Friday, July 18, 2008

Thoughts on Fairness, Ethics and Jewish Leadership - Parshat Pinchas 5768

With the gut-wrenching swap this week between Hizbullah and the government of Israel, I felt motivated to write this piece about the nature of Jewish leadership and the ethical and moral commitment that we have to our soldiers, wherever they may be.
May the memories of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev be a source of strength for the Jewish people.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

News as Entertainment - the Newseum in Washington

Last week, we took some time to visit the Newseum, the brand new museum dedicated to news opened sponsored by a consortium of organizations. Surprise, surprise -- the museum was "pro-news". Go figure. Actually, I enjoyed it quite a bit. I am, after all, a bit of a news junkie. But I found that the museum was more interested in the actual news events themselves than the way that news is covered per se.
Most alarmingly, I didn't see any attention given to the shortening and changing nature of news - and especially television news. It has become increasingly clear that the attention span of the average viewer has become increasingly shorter as time progresses. Yet, the museum did not really address the gradual shift from news coverage to sound bites and formulaic coverage. While the 4D infotainment movie about the news (straight out of Epcot Center and Universal Studios) was certainly fun and highlighted the contributions of Edward R. Murrow and the investigative reporting of Nellie Bly, the museum conveniently neglected the shrinking budgets of news services, increasing reliance on blogging, and the near eradication of investigative reporting.
A former member of mine (I left the shul, not her) recently left the newspaper business for precisely that reason; the lack of reporting integrity, the increasing pressure of coming in on deadline, and the inability to have the time and resources to do true community reporting.
The museum was certainly flashy and entertaining, but it lacked a sense of depth and seriousness in covering the news.
Kind of like news coverage itself. I guess in that way the Newseum presents an accurate depiction of the news.

Monday, July 14, 2008

A Rest Stop on the Jersey Turnpike

Passing by a rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike - I think that it was the Woodrow Wilson stop, Rena wondered alound how they decide who to name the rest stops after. I wondered in response whether in fact it was an honor, and whether one could refuse. I imagine the following conversation.
"We'd like to name a rest stop after you."

Long pause.

"Gee...thanks. Can you think of something else?"

Friday, July 11, 2008

A Nation of Whiners

John McCain found himself in hot water yet again, when a close friend and advisor, Senator Phil Graham told the Washington Times that the nation is not in a recession -- it's more like a "mental recession," and that we've become "a nation of whiners." The backpedaling was fast and furious. McCain could not distance himself from Graham fast enough, telling a crowd in Michigan, "He doesn't speak for me, I speak for me," and quipping that the only post he would be eligible for is the "ambassadorship of Belarus." Ha ha. Keep your day job, John.
There's only one problem with Graham's comments. They're right on. We're not in a recession, as any economist will tell you. The country's economy, while certainly stalled and stagnant, continues to grow at a slow rate - almost one percent this past year. If the defenition of "recession" is negative economic growth (and it is), then we're clearly not in a recession. In addition, the dramatic and cataclysmic language that sells in the press and drives the economic frenzies that we watch on CNBC today have little to do with reality. Perception becomes the reality, and makes companies, organizations, people -- everyone - crazy. An article about the woes of the hotel business in the Washington Post entitled "Slide by Marriot Signals Distress for Hotel Industry" - sounds rather ominous, doesn't it -- describes Marriott's recent announcement of negative growth increases in per room revenue - called RevPar. While it sounds pretty bad, it simply means that the increase -- the rate at which the income per room goes up year after year -- will be less this year than last year. So, if the revenue per room increased by 1.5 percent last year, the increase will be less this year -- maybe 1 percent. In fact, the article in the Post is itself misleading, giving the impression that RevPar will decrease, when in fact it's only a decrease in RevPar growth -- it will grow this year less than last year.
Despite all that, revenue is down at Marriott. Last year during the 2nd Quarter, Marriot made $207 million. This year it only made $157 million. No, it didn't lose money, and there should be good reasons why it made twenty-five percent less money than last year, but the hysteria surrounding Marriott caused a steep sell-off of its stock dropping it to 52-week lows, and prompting the Washington Post to write, "Let there be no mistaking it now: The hotel boom is kaput."
Kaput? I'd love to be kaput and only make $157 million this quarter. Just ask Robert LaFleur, an analyst with Susquehanna Financial Group, (also quoted in the Post article) who said: "Let's keep everything in perspective. They are calling for RevPar growth in North America to be down 1 percent. That's not exactly the Great Depression."
But in the recession-frenzied climate in which we find ourselves, no one can keep anything in perspective. Which brings me back to my original point.
We are a nation of whiners.
Sure, some people are suffering, having difficulties making their payments, having their houses foreclosed, forced to find other places to live. But is anyone starving in the streets?
I recently left Michigan on my way to Israel, and things are so bad there that I simply could not sell my house for an affordable price. There was no way, unless I was willing to sell for about $50 thousand less than the price I paid seven years ago. So the recession -- sorry - housing slump hurt me as much as the next guy.
But did it? I rented out my house to a couple who were foreclosed on their house. What happened to them is private information, but for reasons that were in some part beyond their control, they lost their house.
What happened to them? Are they on the street? No - they're both hard-working, great people. They both have good, stable jobs. So they rented my house, a four-bedroom home in a quiet neighboorhood with great neighbors. Is it as nice as their old home? Probably not. But can you say that they're suffering? Can you say that I'm suffering?
But if you ask the New York Times or Washington Post, of course we're suffering. As long as things aren't better today than yesterday, that's suffering.
All of this reminds me of the section in the Torah that describes the complaints of the Jewish people in the desert: (see Bamidbar 10:35) There the Torah tells us that the people were mitonenim - which Artscroll translates at "those who seek pretexts of evil," but really simply means "complainers." We recognize an onen from the laws of mourning -- we refer to someone who lost a close relative but has not yet buried him or her as an onen - a person in anguish. But a mitonen is someone who puts himself into that state of anguish -- notice the reflexive form of the verb. What troubled the mitonenim? The Torah doesn't tell us, but Rashi (on that verse) quotes the Midrash which tells us that they said, "Woe unto us, how much have we struggled on this journey -- three days without any rest!"
Sounds pretty spoiled -- doesn't it?
To my mind, the McCain campaign is floundering -- not just because he's old, can't really give a powerful speech, and represents the incumbent party during an economic downswing. The real problem is that he doesn't convey any vision. Whether you like Obama or not, his sweeping rhetoric engages an audience. It gives the listener a sense of vision for a better America. McCain does no such thing; it's just more of the same. We'll keep slogging along in Iraq until things are secure enough to come home. There are no easy answers on the economy. The current foreign policy of the Bush administration has been doing a pretty good job.
There's no vision. And without vision, there isn't going to be a victory either. To my mind, when asked about Graham's comments, he should have said, "You know what -- we are a bunch of whiners. All of us. Our soldiers are across the world fighting for us, and we're worried about whether we'll be able to afford the newest ipods." He should not extend the Bush tax cuts. Rather, he should take the money that the government would save and use it to pay down the national debt. He should advocate the idea that there must be a price to be paid by the average citizen during a time of war. And paradoxically, if we feel the war - if we sense that we're sacrificing too - I think that the American people would be more supportive of it. He needs to begin to speak about the notion of sacrifice for the country -- economic sacrifice, personal sacrifice, volunteerism, and a sense of dedication to something larger than ourselves.
These are all issues that he personally represents, and can advocate forcefully. In a sense, he needs to become more of a father figure for the country, instead of pandering to us and telling us how he's going to make it better.
Because he can't. And he won't. And unless he starts telling it the way it really is, we all better get ready for an Obama adminstration.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Ideal Husband - and Jewish Love

Maureen Dowd published this piece in the New York Times this week about the qualities of an ideal husband. While it's certainly a nice list of advice, does it strike anyone as interesting that a priest who's never been married is an expert on marriage? Sure he's got years of counseling experience, but what role does life experience have? This reminds me of the halachah that someone who wants to be the shliach tzibbur for the congregation must be at least thirty years of age, and should preferably have (aside from a nice voice) a wife and children. There's simply no way to compare the prayer of a father and husband responsible for his wife and children to the worries and difficulties of a bachelor, no matter how studious, serious and well-meaning.
At the same time, Father Connor neglected the most important aspect of marriage that Hollywood loves to obscure: the difference between love and infatuation. Infatuation is the feeling of excitement, sexuality and obsession that kindles romanticism, sexuality and passion. Love, on the other hand, is a far deeper sense of mutual respect, identity and most importantly, giving and deviotion. Without that sense of dedication to the well-being to one's spouse, a marriage truly has no solidity or foundation. With it, romantic love can grow and flourish even in the absence of infatuation.
The Mishnah in Avot comments on the notion of lasting and ephemeral love, defining for us true love (which endures) and fleeting love (which does not):
(I'm translating in English - my Hebrew isn't working right now. I'll try and add later.)
Any love based on an external factor - if the factor becomes negated, the love is negated as well. [But love that is] not based on an external factor can never be negated. What is the love that is based on [an external] factor? This is the love of Amnon for Tamar. [And the love] that is not based on a factor? This is the love of David and Jonathan.
Amnon doesn't love Tamar. He lusts for her. Once he satisfies his lust, her very presence forces him to confront his terrible behavior and the fact that he could have raped her. So he transforms the lust and "love" he before felt into hatred and disgust. On the other hand, the love - platonic love and respect - that Jonathan and David feel for each-other represents a sense of respect, shared ideals and common goals. Therefore, even when David represents an existential threat to the very life of Jonathan, he cannot and will not abandon the friend he loves so much.
For marriage to succeed, it must be based on the Jewish concept of love. Jewish love is something that can be nurtured and developed, if one really wants to do so. If one has a sense of respect and admiration for another, and shares the same values, goals and ideals, true love can grow, develop and thrive. Give enough to that person, truly from the heart, and love will grow. On the other hand, infatuation, most often based on looks and sexual desire, usually fades. What's there to base a marriage on after that?
Unfortunately, when Hollywood's all you've got to go on - and that's true for most of America - we begin to understand the astounding and troubling divorce rates so prevalent in Western society today.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

My Final YIOP Drashah - The Power of Optimism

I’ve mentioned a couple of times that I’m on a Steven Ambrose kick; I finished “Band of Brothers,” so I now moved on to "D-Day". Towards the beginning of the book, he describes the difference in mentality between the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and the commander of the German Army in the Western theater of France, Erwin Rommel. While Romell was a realist, cognizant of the difficulty of holding off an Allied landing in France, Eisenhower was an unrelenting optimist. An official US Army biography on Ike writes,

Through D-Day, Eisenhower's most marked characteristics were his unfailing
optimism about the success of the invasion and his determination to overcome all
obstacles that stood in its way.

That type of attitude filters down. When a leader exhibits optimism, positive energy and a can-do attitude, that attitude permeates his or her entire structure. Subordinates feed of that energy, and find ways to accomplish things they thought that they could not. Just think about the power of a simple word of encouragement. Just when you’re ready to give up – at a job, an assignment, a task – it doesn’t matter what. And then someone comes over and says, “You know, I know this is difficult, but I’m sure that you can do it.” How powerful such a simple expression can be! And how easy. And if optimism can bring energy enthusiasm, pessimism can destroy it. And that pessimism can be so dangerous, that it must be rooted out even at great cost.
Today we read about Moshe’s seemingly small mistake – the sin of מי מריבה – the waters of מריבה. The Torah describes a water shortage, and the complaints of the nation for water. God tells Moshe to approach the rock and speak to it – to ask it for water. Instead, Moshe gathers the people around the well, and instead of speaking to the rock says to the people, שמעו נא המורים, המן הסלע הזה נוציא לכם מים – “Listen please you bitter people. From this rock should we extract water from you?!” He then hits the rock twice, the rock gushes a torrent of water and everyone’s happy.
Except God. You see God had instructed Moshe to speak to the rock, not to hit it. God’s judgment is swift. יען לא האמנתם בי להקדישני לעיני ישראל – “Because you did not have faith in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the Jewish people,” לכן לא תביאו את הקהל הזה אל הארץ אשר נתתי להם – “therefore, you will not bring this congregation to the Land that I have given them.”
Virtually every פרשן is perplexed. OK – Moshe made a mistake. Yes, he hit the rock. But doesn’t it seem a little extreme? Doesn’t God seem a little harsh to take from Moshe his greatest single desire – to enter the Land of Israel – for such a seemingly small misstep?
Commentators offer scores of answers to this question – each one just a little different. I’d like to focus on one approach suggested in the Midrash. Quoting a פסוק in שיר השירים that refers to an orchard of almond trees, the Midrash compares leadership to climbing an almond tree.

האגוז הזה חלוק, מי שאינו אומן לעלות בו מיד הוא נופל, שצריך לשמור עצמו שלא
יפול הימנו, כך כל מי שמשרת את ישראל צריך לשמור עצמו שלא יטול את שלו מתחת ידיהם
כגון משה וישעיה ואליהו, משה אמר שמעו נא המורים (במדבר כ' י') ונאמר לא תביאו את
הקהל הזה (שם שם /במדבר כ'/ י"ב), ישעיה אמר ובתוך עם טמא שפתים אנכי יושב (ישעיה
ו' ה') מיד ובידו רצפה (שם /ישעיהו/ שם /ו'/ ו'), אליהו כי עזבו בריתך בית ישראל
(מלכים א' י"ט י' וי"ד) ונאמר ואת אלישע בן שפט [מאבל מחולה] תמשח לנביא תחתיך

Just as the almond tree is smooth and slippery, and one who does not know how to
climb it will fall immediately, so too anyone who serves the Jewish people must
guard himself not to take his hands out from under them, as did Moshe, Yishayah
and Eliyahu. Moshe said, “Hear please, you bitter ones,” and it says, “you will
not bring this congregation.” Yishayah said, “And I sit amongst a nation of
impure lips,” immediately [he was punished with] a burning stone. Eliyahu said,
“For the House of Israel has abandoned your covenant,” and it says, “and you
shall anoint Elisha ben Shafat as a prophet in your place.”

What’s the connection between these three examples? In what way do Moshe, Eliyahu and Yirmiyahu – three of our greatest prophets and teachers – fail? They don’t fail as much as they are no longer able to see only the positive. They have lost their rosy glasses. They cannot only see good in the Jewish people anymore. Moshe finally sees the people as, המורים – a bunch of bitter complainers. And that’s why he can no longer lead the Jewish people, because leaders must be eternal optimists. They must always be able to see the good in their people; their potential and beauty and energy, and see not their faults and shortcoming, but their potential to continue to build and grow.
Indeed, this sense of optimism has carried the Jewish people through the darkest imaginable times; through tiresome and tiring persecutions, pogroms and pillaging, hatred and Holocaust. And yet we persevere. Why? How? Because we’re eternal optimists. We have to be. It’s in our blood. Just look at the קדושה we said this morning.

ממקומך מלכנו תופיע – ותמלוך עלינו כי מחכים אנחנו לך
From Your exalted
place You will appear, and You will rule over us, for we are waiting for you.
Notice that we don’t say, מלוך עלינו, הופיע לנו – “please God, rule over us, reveal Yourself.” We don’t ask for that because we take we take it for granted. Of course God will redeem us. We just don’t know when. So why not now? Indeed, why not?
We don’t wonder whether the redemption will come. We know that it’s coming, in our sense of faith and belief and yes, eternal optimism. And we are commanded to know it as well – it’s the last of Rambam’s Priciples of Faith – אני מאמין באמונה שלמה – I believe with perfect faith. That’s not just faith. It’s optimism – the ability to overlook the darkness of the tunnel and see the light at the end.
Indeed, every great endeavor; every project or business or enterprise rests on a foundation of optimism. A good friend told me this week, “If you don’t ask, you get a ‘no’ one hundred percent of the time.” And he’s right. But to ask, I’ve got to think that the answer will be yes, because if I didn’t, I’d never ask in the first place. If I thought I’d fail, I’d never take that new job, or begin the new program, or move to Israel – because, “what’s the point if I’m only going to fail anyway”?
I am optimistic not just about the גאולה, but also about the power of community – and specifically this community, to achieve great things. Last week David Ungar spoke at סעודה שלישית, and he said that he loves coming to shul because here we witness the rebirth of Judaism before our eyes, and he’s right. But it’s only happening because the are, were and will be people who put their energies and efforts into the faith that our shul will continue to thrive and prosper.
Winston Churchill once said, “The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” These are difficult times in the US. A deflated stock market, and a terrible Michigan economy. It’s easy to see dark days ahead. But Churchill, who had a few things to worry about in his time, also said, “For myself I am an optimist - it does not seem to be much use being anything else.”
There will always be challenges and difficulties. The strength of this shul lies in the amazing ability of its members to see above them; to overcome them and continue to build and connect the Jewish people of this entire community to God. It has been an honor to lead this shul, to teach you and learn from you, and to speak from this pulpit week in and week out. And, as I leave you I can honestly say that the future of the Young Israel of Oak Park is very bright indeed.
It’s all up to you.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

The Salvation Serpent - Table Talk for Chukat 5768

In one of the most unusual sections in the Torah, God commands Moshe to form a molten copper snake and place it on a stand in order to save the Jewish people from the bites of the deadly serpents tormenting the people. Moshe of course follows God's instructions. The Torah tells us that whoever was bitten by a snake would look at the copper serpent and be healed.
This episode leaves us with the obvious question: why would God instruct the Jewish people to create a symbol so similar to the idolatry that the Torah expressly forbids? Could this not lead to confusion and sin?
Rashi quotes the famous Mishnah in Rosh Hashanah:
Does the serpent kill or give life? Rather, whenever the Jewish people focus their gaze towards the heavens and subjugate their hearts to their Father in Heaven, they would be healed. And if not, they would perish. (Rosh Hashanah 29a)
Yet, the message of the rabbis in Mishnah begs the question: why create confusion? Why not simply instruct the people to look to God without the need for the serpent?
To my mind, the symbol of the serpent most accurately represents the challenge of faith in the physical world. Modern medicine uses that very symbol to represent the medical profession, and the healing power of medicine in the world. Isn't it ironic that the symbol God wants to represent faith in Him and His ability to heal us, now represents the power of modern man to heal, without need for God. We could ask the very same question as the Mishnah:
Does the doctor kill or give life? Rather, the sick must focus on God and subjugate their hearts to their Father in Heaven.
The doctor must do his job. He must act as the agent of God. But in the real world, we sometimes confuse the agent with whom he represents, and put our faith not in God, but in the doctor.
This is the message of the serpent - the danger of confusion. It's up to us to see through that confusion, and maintain our faith in God throughout the trials and tribulations of life.