than a clothing cover-up; it is a state of mind and a way of life for both males and females and is built on an underlying value system. We all understand that one should enter a place of worship with an appropriate reverence and respect likewise when one recognizes that G-d is truly everywhere and that we are constantly in His presence it follows that we should maintain a degree of this reverence at all times and in everything that we do. Furthermore, general modesty also helps to support wholesome family life and even a holy state of family life (as required by the Torah). 

From this perspective modesty is and relates to the entire person: the way we think, speak and act (clothing being only one aspect of this structure). This may have the added benefit of liberating oneself from the constant judgment, objectification and need for validation by others which plagues our society.

An external government force, which is not in the business of promoting a particular value system, can neither impose modesty on people nor can it impose what it considers to be immodesty. Such choices must come exclusively from the internal value system of the individual and should be left up to the discretion of each individual.  This does not mean that government should not promote common fundamental values which form a healthy basis for civilization.


The prophet Mica (8:6) said it best “What does G-d ask of you but to do justice, love kindness and to walk humbly with G-d your Lord”.