Keeping Warm Internal vs External 12/8/2016

The great annual migration to warm sunny Florida has already begun. So here is my suggestion for those of us who are left behind to face the cold winter here.

If you feel cold and want to warm up there are a few different options that you have: stay indoors, have a hot drink, bundle up, or do some strenuous exercise. Clearly the most effective strategy is the exercise.  Why? A warm room surrounds you with an external heat which dissipates rather quickly when you exit;  a hot drink injects warmth inside you but it too does not last very long; additional clothing preserves the existing body heat but the cold gets through eventually.  Exercise however is different; it revs up your own internal heat producing engine which warms you thoroughly and is also long lasting. Ok, there’s nothing new here that you don’t already know. 
But I would like to apply the very same principle to a major facet of the culture we live in: the world of entertainment.
Mass entertainment is mostly a twentieth century development and now with the ubiquity of the smart phone has become the dominant factor in many people’s lives.
Entertainment is similar to going into a warm room to warm up because it’s stimulus is external. It may keep you occupied for a while but when it’s over, it leaves you feeling empty.  
Going out and participating in communal or social activities is the equivalent of taking a hot drink. While you are participating in it, your emotional tempo is still being set by external factors which fizzles once over. 
Finally, engaging your intellectual (or creative) faculties with the study of new ideas is the equivalent of physical exercise. You are generating creative energy and enthusiasm from within your own mind by engaging in an activity of substance and virtue which is why it is so abundantly satisfying and long lasting. Sure it takes much more effort to do this but, because the return is always proportional to the effort, it is long lasting and well worth  the effort.
Jewish inspiration is also ideally generated from within rather than from external factors such as the Rabbi or the Synagogue. This is why consistent Torah study is so essential to living a genuine Jewish life and is considered to be the greatest of all the mitzvot as is written: “Torah study is equivalent to all of the other mitzvot” (Talmud: Shabbat 127). 
Now, here is an activity that the snow birds can also take advantage of even if it is nice and warm outside.  And yes, additional physical exercise is highly recommended as well.

Chanukah 12/23/2016

The story of Chanukah happened a long time ago, 2,155 years ago to be exact, but somehow it doesn’t seem like ancient history. In fact, just this week, an Israeli news agency reported this: “A bronze penny minted by the Greek tyrant Antiochus IV Epiphanes from the Hanukkah story was recently stumbled upon by archaeologists amid the ruins of Jerusalem’s Tower of David during routine cleaning of the site, the museum said in a statement Tuesday ahead of the commencement of the eight-day festival on Saturday night.”

Because so many of these coins have been found, the historic penny doesn’t have much actual value – even with two thousand years of inflation! If you do a search on EBay, you’ll find that you can buy one of these coins for about twenty dollars.

If you were to tell this to someone from back then, they’d have a hard time believing that coins of the mighty Antiochus IV Epiphanies hold such little value today, let alone that the entire Empire is long gone.

In a similar vein, the Maccabean military victory against Antiochus IV Epiphanes and all of his evil decrees was indeed truly astounding. Yet, like any other physical matter, the result of the military victory came to an end. The Maccabean era lasted for about a century and then it ended and Roman rule came to the holy land of Israel.

The only thing that is left and continues to endure is the holiday of Chanukah which was established not for the military victory but for the miracle of the Temple menorah and a single jug of pure oil that burned for eight days. In fact, Chanukah was specifically established, not to commemorate the great and miraculous victory, but rather the miracle of the oil.

The Talmud, some sixteen hundred years ago says it explicitly, “Our sages taught; for what event was Chanukah established? The Greeks defiled all the oil in the Temple and when the Chashmona’in (Maccabies) were victorious they searched and only found one jug of oil which still has the seal of the high priest. It was only enough for one day but a miracle happened and it burned for eight days. The following year it was established as a special day for praise and thanksgiving. (Shabbat: 21)”

What was the miracle of the oil? It was a Mitzvah, the pure faith and drive to fulfill the Mitzvah of lighting the menorah. As Jews, what we hold most dear is not the power of the sword, but the power of the spiritual, the Mitzvah. Jews have always know that and this knowledge is one of the primary secrets of the miraculous survival of the Jewish people.

A coin, or a dollar of today may not amount to much tomorrow but a Mitzvah today will be a Mitzvah forever.

Shabbat Shalom and happy Chanukah,

New Year, Dark matter, Seasons 12/29/2016

I don’t want to just ignore the secular year that is winding down now so here are some thoughts on the matter.

Why is the end of the secular year situated almost smack in middle of the winter as opposed to the Jewish new year which comes at the end of the agricultural season? I think the answer might be that the end of the year basically coincides with the winter solstice, the time when the nights begin to get shorter and the days begin to get longer. This event occurs as a result of the angle of the earth relative to the sun and the nature of the orbit both of which have remained constant throughout all of human history.

On the larger macro scale the fact that all of the planets and stars of our galaxy stay in position and constantly repeat their trajectories is one of the greatest marvels as the verse in Isaiah (40:26) states; “Lift up your eyes to the heavens and see who created these.”

This was brought to my attention by the recent passing of noted astronomer Dr. Vera Rubin (a daughter of Jewish immigrants who lived and worked in the Washington area) who confirmed the existence of a mysterious substance called dark matter that scientists theorize works through gravity and holds entire galaxies together.

This matter is called dark because it cannot be seen or detected directly in any conventional way. The only way we know that it exists is because of the powerful effect it has on all of the galactic formations ensuring that the systems hold together.

Which brings me back to the full context of the verse from Isaiah “Now, to whom will you compare Me that I should be equal? says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high and see, who created these, who takes out their host by number; all of them He calls by name; because of His great might and because He is strong in power, no one is missing.”

Now, if we are unable to define what dark matter actually is and we only know of its existence from the effect that has, would it not then be just as reasonable to posit that it is G-d who is the mysterious power that holds everything in the vast expanse of the heavens in place?!

Could it not just as well be that the force that caused the tilt of the earth (for which science still has no explanation) which causes the seasons to change and the length of day and night to shift, is actually the mysterious hand of G-d?

I don’t think I need to tell you my answer to this.

But, perhaps this is something to ponder during the coming still long Saturday night as we countdown to the New Year.

Shabbat Shalom and happy New Year,


Pespective on Genesis 1/12/2017

This week we in Shul, we conclude the reading of the book of Genesis, which in addition to the story of creation, covers a broad sweep of approximately two thousand years of human history. Included in that time period are the major events of the sin of Adam and Eve eating of the forbidden fruit, the Flood, the building of the Tower of Babel and the emergence of the Jewish people through the lives of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. The book concludes with the beginning of the Egyptian exile.

By today’s standards, not much occurred over those two thousand years. Today, people feel compelled to record the details of every moment of their existence, from the minute they wake up until they go to sleep. In one day’s time in the 21st century, we record the equivalent of millions of books on the web. Comparatively, the measly one book recording the happenings of the first two thousands of years of existence, is laughable.
But, of course quantity of data says nothing of the quality.

The Torah is not about recording history but rather about teaching lessons.  In order to do this effectively, the Torah does not get bogged down by the details of history but paints a broader view which helps give us perspective to bring out the ultimate lesson on how to live our lives.

An analogy for this is the early history of military aircraft. It was during the First World War that the warring armies realized that it was possible to use aircraft for reconnaissance purposes. Planes were sent on missions to fly over the battlefield and pilots reported back on their observation of enemy positions.
When one is a few thousand feet above the ground one does not have the ability to see much detail, but the broader picture can be far more valuable.
This same concept applies to own lives. As we live our lives, day by day, we become absorbed by the minutia of daily life and tend to lose a sense of perspective. To be sure, life is lived in the details of every day events but instead of acting on whatever seems right or feels good at any particular moment, those details need to be informed by the broader picture of our life goals. The decisions we make must be influenced by a broader purpose, the values we cherish. This can only be be realized when situations are viewed from a much longer – and higher – perspective.
In the Book of Genesis the Torah gives us this proper orientation. The single book of Genesis belies the fact that there were millions of lives lived during that two-thousand-year period and innumerable events that occurred. But, that single book sums up all that was necessary for us to know: the movement toward and fulfillment of a grand design directed by G-d to bring about the establishment of the Jewish People through the Egyptian exile, leading towards the ultimate revelation at Sinai.
Although we live extremely complex lives, inundated by an enormous amount of data, through the Torah, we can choose to have access to the  reconnaissance plane of life.

Democracy, Values and Religion 1/20/2017

This week we are witnessing the grand inauguration spectacle complete with a magnificent parade and parties galore. However, the real crown-jewel of our democracy is not all the pomp and ceremony of the inauguration but rather the underlying peaceful transfer of governing power between administrations. Despite the dramatic change of orientation from almost one extreme to another, historically, not a single life was lost and not a single shot was fired; indeed a remarkable achievement. Of course, you don’t need me to tell you about this. However, I want to use this opportunity to examine an area which, in my opinion, our democracy is failing.

The idea of democracy is – as President Lincoln stated so succinctly – government of the people by the people, for the people. But what precisely is meant by ‘government’ and where does it begin or end? The opening words of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution delimits this principle by stating “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” thus establishing a clear separation between government and religion regarding which there is no debate.  But while the amendment recognizes religion it does not clarify the nature of religion or its intersection with government and society.

It seems to me that while the First Amendment was enacted to protect the government from religion and religion from government, more importantly, it insulates basic societal values from the vicissitudes of democracy.  The government is empowered to ensure the welfare of its citizens and the proper functioning of society whereas religion is the repository for the underlying values of society. Democratic government is ‘of the people, by the people, for the people’ but the critical values underlying the democratic government are not arrived at in democratic fashion.

Values are ideas that are sourced (to a greater or lesser degree) in Divine revelation and which have endured the test of time for millennia. Only then are they worthy of being considered to contain a degree of truth which renders it valuable. Vox popoli does not and should not apply to values; determining values by majority is simply another version of mob rule.

Today, it seems, the notion of democracy has invaded the realm of values. Whatever happens to be the fancy of the majority at the moment is upheld as a value. Such a value system cannot sustain a society for long and is doomed to collapse.
Our Torah system not only lends perspective (as I noted last week) but more importantly gives us an enduring system of values, passed down to us by G-d at Sinai and preserved for over three thousand years.
 Our country would do well to emulate this example.


Time, Space and Life 1/5/2017

I don’t claim to be a prophet because our sages say that after the Temple’s destruction, prophecy was given to fools and I try to avoid that label. So while I can’t know what the New Year holds for us, I will take the liberty of offering another timely New Year thought, particularly since this New Year will also mark a change of administration in the Federal Government.
Our corporeal world is defined by three core attributes: time, space and life and each one of these is further divided into there. Time is comprised of past, present and future. Space, is comprised of three coordinates: height, breadth and depth. And life is also divided into three segments: plant, animal and human life.
The fact is that any change made to the way we mark the passage of time will bring only minimal change or improvement to the world. For example, we may indeed ‘mark’ the New Year with all the attendant hoopla, but the old problems don’t simply disappear as a result; they just march right on into the new time-frame. Even a change of place – which may support more significant change still does not amount to that much. One can move to a new location and bring each and every one of their old issues right along with them. The travel industry has become a vast enterprise shuttling millions of people around the world but few are changed in a lasting or significant way by those experiences.
And then we come to the third attribute of existence, life. Here is where everything important occurs and where true, lasting change and advancement can take place. An old life (or Administration) passes and a new one steps in to take its place bringing with it all sorts of new prospects and the full spectrum of possibility afforded us by our moral freedom. Life is truly where all the action is, which is why it is precisely in the arena of ‘life’ that religion takes center-stage.
Our sages teach that one of the reasons for the Mitzvot is to bring refinement to our lives. Refinement of the human character is critical to the raison d’etre of the universe and yet, very little attention is paid to it. Surely, if we spend an enormous amount of resources to maintain and improve the physical aspect of life – our health, we should invest a proportionate if not greater amount of energy to improve the substance and quality of this very same life.
So, while I can’t tell you what the New Year and the new administration will bring I can tell you that when the marking of time is fused with the dimension of life and used to begin a daily Mitzvah routine then the New Year will surely bring new meaning and positive change.