Stomach Mind Parallel 9/15/2016

When I was growing up my mother would listen to various radio shows and pick up tips about healthy eating like drinking cod liver oil, eating only skinned chicken (no Gribenes, for those who might still know what that is) and, G-d forbid, no Crisco fat. Yet, years ago it seemed that it was only every once in a while that a new recommended diet or particular food would be touted as something that would dramatically change your physical well being for the better. It seems to me, that now not a day goes by that some new food or pill is promoted as the next best thing to spinach for keeping one healthy and vigorous.
 Now, I am not against eating healthy, and in fact I would consider my diet to be a reasonably healthy one, besides for when I indulge to satisfy my sweet tooth, and I encourage others to follow a healthy lifestyle as well. There is sound logical reasoning to maintain a healthy diet, as the saying “you are what you eat” is quite true.  Our bodies retain a certain small percentage of all the things we have ever eaten and over time, as we grow older, that becomes an ever more significant factor in who we are from a physiological point of view.
 But the physical side is only one part of who we are and, I would suggest, the far lesser part. The larger part of what makes us who we are is our mind and emotions. Evidence for this can be seen all around us when we observe people who have major physical impairments making major contributions to every area of human knowledge and endeavour. As such it behooves us to recognize that from a mind perspective we are what we absorb into our brains (For those who know Yiddish; “Vos mi leigt in top un vos mi leigt in kop.).
The parallels between the digestive system and the mind are rather striking and that is why I describe the mind as the stomach of the psyche.
Having established this parallel we can now conclude that who we are in our psychologically/intellectually persona is also to a significant degree an accumulation of all of the things we see, the ideas we learn and the experiences we have.
As a country we have an aversion to any kind of government censorship but what about some reasonable self-censorship? Have you ever considered that it might be advantageous to your psychic health to filter out some of the garbage that is fed to us on a daily basis in the media and elsewhere? Better yet, how about making an effort to ingest some potent, wholesome, organic Torah learning? It has a track record of keeping the Jewish psyche healthy for over three thousand years – try it, your psyche and soul will forever thank you and it is a Mitzvah too!

Rosh Hashana 9/29/2016

As you are most certainly aware, Rosh Hashanah is almost upon us. Of course, it comes around every year on a regular cycle, and we expect to see it in its familiar spot on the calendar, albeit sometimes a little earlier in the secular year and sometimes, like this year, a little later. But, don’t let the obvious and expected cyclical nature of the calendar fool you. Jewish holidays are not on a circular cycle rather they are on spiral spring (or to indulge our childhood memories ‘a slinky’) and the difference between the two is enormous.

When you complete a full circle on a cycle you come back to the exact same spot that you were when you started the journey. On a spiral however you also make a full 360 degree circle but when you get back to the original point you are a bit higher than you were at the very beginning and this makes all the difference in the world.

The word ‘shana’ in Hebrew comes from the root word ‘to change.’ Every year brings change along with it.

The Kabbalah explains this notion in the following way. Just as the physical world differs from one year to the next in terms of weather, human events and so on, so too the spiritual world, which is defined by the creative force by which G-d creates the world, different every year. Actually it is the reverse, because the Divine creative power in the world is different every year therefore, the physical world, which is animated by this power, is also different every year.

This notion is derived from a verse in the Torah,” It (Israel) is a land that the L-rd your G-d seeks it(‘s welfare), constantly the eye of G-d is upon it from the beginning of the year to the end of the year” (Deut. 11:12). The words, “from the beginning… to the end of the year,” already imply that it is ‘constant’ so why does the verse need to include the word “constantly?” The Kabbalah explains that the verse is alluding to two different Divine forces that are acting in creation, one is an unchanging constant and a second one changes year by year – and only remains active “from the beginning of the year to the end of the year” when it is then exchanged for a new, and more potent, force.

The same notion applies to us. Whatever we did last year was perhaps fine for last year but it will not do for this year. Just think about the business module. If every year you are doing business exactly the same way you did it last year you will be out of business in no time. Sure it might be the same kind of business but every year you need to see how to change and improve it.

Now, isn’t this a great set up for a fundraising pitch? Whatever you gave last year is not enough for this year! But, surprisingly, that is not my intention, although you can take that message too! My point is, that they way you practice Judaism and the way you study Torah has to change and improve year by year. So, this Rosh Hashanah become a Kabbalist and take advantage of the new Divine force entering into the world to improve your spiritual life.

May we all be inscribed for a healthy and happy New Year 5777.

Yom Kippur 10/6/2016

The recent EpiPen scandal has placed the sky high cost of drugs on the front burner of public consciousness. As usual, Congress conducted some public grandstanding hearings, to be followed by… nothing, and California is holding a of referendum on the matter. But that’s it today for current events.

However, the general idea of medicinal drugs does have an interesting parallel to our preparations for the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur.

By and large, at the most basic level, good health is not an accident of fate. Rather it is bolstered by taking personal responsibility for healthy eating together with a reasonable dose of regular exercise. Illness, however, is also an unfortunate fact of life and medicine is G-d’s gift to help cure, or at least alleviate, some of the pain and burden that illness imposes.

In a similar vein, proper (healthy) Jewish living also requires taking personal responsibility for the way we live and observe (exercising) the commandments on a regular day to day basis. However, there are times when we fail to follow this healthy path due to inattention or circumstance and we do not live up to the standards required by the Torah. For such an illness G-d’s gift to us is the spiritual medicine called Teshuvah – returning to G-d, as the prophet Isaiah (6:10) states “…in his heart he will understand and he will return and be healed.” In other words sin is spiritual illness and Teshuvah is the medicine and cure.

One of the reasons that medicines cost so much more than regular food is that they are a very highly concentrated form of food that requires tremendous upfront investment in research, development and then production.

The same notion holds true for Teshuvah. G-d in his infinite mercy granted us a most potent medicine that has the ability to not only help us improve the future but also to redefine the past as well. G-d – who is Himself not constrained by past, present and future – concentrated His transcendent energy into the act of Teshuvah, making it possible to retroactively change the past.  All that is required is a sincere and profound turn toward G-d.

The verse in Job (2:4) states “all that man may possess he will give for his soul” i.e. he will give everything he has to preserve his life.  This is one reason for the high cost of medicine: the market will bear it.

At this time of the year the price-tag  for this wondrous spiritual remedy is absolutely free; we call it Yom Kippur.

The Torah informs us (Leviticus, 16:30) “For on this day (the priest, or just the day itself) will atone for you to purify you, from all of your sins you will be purified before G-d.”

All that is required from us is to ‘turn’ toward G-d and ask.

May we all be sealed in the book of life, health and prosperity.

Succot 10/13/2016

The whole country breathed a sigh of relief this week as Hurricane Mathew came and went and spared the southeast region the devastation that was predicted by the weather experts. A stage four hurricane with winds of over one hundred miles per hour can destroy homes and businesses and anything else in its path in short order and that is in addition to the damage the severe flooding causes. The only option for the population living in its path is to leave everything behind and evacuate to safer ground.

How providential that this event happened just one week before we celebrate the festival of Succot (starting Sunday night).

The definition of a Succah is a structure that has only a makeshift temporary roof which provides shade but permits the rain to come through. The Torah commands that we are to “dwell in Succot for seven day;” the word ‘dwell’ our sages explain to mean that “for seven days a person is required to make the Succah his primary place of residence and the home only temporary.” Preferably one should eat all the holiday meals in the Succah and where possible even sleep in the Succah.

One of the central themes emphasized by dwelling in the Succah is that,  in truth,  everything we have, including the home we live in, is only temporary. Not only because we live a limited number of years but also because all the ‘things’ that we acquire and become attached to during our lifetime come and go with the passage of time. Of all these ‘things’ that we acquire none is more fundamental to our personal sense of security than the home we live in, as the saying goes “my home is my castle.” As we have just seen,  even when there is a hurricane on the way and the government orders are given to abandon the home and evacuate the area many resist complying with such an order because they believe their home is their place of security and they cannot bear to abandon it.

In contrast, a Jew on Succot voluntarily leaves his home and takes up residence in the flimsy Succah in order to demonstrate that ultimately security does not derive from the size and sturdiness of one’s castle nor from the abundant accumulated ‘things’ one possess but rather from the trust that one places in Almighty G-d. As the Psalm states; (127:1) “…If G-d does not protect the city, in vain does the watchman stand watch.”

The holy Zohar (the basic book of Kabbalah) compares the shade provided by the ‘schach’ (branch roof) of the Succah to the shade provided to us by our trust in G-d. From a physical point of view it may seem that the ‘schach’  is just too flimsy to provide any real sense of security but in terms of our psychological/spiritual gestalt it is indeed a towering castle of security. It is this flimsy Succah that has withstood the tides of time and endured for over three thousand years.

Chabad on Campus 10/21/2106

I have avoided using this Blog to write on topics that might be considered as ‘propaganda’ for Chabad but this time I feel it is justified, particularly since it is being said by others, as the verse in Proverbs suggests, “Let strangers praise you but not your own mouth. (27:2)”

A recent study, authored by Brandeis University Professor Mark Rosen in conjunction with Steven Cohen, Arielle Levites and Ezra Kopelowitz focuses on the effectiveness of Chabad on college campuses across the country (locally we have four such centers). The study focused on 22 campus Chabad centers, surveyed over 2,400 alumni under the age of 30, and analyzes 1,898 measures of Jewish engagement.

The findings of the study are remarkable and make a strong case for increasing Chabad presence on campuses.

The study found that Chabad attracts students from all Jewish backgrounds, the majority (80%) of whom have had no previous experience with Chabad.

According to the researchers, the non-judgmental attitude of the Chabad rabbis and rebbetzins fosters deep interpersonal relationships that outlast the college years. And, most importantly, student’s involvement in Chabad strongly influences their lives after graduation, leading to active post-college involvement in Jewish life.

In an article in ePhilanthropy Rosen is quoted as saying “What Chabad has achieved in the last 15 years is quite remarkable,” noting the movement’s explosive growth on U.S. college campuses from 35 in 2000 to 187 today.

He further notes that the study also found Chabad’s non-judgmental attitude leads to deep interpersonal relationships that outlast the college years. Students who are frequent participants at Chabad maintain their relationships with the rabbi and rebbetzin.

Over the years I have invested much time and resources and persuaded many of you to join in establishing our campus centers. The reason is simple. All of the effort that the Jewish community invests in Jewish education in the early years of life through Hebrew school or day school is wasted if it is not supported and enhanced during the critical college years.

The college years are the time when a young person is first sent on his own and all the early education invested can either be solidified or, G-d forbid, forgotten. During this time, young adults are making most of their critical life decisions and solidifying a personal value system. The continuity of the Jewish people requires that Judaism be an important player in this process.

Thank G-d, as has been proven with this study, we have made much progress in this area. But, there is still so much more that can be done. We must step up to the plate and ensure that every Jewish college student has the opportunity to participate in and be positively influenced by Judaism on campus.

Breshis – Genesis; Creation 10/27/2016

This coming Shabbat we begin the Torah reading cycle again, starting with the well-known verse “In the beginning when G-d created heaven and earth.”  While seemingly simplistic, these opening words also happen to be some of the most significant words of our entire Torah and they are what sets us apart from other ancient traditions regarding the origins of the world and life on earth.

In Hebrew there are different words for the creative work of humans versus that of G-d. The Hebrew root word ‘asa’ describes all kinds of human activity while the root word ‘bara’ refers to G-d’s unique act of creation.

Let’s diverge for a moment to a philosophical point.

The “principal of the preservation of matter” tells us that we humans cannot eliminate even a single particle of matter; all that we can do is change one form of matter to another i.e. changing fuel to energy (or as expressed by the famous Einstein formula; e=mc2). The reason we cannot destroy matter is quite simply because we did not create matter and therefor do not hold absolute power over it. Ultimately, the very existence of matter is entirely outside of the control of humans. Therefore, the term used by the Torah to connote human activity is ‘asa’ – made or make – and not ‘bara’ – create.

Conversely, G-d created all matter ex-nihilo i.e. from absolute nothingness, and for that kind of creative process the term ‘bara’ is used exclusively.

By opening the Torah narrative with the words “In the beginning when G-d created” we were granted the key to a small measure of understanding into the nature of G-d and his relationship with the world He created.  Indeed, as implied in the opening words of the most revolutionary book ever, G-d and G-d alone creates in the most absolute and truest sense of the word (for the purposes of this essay that will have to suffice but I am more than happy to continue this conversation privately with anyone who replies to me.)

This powerful notion is precisely the fundamental intellectual insight that our patriarch Abraham came to understand on his own and to which he then dedicated his life to teaching. This concept is the bedrock of our history, out tradition and our belief system and the rest is commentary; now, go study.

Light vs darkness; Wisdom vs Foolishness. Daylight savings time 11/3/2016

Early Sunday morning we fall back. Daylight-savings time ends at one o’clock am and we are back to standard time. Despite the name daylight-savings time, the truth is that we don’t actually gain or lose any time. We simply train our bodies to wake up an hour earlier in the spring and sleep an hour later in the fall. But, this change allows us to focus our attention on the day/light and night/dark phenomenon.

King Solomon in the book of Ecclesiastes compares wisdom and foolishness to light and dark, “I have seen that there is an advantage to wisdom over foolishness as there is an advantage to light over darkness (2:13).”  What exactly is King Solomon, the wisest of all men, telling us that we wouldn’t readily understand on our own? What is the novelty in saying that wisdom is better than foolishness?

The answer lies in the nature of the relationship between light and dark. Light and dark are not just opposites, they are in their essence incomparable. Light is something – I defer to the physicists to determine if it is a wave or a particle or a combination of both – but we can all agree that it is something. Whereas, dark is nothing, it is merely the absence of light. As a result, darkness automatically disappears when light is present. There is no struggle between the two for supremacy; light is always supreme over darkness. That is also why there is no other way to dispel darkness, not a broom or even an atom bomb can do away with darkness, only light holds that power.

This is the keen insight of King Solomon. Wisdom and foolishness have the same relationship as the relationship between light and dark. Foolishness is the absence of wisdom and the only way to overcome foolishness is through acquiring wisdom. Shouting or protesting against foolishness accomplishes little, wisdom is the only antidote for it and the more wisdom gained, the more foolishness automatically disappears.

In addition, King Solomon teaches us that the same notion applies to the fight between good and evil. Ultimately, evil is not a permanent reality (though it can cause an awful lot of havoc and misery) and it will surely be overcome by the Divine good in the world.

Fall Trees growth 11/23/2016

It is Thursday exactly one week before Thanksgiving. We are deep into the fall season watching wistfully as all the glorious cacophony of plant life around us begins to wither and withdraw into its hibernation faze. But there is no reason for despair (even for those not planning to escape to the perpetually verdant South) of because at the same time we also know that deep within each plant their lies a concealed new potential which come the spring will once again explode with the life and beauty we all expect. 
As human beings we also contain within us an extraordinary reservoir of potential and renewal. At the moment of our birth each one of us arrives into this world with a complete set of abilities, talents, drives and various other traits but they are all in a potential form and are stored somewhere in our brain. Everything which we eventually develop into and achieve during the course of our lifetimes is all the actualization of all of this potential. 
At the John’s Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health cutting edge research is being done on tiny clusters of brain cells that have been grown in a lab dish that are known as “minibrains.” crew These rudimentary hnetworks of cells are small enough to fit on the head of a pin, but they already are providing researchers with insights into everything from early brain development to Down syndrome, Alzheimer’s and Zika. What makes these lab-grown structures so useful is that they replicate part of the cell diversity and connectivity of the human brain. 
As exciting as all this may be lead researcher Dr. Thomas Hartung  says that even if in the unlikely event that they end up being able to grow a complete brain because they will never be able to grow a fully functional brain because that requires a consciousness which is beyond any of the physical aspects of the brain. Without a consciousness, the source of all function and ability, the brain is simple a machine with nowhere to go and nothing to do.
The brain is the highest (most developed) part of the human anatomy whereas the consciousness is just the beginning of the spiritual side of the human being which we commonly call the soul. Only when the soul interacts and integrates with the physical brain do we have human life. All of the potential qualities that we posses, as mentioned above, are embedded in this soul/consciousness and because it is not physical it can contain an inexhaustible amount of potential.
The difference between plant life and human life is that plant life regenerates on a calendar cycle whereas human life is a continuum. Our ability to actualize our G-d given potential never dims or diminishes so long as we are willing to put in the effort. It may be fall for the trees but it is high spring for us.

Wind 11/28/2016

I am sitting in my office and listening to the howling wind outside. For the past two days the wind has not let up and the weather forecast predicts that it will continue this way for another few days and so it will go throughout the winter. So it turned my mind to a few thoughts on the nature of wind.
Wind is a valuable resource and is also a terribly destructive force. In addition to early wind mills and ships propelled by wind, in recent years we have seen the growth of wind farms that capture the energy of the wind and turn it into usable and transportable electricity. At the same time we are all familiar with the extreme destructive nature of wind e.g. wind storms, hurricanes and tornadoes, in addition to other natural disasters that are also magnified by the power of wind e.g. fire, rain and sea surges etc.
King David, in Psalm 148, calls upon all of creation to praise G-d. He begins with; “Praise Him from the heavens; praise Him from the celestial heights; Praise Him all His angles; Praise Him all His hosts.” A few verses later King David turns his call to the earthly environment: “Praise the L-rd from the earth, sea monsters and all in the depths” and continues “Fire and hail, snow and vapor (steam,) stormy wind carrying out His command.”
The term ‘stormy’ wind captures the necessary condition of the wind for both its positive and negative aspects.It is interesting to note that specifically the wind is described as with ‘carrying out the command of G-d.’ Wind is directly related to G-d in that it is the force that unifies the disparate areas of the earth and the seas. The surface currents that push water in the seas from one end of the world to the other is actually driven by the wind and the exchange of vast amounts of material dust, microbes and pollens between continents is also attributed to the wind.  In fact, airborne microbes and pollen in Florida or Brazil might have come from Africa and mineral dust in the soils of India could have blown over from Iran. In effect, the wind serves to integrate all the regions of the world into a single integrated system. This demonstrates that although we see diversity in the world in truth it is all one and comes the source of all oneness, the one G-d, creator of heaven and earth. It should now be clear why it is the wind that the Psalm describes as “carrying out His command.”
An interesting thought but it won’t help keep you warm unless you bundle up well to withstand the stormy wind that can chill you to your very bones.

Shabbat Shalom,

Chanukah Menorah Illumination Story 12/2/2016

Yesterday was the first day of the month of Kislev, the month in which we celebrate Chanukah, and I already have a heartwarming Chanukah story to tell.

the past five years we have put up a giant thirty-two foot Menorah in the heart of downtown Baltimore on McKelden Square. In past years, the mayor of Baltimore and the governor of Maryland and many other dignitaries participated in the lighting celebration and the Menorah has become a holiday fixture downtown.
One of the problems we have struggled with is how to properly illuminate the entire menorah at night. We have tried various lighting solutions, none of which really did the menorah justice.  This year I decided to try my hand at finding the solution.
In good modern form, I turned to my computer and searched, “outdoor illumination Baltimore.” Sure enough, in just a flash, Google came up with a number of options. I randomly clicked on one of them, a company located in Harford County north of Baltimore called Good News Electric, and dialed the number. I explained the dilemma to the fellow who answered the phone and asked if this was something they could help with. His response was, “This is something you would need to talk to the boss, Mr. Dennis Seufert about.” And he provided me with Mr. Seufert’s cell phone number.
When I called, Mr. Seufert had already been alerted to my request. He told me that his downtown office is located just a few blocks away from the site so he would walk over and take a look and asked if I could email over a picture of the menorah. A half hour later, he called back and said they could easily do the job and, in fact, had just the right equipment in their warehouse to do it. Then, I asked him the all important question of how much it was going to cost. He paused for a moment and answered, “Rabbi, I am a devout Catholic and I believe in Divine providence. G-d brought you to me and I wouldn’t think of charging you.” He then added, “Where would we Christians be if not for the Jewish people?”
I still don’t know if the solution he is planning will actually succeed in illuminating our ‘Esther Ann Menorah’ the way I want it to be but he surely succeeded in illuminating and warming my heart.