Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Irony Wall?

This isn't news. Just something I was thinking about the other day, for no apparent reason. (Actually, I think I was listening to an NPR piece about the U.S. border).

On July 25, 2003, President George W. Bush said (in reference to the Israeli Separation Wall), "I think the wall is a problem." This "wall" has drastically reduced the number of successful Islamic attacks in Israel.

In November, 2006, that same President Bush signed a bill authorizing the construction of a fence along one-third of the 2,100-mile (3,360-kilometer) U.S. border with Mexico.

Can someone please explain that to me?

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Well, Waddaya Want?

I had an interesting conversation with someone who had objected to one of my earlier posts. Among his complaints, which were valid, was that you have to be careful about what you post online, as it goes out to the Internet, and you can't control who will read what you write. Better to avoid controversial topics.

So last week, after posting nothing whatsoever for quite some time, I posted a Torah thought on Mishle. I then forwarded him the link to it, partly because I thought he might be interested in what I had to say (or ask, rather), and partly to demonstrate that I was no longer posting the kind of things he had found so objectionable.

His response surprised me, a little.

He said (and I'm paraphrasing because I don't remember it word-for-word), "I just glanced at it and didn't have the chance to read it through yet, but it looked like it was just Torah." When I said that's what it was, he said, "Ah - that's all? I don't need to read that!"

Now, this was not someone who doesn't value Torah, and I know he didn't mean that Torah isn't important. The way I took it was that there is (thank God) lots of Torah available on the Internet, and you couldn't possibly sit and read it all. But, now, if it had been something more titillating, it would be worth really reading.

I do understand that perspective, of course, but I find it to be a bit like speaking out of both sides of one's mouth. On the one hand, I shouldn't write about things that are controversial. On the other hand, things that are more pareve aren't very interesting to read.

This is the same reason that most people speak Loshon Ha'Rah. With the exception of the folks who are actually trying to hurt people with their speech, most people talk about other people because other people find it interesting, and everyone wants to be listened to. Nobody wants to be boring. Not even those who genuinely are.

So if I'm not supposed to speak Loshon Ha'Rah, and I'm supposed to stay clear of things that are controversial, and Torah topics are boring, what should I write about?! I know, I know... No one says I have to write about anything. No one says I have to write at all! But I like to write, and it's flattering to think that people read it.

I guess I'm going to continue writing what I write anyway, and like I said in my first post here, if you don't like what you read, feel free not to. But this was sort of eye-opening to me... a little... but not entirely... which is, frankly, sad.

Thursday, June 14, 2007


My wife and I were talking, this evening. We do that on occasion. Somehow we got onto the topic of the overwhelming number of people on anti-depressant meds. It got me to thinking: Is it bad medicine, i.e. are doctors just over-diagnosing Depression and doling out pills like candy in an effort to make us all Happy People? Or could it be that, societally, we truly are increasingly depressed?

While I think there is likely much of the former, I also think that the latter is very true. Somehow we, and I mean in Western Society at large - not just the Orthodox Community - are increasingly unhappy in our lives. We've lost sight of the ideal expressed in Pirkei Avot (Ch. 4, Mishna 1) that says, "Eizeh hu ashir? Ha'same'ach b'chelko" - "Who is wealthy? He who is happy with what he has."

I've been thinking about that a lot lately. At first, I didn't really appreciate the wisdom of those words. To me, they seemed to be anti-ambition: "Why can't you just be happy with what you have?" This never really satisfied me as a child, or as an adult. So I just chalked it up as one of those pithy sayings you see sometimes, that sound good but aren't really very useful.

Lately, though, I've taken another view on it. My wife and I have been working very hard on improving ourselves, personally and financially. So, we've been reading books and listening to books-on-tape (well, CD's really.) Among them are things like Napoleon Hill's "Think and Grow Rich" and "The Secret," by Rhonda Byrne. Both books are very similar in many ways, speaking of the importance of a positive attitude, and of giving charity. (Ayn Rand is doing backflips in her grave.)

One of the concepts that both those books, and others we've read, suggest is that the starting point for everything else they're trying to teach is Gratitude. That's the foundation, without which you really can't get anywhere.

Now I don't know about you, but that wouldn't have been my thought. I would have said something like, Organization or Creative Thinking or Persistence, etc. So I had to think about that for awhile, and have concluded that it's true.

Gratitude is the appreciation of what you already have. It doesn't mean you don't want more, but it does mean that your life won't be governed by what you don't have. If that's your focus, you'll never be happy - because there will always be something you don't have, and you'll be consumed by your wanting of it. You'll convince yourself that, if you just had that thing, you would be happy. And so, even if you inherited Bill Gates' fortune, you wouldn't be happy.

On the other hand, if you appreciate what you do have, you'll always be happy. You can focus on increasing material wealth, if that's your bent, or anything else you want to work on, and you will be happy. Once you've accomplished that, then you're ready to use the positive energy or Law of Attraction or good karma or whatever you want to call it, to your benefit.

So that's what I now believe Chaza"l meant in Pirkei Avot. Be grateful, and the rest will come.

But today we're continually fed a stream of negativity. Gasoline prices are going up. The war in Iraq. Bush is bad. Global warming is going to kill us all in 15 minutes. I mean, when was the last time you saw a happy story on the news? Alright, I don't mean the ones they play at the very end, showing the duck who's learned how to rollerblade or the kid who saved a puppy trapped in a meat grinder. I mean a real newsworthy story about something good. Almost never. And we're bombarded by media all day, every day.

No wonder we're all depressed!

The trick seems to be in getting back to gratitude. I'm working on that. So thanks for reading this post.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Midot Award

Last night, my oldest daughter graduated high school. We're very proud of her.

She didn't win awards last night, but that doesn't bother me. I know who she is, and so does she. So even the "Midot Tovot Award" went to someone else.

A boy came from Silver Spring (about an hour away) because he was "close friends" with two of the graduates. My daughter wasn't one of his friends, but somehow, after graduation, this kid wound up having no place to go. His friends didn't want him messing up their after-grad party plans.

So he came to our house, and my daughter and her friend drove him home. She didn't go to the after-grad party.

The Midot Tovot Award winner did.

But I still think she won.

Etz Chaim?

I'm learning Mishle (Proverbs) for the first time. I'm back on my track of trying to go through Nach, at least so's I can get some idea as to what's in there. Most kids - even Orthodox kids - aren't exposed to very much Nach in their school careers. This is especially so with boys, who are instantly shunted to Mishna and Gemara once they're old enough. Nearly 20 years ago, while trying to learn a particularly difficult piece of Aggadic Gemara, I realized that part of the reason I was finding it so difficult was that I didn't know the events and people the Gemara was referring to. So I embarked on this effort.

Anyway, enough about that.

In Proverbs, Chapter 3, there are two verses that I find interesting, both in terms of their placement, and in terms of reference. I'm including the Hebrew here both to show off that I can (and that I'm practicing typing in it), and because the verses are well known in Hebrew.

17: "דרכיה דרכי נעם וכל נתיבותיה שלום" - It's ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace.
18: "עץ חיים היא למחזיקים בה ותומכיה מאשר" - It is a tree of life for those who grasp it, and those who draw near it are fortunate.

Now here's what interests me:

First, we say these verses during davening, when putting the Torah away. Except, we say them in the reverse order. I'm wondering why?

Second, these verses, usually quoted in reverse, as mentioned, are often used by rabbis as referring to Torah. In other words, when it says "It is a tree of life...", the it is said to be Torah.

The problem is that's not what the verses seem to indicate.

To find what the verses are referring to, you have to go back until you find the apparent definition of "It" (or "She", if you want to be technical). So let's go back some verses:

16: Length of days is in its right hand; in its left hand are riches and honor.
15: It is more precious than pearls, and all your desirable things cannot be compared to it.
14: For its commerce is better than the commerce of silver, and its gain is better than fine gold.

Nope. None of these tell us what it is. You have to go all the way back to verse 13.

13: Fortunate is the man who has found wisdom and a man who gives forth discernment.

Aha!! We've found the elusive it! It is WISDOM.

So Wisdom is the tree of life.... Wisdom's ways are pleasant.

That does make sense. The problem is that rabbis all over the place don't tell us that. They say it means Torah. Now I suppose you could say that Torah is the Mekor Chachma - the source of Wisdom, and I wouldn't argue that point. But it does seem a little bit dishonest to tell us that the verse is referring directly to Torah, when it clearly isn't.

Once again, I don't, as yet, have an answer to these. Any thoughts?