Archive for category Culture

Searching for the Way out of Exile

imagesAt first glance, the soggy, green downs of Ulster bear little resemblance to the parched and craggy hills of Israel.  But a gentle tugging at the cultural fabric of either place unravels an unmistakable common thread:  two peoples, impossibly close geographically, impossibly distant ideologically, with more than enough fuel for hatred between them to burn until the coming of the Messiah.  Tromping over hills and through city streets, however, first in one place and then in the other, I discovered a more compelling similarity:  the bitter struggle of humanity in exile.

“Which are the bad parts of town, the ones I should avoid?” I asked the owner of the bed-and-breakfast where I passed my first night in Belfast.

She dutifully pointed out the Shankhill neighborhood on my map, cautioning me to steer clear of it.  I thanked her and, with sophomoric self-confidence, proceeded there directly.

It was the summer of 1984, and central Belfast exuded all the charm of a city under martial law. Policemen on patrol wore flack jackets.  An armored personnel carrier idled at a major intersection waiting for the signal to change.  Blown out shells of buildings sprouted weeds, and street signs warned, DO NOT LEAVE CAR UNATTENDED.  But as I worked my way up Shankhill, I discovered even more disconcerting landmarks:  elementary school yards swathed in barbed-wire and churches pocked with scars from automatic-rifle fire.

I stopped in at a corner pub and took a seat at the bar beside two locals.  Each was nursing a pint of Guinness.  Another glass, two-thirds full with boiled snails, rested between them.  The men took turns using a bent eight-penny nail to dig each snail out of its shell before popping the meat into their mouths.

Click here to read the whole essay.

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Purim and the Limits of Imagination

Enjoy this blast from the past.

lennonAccording to a survey — before the recent economic downturn — about 20 percent of Americans believe themselves to be among the wealthiest one percent of the nation. Another 20 percent anticipate that they will one day claim membership among the wealthiest one percent. In other words, two out of every five Americans believe that they are or will possess enough wealth to be in the top one out of a hundred.

One might describe this kind of rosy optimism as wishful thinking. One might better describe it as delusional.

The potency of imagination powers the engine of human achievement. Whether we aspire to fight for civil rights, to seek a cure for cancer, to write the great American novel, or to win the New York marathon, we never take the first step until we envision our own success, no matter how certain or improbable our chances of success may be. But as the line between reality and fantasy grows increasingly blurry in Western society, imagination does not spur us on toward success but prods us blindly toward the precipice of self-destruction.

Such was the myopia of the Jewish people under Persian rule 2,365 years ago when King Ahasuerus and his viceroy, the wicked Haman, conspired to annihilate the Jewish people. The Jews had thought to appease the king by attending his party, a banquet conceived to celebrate their failure to return to Israel after 70 years of exile. They thought to appease Haman by bowing down to him and the idolatrous image he wore upon a chain hanging from his neck. They thought appeasement and compromise and contrition would preserve the comfortable life they had grown used to in exile, far from their half-forgotten homeland.

Despite all their efforts, the axe fell. But the executioner’s blow never landed, checked in mid-swing by the divine hand, which concealed itself within a long series of improbable coincidences.

Click here to read the whole article.

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True Gratitude

Parshas Pekudei

The contributions were enough … and there was extra (Shemos 36:7).

This week’s parsha continues the narrative of the mishkan, beginning with an accounting of all the materials donated by the Jewish people.  When Moshe had appealed for donations, the Jews had responded with such eagerness and enthusiasm that  Moshe had to ask them not to bring any more.

Curiously, the Torah seems to contradict itself in its description of how much the people contributed:  first we are told that they brought enough; then, in the same verse, we are told that there was extra.  Did the bring enough or more than enough?  It cannot have been both.

imagesExplains the Ohr HaChaim:  Yes, the people had brought more than enough.  But those who had donated so selflessly deserved to have their contributions accepted, not turned away.  Therefore, Hashem miraculously adjusted the needs of the Sanctuary to meet the amount contributed so that everything the people had given would be incorporated into the construction of the mishkan, the place where G-d and the Jewish nation were to meet.

Here we find a profound insight into ha-kores ha-tov, gratitude and appreciation.  It is human nature to be grateful when we are in need.  However, it is also human nature to lose our sense of appreciation once our needs have been fulfilled.  Out of sight, out of mind is one of the more unfortunate attitudes common to the human condition.

Really, it should be just the opposite.  We should be even more grateful for the past once we are no longer in need, since it was past acts of kindness and charity that enabled us to reach our present circumstance of independence and security.  To forget those who helped us in the past simply because we no longer need them is a crass disregard for Torah values.

After a long and successful career, Mr. Rosenberg closed his New York law practice and retired to Florida, where he lived on an annuity purchased with his savings.  And every year, he happily gave a donation of $5000 when the Ponevizher Rav came fundraising for his yeshiva.

One year, the Ponevizher Rav’s driver advised him not to visit Mr. Rosenberg, explaining that the elderly gentleman’s annuity had run out and that the rav would only embarrass him by asking for a donation that he could no longer give.

imgresBut the Ponevizher Rav insisted on making his visit nonetheless.  When Mr. Rosenberg began to apologize that he could not help, the rav cut him off.  “You don’t understand why I’m here,” he explained.  “After you supported us for so many years, it is now our turn to support you.”  For the next eight years, the Ponevizh yeshiva sent Mr. Rosenberg a check every month in the amount of his expired annuity.

It is easy to show appreciation for what others are doing for us now.  It is a sign of genuine gratitude to remember what others have done for us after we no longer need them.

Adapted from last week’s drasha by Rav Menachem Tendler of U. City Shul

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Double Down for Spiritual Success

By Rabbi Yonason Goldson


From last week’s Mishpacha Magazine

imgresIt’s been more than a few decades since grade school, and most of my teachers have long ago faded from memory. But not my first-grade teacher. Not Mrs. Campbell.

The reason is simple: I hated her. We all hated her.

My second-most poignant memory of Mrs. Campbell is the time I came to her during recess with a stomachache bad enough to make me cry. Mrs. Campbell said it was my conscience bothering me for talking during class.

But it is a different incident that replays most often in my memory. Mrs. Campbell had left the class alone for a few minutes while she went off to do who-knows-what, instructing us to wait without talking until she returned. How an experienced teacher could leave a room full of six-year-olds unattended and expect them to remain silent remains an unsolved mystery. Predictably, we began chattering the moment the door closed behind her and then, too late, buttoned our collective lips the instant she reappeared.

“I said that no one should talk while I was gone,” she scolded. “Now, when I dismiss you for lunch, everyone who was talking will remain seated and only those who followed directions will stand up to be excused.” She paused to let the instructions sink in, then said, “Stand up to go to lunch.”

Every single child in the room stood up. Everyone, except me.

Mrs. Campbell then broke character and did what any competent educator would do. “Now I know that Jonathan wasn’t the only one talking,” she said. “Since he told the truth, he is excused for lunch and the rest of you will have to wait.”

imagesI tried not to look smug as I walked out alone and headed for my locker, already imagining the day when I would tell my children about the time I was the only one who told the truth. (Eventually I did, although my kids were not nearly as impressed as they ought to have been.)

Full disclosure: I am not George Washington, and if I were ever caught chopping down a cherry tree it’s an even bet I would have lied about it, to go along with the assortment of fibs I told during my formative years. And although I now look back on Mrs. Campbell with a measure of affection, the question that continues to resurface is why – why was I the only one out of two dozen first-graders who refused to lie that afternoon?

Only one explanation has ever come to mind: it just wasn’t worth it.

In Robert Bolt’s masterful drama A Man for all Seasons, Sir Thomas More asks why his protégé, Richard Rich, has testified falsely to condemn Sir Thomas for treason against the King of England. The prosecutor, Oliver Cromwell, reports that Rich has been appointed attorney-general for Wales.

Sir Thomas looks into Rich’s face with pain and amusement and replies, “For Wales? Why, Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world . . . But for Wales!”

(In terms of prestige, the office of attorney-general for pre-Elizabethan Wales might be comparable to lieutenant-governor of North Dakota today.)

In other words, the betrayal of a friend and mentor might be understandable – if not defensible – for a princely sum or extraordinary power, but never for a pittance. At least let the reward be commensurate with the crime when forsaking one’s portion in the World to Come.

I imagine the workings of my own mind so many years ago in much the same way. Certainly I was capable of lying. But why waste a perfectly good lie on such a trivial advantage as a few extra minutes on the playground? It simply wasn’t worth it.

And even though I have already confessed to the occasional untruth, I cannot deny that from that moment forward lying never came easy to me. Every impulse to prevaricate met a quiet but insistent voice – Mrs. Campbell’s? – warning me to distance myself from the nearest false word.

imagesIn hindsight, it seems obvious that Mrs. Campbell had reinforced some innate sensitivity to Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi’s lesson of s’char mitzvah k’neged hefseida: “Calculate the reward of a transgression against its cost” (Avos 2:1). If that lesson appears to have grown increasingly incomprehensible to our generation, quite possibly it is because we can no longer appreciate the preceding lesson, “Calculate the cost of a mitzvah against its reward.”


In his classic essay on the nekudas habechirah – the point of free will – Rav Dessler explains that the clash between yetzer hara and yetzer tov rages on the battlefront where there is an even balance between the ratzon ha’emes and the ratzon hadimyon, between our perception of truth as it is and our perception of truth as we want it to be. For those of us willing to take a cold, hard look at ourselves, Rav Dessler’s formulation offers a solid defense against the relentless erosion of priorities.

The unpleasant truth is that we give far too little thought to either the value of our mitzvos or the consequences of our transgressions. If we did, would we consistently scurry into davening even five minutes late, let alone stroll in halfway through Pesukei D’zimra? Would we find trivial small talk so compelling that we casually interrupt Chazaras Hashatz and Torah reading, indifferent to the warnings of Shulchan Aruch?

Too often, we are utterly disconnected from the lessons that are right before our eyes. Pictures of the Chofetz Chaim hang in every house without making a perceptible dent in the steady flow of lashon hara. Shammai tells us to greet every person pleasantly, yet we can’t manage a smile or even a passing glance for either our gentile neighbors or our fellow Jews.

Even when we prevail over the temptation, our victories can be hollow. We make time for learning, but we neglect the review necessary to retain what we learn. We pay for our children’s Torah education, but we begrudge the expense, even though we would willingly lay out the same money for luxuries of no intrinsic value. We sacrifice to give charity, but we bristle or sigh when a knock on the door interrupts our dinner or our recreation.

Clearly, our vision of the emes is anything but clear. What can we do to regain clarity?


Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananyah offers this allegory:

A man went to the pond to cut a bundle of reeds. It was too heavy for him to lift, so he cut more and laid the new bundles atop the first until someone came along and helped him carry them all (Bechoros 8b).

imagesExplains the Vilna Gaon: Because the Jewish people neglected the Torah, they found themselves exiled from their land. Nevertheless, we – their descendants – persevere in keeping the mitzvos. Despite the added hardships of exile, we shoulder the additional burdens of rabbinic mitzvos – like the reed-cutter adding to his load even though he cannot carry what he already has – all the time waiting for Moshiach to redeem us so that we can resume our proper service before the Master of All.

We have to refocus so that we see things as they really are. And, simplistic as it may seem, the way to take things more seriously is to treat things more seriously. Can’t get to davening on time? Schedule your arrival 15 minutes early to say korbanos or the day’s Tehillim. Feel too strapped to give charity? Double your usual donation.

When approached by a simple Jew who claimed he had only half an hour a week to learn Torah, Rav Yisroel Salanter famously advised him to learn mussar (works of Torah ethics). The baal habayis questioned why Talmud or practical law was not a higher priority, to which Rav Yisroel replied: “Learn mussar, and you’ll find that you have more than half an hour available to learn.”

In other words, by putting in more effort we discover what we should have known all along:  it’s worth it.

And it really works. Taking my cue from Rabbi Benzion Twerski of Milwaukee, I began giving a weekly class in prayer, hoping that my own uninspired davening might benefit from the course of study. Five years and 35 printed outlines later (and still less than halfway through Shemoneh Esrei), my davening has been transformed into a wholly different experience.

And the rewards extend vastly beyond my own tefillos.

On one occasion, when my son was a high school senior, I chided him for the supersonic pace at which he davened. “You don’t understand,” he replied. Then, derisively: “You like to daven!

But the message got through. Imagine my delight when he informed me, a few short years later, that he had just switched to the local Agudah for morning minyan. “That other place davens way too fast,” he complained.

Now there’s a story I can tell his children.

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A Matter of Respect

In memory of my father, Yochanon ben Yaakov, whose neshoma left this world on Rosh Chodesh Adar.  Originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 17 June 2001.

imagesI was ten or twelve years old. My father and I had arrived at the stadium early, and I felt a thrill of excitement as we stood up for the Star Spangled Banner. Down on the field, our home team, the Los Angeles Rams, stood in a line holding their helmets under their arms. And in the row in front of us, a middle-aged man stood with his hat perched casually upon his head.

“Take off your hat,” my father said.

The man didn’t respond. “Hey you,” my father said, louder, “take off your hat.”

The man grunted an unintelligible, though clearly dismissive remark.

“You unpatriotic SOB,” growled my father; he didn’t abbreviate, either.

“Dad!” I whispered, mortified and afraid, but also faintly confused. My father had never before demonstrated any dramatic displays of patriotism.

The national anthem ended, the game began, and I guess I forgot about the incident because I never discussed it with my father, never asked him to explain an indignation that seemed entirely out of character.

But now I’m a father myself, and I don’t find my father’s action thirty years ago perplexing at all.

Read the whole article here.

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Proverbial Beauty: Secrets for Success and Happiness from the Wisdom of the Ages


I’ve published the first chapter of my new book online: Here’s the “cover” blurb and the link:

imgresTake a guided tour beneath the surface of the world we live in with this marriage of King Solomon’s Book of Proverbs and Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, reexamining Solomon’s eternal wisdom through the lens of news stories, scientific discoveries, the natural world, folktales, historical vignettes and, most notably, through the mystery and brilliance of the Mona Lisa – all woven together in a lyrical and engaging medley of the human experience.

Please take a few minutes to read the short introduction. If you like it, read the first chapter. If you have any critiques, I’d love to hear them. And if you really you like it, click on the “vote” button, then repost it and spread the word. You may have to create a Wattpad account to view it, but that only takes a moment.

Thank you!

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The Death Watch


Whether or not you’re a fan of science fiction, it’s always intriguing when our life in the present imitates the art of our past.

time_space_fabric_coverIn Robert A. Heinlein’s first published story, Life-line, Professor Pinero builds a machine that can predict any person’s day of death.  To verify Pinero’s claim, a committee of scientists submit to his examination, after which their names are sealed in separate envelopes, each with the date-of-death printed on the outside, and locked away for  future verification.  The first to die is Pinero himself, murdered by zealots who believe he is tampering with Fate.  Upon learning of Pinero’s death, the chairman of the science committee calls for the box of envelopes and, after determining that Pinero had accurately predicted his own demise, burns the whole batch of envelopes to ashes.

So… what would you do?  If it were possible to predict the day of your death, would you want to know?

Well, now you can.

More or less.

Fredrik Colting has already taken 3000 orders for his new digital watch, the Tikker.  Instead of a single row of numbers, the Tikker has three.  One row tells the time like any ordinary watch.  However, a second row displays years, months, and days, while a third row displays hours, minutes, and seconds, inexorably counting down toward — you guessed it — the day you will die.

Mr. Colting has nicknamed his invention the happiness watch.

Click here to read the whole article.

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A Tribute to Dr. Lester Zeffren

The Time Machine

When Yonason ben Shaul, heir to the throne of Israel, witnessed both the heroism of Dovid as he faced the giant Golias and the humility of Dovid after his victory, we read that “the soul of Yonason became bound to the soul of Dovid.”  Yonason had never even spoken to Dovid, but he could not fail to recognize the nobility of spirit that was  the essence of the future king.

imagesSuch was the persona of Dr. Lester Zeffren, who projected the qualities of majesty and humility so forcefully that no person of spirit could resist his magnetism or not devoutly wish to revel in the splendor of his presence.

How does such a person flourish in a world of spiritual and moral mediocrity?

Dr. Zeffren loved to recount how his mother would become deaf whenever he began complaining about his teachers in school.  She didn’t argue, lecture, or rebuke; in fact, she didn’t appear to notice at all, thereby silently overruling his objections.

It was hard to imagine that Dr. Zeffren, whose head resembled a cue ball, could have ever sported a stylish chup.  But it wasn’t hard to imagine how, when he phoned home from yeshiva to complain that his rabbis were violating his rights by insisting that he get a haircut, the connection suddenly failed so that his mother heard none of his protests.

But parents only lay the foundations.  True character must be cultivated and fashioned from within.

In his short story The Time Machine, Ray Bradbury writes of two young boys who visit their wizened neighbor, listening to reminiscences so vivid and detailed that they felt they were transported back to another age.  Lester Zeffren was such a time machine, taking us back not to places or events but to a world where integrity, respect, discipline, gratitude, and human dignity were not merely ideals but part of the fabric of civil society.

“I’m sorry you didn’t get to hear me speak in shul yesterday,” he said to me one Sunday morning.  “I talked about the time I joined the board of the Academy.  We were young, eager, idealistic, and committed to making a difference.  We were going to overhaul the system and make big changes.  We had the greatest of intentions.”

He paused for dramatic effect, then continued:

And we knew nothing!

Of course, youth is wasted on the young, as is the wisdom of experience that the young have yet to acquire.  But Lester’s voice, a lone echo holding back the gathering darkness, filled me with hope.  What else could I do but step forward and wrap my arms around him?

Lester never passed up an opportunity to express his admiration and appreciation for teachers of Torah, and he constantly admonished me to persevere against the community’s growing inexplicable resistance to instilling Torah values in their children.

“Your father is a great man,” he told my son in shul.  “He holds this community together.  Do you know that?”

My son, about seven years old at the time, nodded solemnly, without an ounce of comprehension on his face.

But Lester wasn’t finished yet.

“And he suffers!  You’re lucky to have him as a father.”

Of course, that was the way Lester talked to everyone.  But unlike so many who seek to ingratiate themselves through flattery and empty compliments, you knew that Lester meant every word he said.

imagesWhich is not to say that Lester Zeffren had a pollyanna outlook on the world.  He was as critical in his views as anyone, and never shy about arguing his position.  But he did so with such sincerity and authenticity, such intellectual and moral authority, that even those who despised his opinions couldn’t help but admire him.  He was from another age, and even at that an anomaly:  a man who could fearlessly speak his mind and retain the respect of all around him.

Even in medicine, he was a rare breed.  When I mentioned my reliance on chiropractic — a sure way of drawing the scorn of “real” doctors — Lester simply remarked, “If it works, it’s better than conventional medicine.”

But there could be no compromise in the way he administered his practice.  “Lester will never become rich,” commented one medical colleague.  “He cares too much about his patients to shortchange them.”

In an age of non-judgmentalism, political correctness, and touchy-feely educational philosophy, in a generation of moral equivalence and moral anarchy, Lester Zeffren was our lifeline to a saner and nobler time.  Now that he’s gone, our connection with the past grows ever more tenuous, and our hope for the future grows ever more desperate.

May his family take consolation from the giant footprints he left behind, and may they be comforted among the mourners of Tzion and Yerushalayim.

Rabbi Yonason Goldson


Irena Sendler: Profile in Courage and Conscience

First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.

Martin Niemöller, the Germany clergyman who authored these words, was one of the few who did speak out against Adolph Hitler in the early days of the Nazi party.  While the majority of Germans traded conscience for convenience by closing their eyes to the atrocities perpetrated upon their own countrymen, his solitary cry for reason still echoes amidst the silence.

For his troubles, Martin Niemöller was arrested in 1937 and eventually interred in Sachsenhausen and Dachau until his eventual liberation in 1945.  He lived until 1984, a voice of penance among the German people.

Among lesser known heroes is Irena Sendler, who risked her life to save some 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto between 1942 and 1943.  Working secretly as a member of Żegota, the Council for Jewish Aid, and using her position as an administrator for the Warsaw Social Welfare Department, Irena first tried to divert food, clothing, and medicine to Jews in the Ghetto, subsequently going door to door offering Jewish parents a chance to save their children’s lives.

“In my dreams,” she said, “I still hear the cries when they left their parents.”

One by one, Irena smuggled the children out in ambulances, gunnysacks, and body bags, finding families of Polish gentiles willing to take them in.  She recorded the name of every child and hid her lists in jars she buried in a neighbor’s yard.  After the war, she dug up the names and attempted to reunite the children with their families, most of whom had perished in the death camps.

On October 20, 1943, Irena was arrested by the Gestapo, who broke her legs and feet trying to force from her the names of the families who harbored the Jewish children.  Refusing to divulge her secrets, Irena eventually escaped imprisonment and lived out the remainder of the war in hiding.

In 1965, Yad Vashem recognized Irena as one of the Polish Righteous Among the Nations.  In 2007, she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.  The prize was awarded that year to Al Gore for his movie on global warming.

Few people had heard of Irena Sendler until 1999, when a high school history teacher in Kansas came across a passing reference to her in U. S. News and World Report.  Three students began a research project that culminated in their award-winning play, Life in a Jar, which has since been performed hundreds of times across North America and Europe.

Authentic heroism arises from intolerance for evil, from an unwillingness to stand idly by in the face of injustice no matter how improbable the odds and no matter how dire the consequences.  Like Moses, who struck down the Egyptian he found beating an innocent Jew, a person of conscience may at any moment find himself facing a critical decision between common sense and common decency, where action appears pointless but where inaction amounts to an alliance with evil.  A true hero is one who recognizes that such a choice is no choice at all.

“I could have done more,” Irena said. “This regret will follow me to my death.”

Sources:  The Irena Sendler Project and the Jewish Virtual Library

For more information about other unsung heroes, visit the Lowell Milken Center.

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My intolerance of faith

The moment the rabbi walked through the door all the students jumped to their feet… and I looked about desperately for a way out of the room.

The rabbi wore a long coat, a wide, antiquated black hat, an untrimmed beard, Coke-bottle spectacles and, incredibly, sidelocks. I knew — I just knew — what was going to happen next: the rabbi would lecture us in a thick German accent and tell us we were all damned to hell. There was no way I could sit through such an ordeal.

Read the whole article here.

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