VIDEO: Rabbi David Wolpe — Lessons of the Chanukah Candles


There are lots of ‘drashim about Chanukah, the candles, the Menorah and the Maccabees.  Sinai Temple’s Rabbi David Wolpe offers a new and fascinating look at the significance of the ceremonial candlelighting.

 

Life lessons from the trenches of cancer survival


On my neck there’s a large, upside-down L-shaped scar. One leg of the L runs from my right shoulder blade upward to just below my right ear; the other leg takes a 90-degree turn, following the jaw line to my chin. The right side of my neck — the inside of the L — looks as if it’s had glands, cartilage and muscle scooped out, leaving a tough, bumpy, uneven cavity. After the surgery, a friend joked that I should put Silly Putty on my neck.

No Silly Putty, no cosmetic surgery. My neck has remained exactly as it was after the operation. It’s a souvenir of squamous cell carcinoma — cancer — which started in the right tonsil and metastasized to the lymph nodes, diagnosed and treated 15 years ago.

The day I was told that I had throat cancer, I was furious. There was no logic to it. I’d never smoked, didn’t drink, hadn’t eaten red meat in more than 25 years. So why me?

There was only one way to deal with my fury. I went out and had a real hot dog with sauerkraut. Much better than those meat-free — and taste-free — soy dogs I’d eaten for so long. With each bite, I looked up at the heavens and shook my fist: There! Take that!

In fact, it’s that semidefiant attitude that helped me get through the punishing treatment: massive amounts of throat radiation followed by a radical neck dissection.

Bernie Siegel — the oncologist whose tapes I’d listen to in the car while going back and forth to the hospital — says that one should be a “good-bad patient”: question everything and demand honesty and clear explanations from health-care professionals.

But, Siegel stresses, once you decide on a treatment, stick with it.

Here’s something that helped me: Although I was optimistic, I didn’t see treatment as an attempt to “beat” cancer. Right from the beginning I thought of cancer as my teacher, an experience I was going to learn from.

What did I learn? For one thing, when you accept help from others — which was hard for me — it not only makes you feel better, it also makes the person helping you feel better. When I started treatment, my older son, Rafi, was just finishing his freshman year at an Ivy League school. He took a year off to help me. He didn’t think of it this way at the time, but when he looks back on it now, he says that he cherishes that year.

After I was diagnosed, I was called and visited by many well-meaning people who suggested alternative treatments: from special diets to fasting to massive doses of vitamins. I listened politely and then plunged full bore into the most up-to-date medical treatment available. Oh, I used some unconventional techniques to complement treatment, but not as a substitute for Western medicine.

While going through radiation treatment, I meditated every day. This involved breath control and visualization until I’d reach a state of self-hypnosis. While in a trance, I’d imagine a kind of Pac-Man figure entering my body and eating my cancer cells.

Did it help? Who knows? It felt good, and that’s what counts. Meditation — or prayer or yoga — certainly can’t hurt, so long as it’s not used in place of standard treatment.

While you’re going through treatment, be easy on yourself. If you want to be alone, then be alone. If you don’t want to talk to anyone, then don’t. Recognize your limits, and don’t let anyone talk you out of them. If, however, you want to interact with family and friends, then by all means do so. And when you’re tired, kick them out. Be strict about this.

The medical facility where I received treatment is one of the most prestigious in the world, but some staff members had a lousy bedside manner. One resident — I thought of him as Dr. Worst-Case-Scenario — would always give me his gloomiest predictions.

I never let it affect me. The way I look at it, the job of any medical facility is to provide the most skilled, cutting-edge treatment, and that’s it. But that’s more than enough. If you need happy talk and hand-holding, that’s what family and friends are for.

How can you find the right medical center for you? Ask others in your area who have gone through similar treatment. Talk to your family physician. Consult magazines that rate hospitals and treatment centers. One source is the annual issue of U.S. News & World Report that lists each medical specialty and ranks facilities throughout the country. You can access last year’s rankings via its Web site or at your local library.

Some years back, Norman Cousins wrote about the healing power of laughter. It worked for me. Forget subtle humor. You want the fall-on-the-floor-bust-a-gut-roaring kind: early Woody Allen movies or Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau. There are times, though, when other types of movies work, too. During the worst moment of treatment, my pain was eased by watching Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers glide across the dance floor.

Make no mistake: Cancer — and its treatment — can be horrendous. I wasn’t able to eat, I had no energy. Every day I was faced with my own mortality. But that helped me put priorities in place: seize the day and all that.

Once I recuperated from treatment, I made my own bucket list. After having lived what I felt had been a self-indulgent life, I was now determined to try something different. So I worked for the Shoah Foundation, which assures that Holocaust survivors’ testimonies become a permanent record.

I joined groups that explore life; reconnected with friends and family; published many articles — and a book — on topics close to my heart; volunteered as a writing coach for inner-city kids. And I’ve been a mentor for others going through cancer treatment, sharing what I learned, trying to make a difficult journey a little easier.

Nowadays when I look at my neck — at the scar, bumps and cavities — I feel nothing but gratitude: It’s a reminder of the treatment that saved my life.

And it’s a reminder that having gotten cancer in the first place also saved my life.

Man, oh man! What a difference 10 years make


A woman walks into a medical office and asks the doctor, “Can you make me a man?” The doctor replies, “Well, there’s two ways we can go about doing this: the cheap way or the expensive way.”

“What’s the cheap way?” the woman asks.

“Surgery,” the doctor responds.

“Then what’s the expensive way?” she asks.

The doctor says, “a bar mitzvah.”

I wish I had added that joke to my bar mitzvah speech, but I didn’t think of it until 10 years later. Also, I don’t think it would’ve been well-received by my religious relatives.

Although its been almost a full 10 years, I still remember my bar mitzvah quite well: June 7, 1997, Parshat Bamidbar.

I remember the guests that gave up a precious Saturday morning, the flowers my mother demanded be placed on the bimah to effeminately illustrate my masculine blossoming and the Kiddush luncheon that rewarded the congregation for staying for the entirety of the service. But most of all, as I stood on the bimah while the crowd chanted “Mazel tov” and rocketed candy mercilessly toward my face, I remember thinking: “Am I really a man now? Just like that?”

I know now the bar mitzvah ceremony didn’t instantly make me a man, but if I am one today, after 10 years, its because of the lessons I learned throughout the entire experience.

Gift of Patience

After 10 years, I can only hope that I’m as mature as the $1,800 worth of savings bonds I received as gifts. At the time, I hated those guests who decided I wasn’t ready for their cash. But now, as a recent college graduate just starting out in the real world, I can’t think of any better bar mitzvah gift than that. Thankfully those bonds have taught me the importance of patience and smart spending.

But if I had had my way, I would have spent that money on comic books and baseball cards 10 years ago. However, because I waited, I learned the valuable lesson of accepting the wisdom and advice of others, thus providing me with sufficient funds so I can now go out and buy $1,800 worth of comic books and baseball cards.

Watch It

One of the greatest aspects of becoming a man is being able to understand the theoretical and practical properties of time. I must not have been ready to grasp such an abstract concept prior to reading the Torah, because each of my five uncles presented me with a beautiful wristwatch as my manhood approached.

As a man, I was ready to keep track of my own time. As ridiculous as it may sound, the idea of being responsible for my own time serves some value in accepting the responsibility of manhood. A man is expected to be at certain places at certain times, while always having a greater understanding of what’s around him. My five watches provide me with this, while at the same time providing me with five fewer excuses for being late anywhere.

Don’t Point Fingers

One of the most difficult notions of becoming a man is understanding the consequences of our actions and knowing our own power. Several days before my bar mitzvah, I was going through my usual “annoy my sisters routine” when one of them rightfully stuck out her middle finger at me.

In disgust, I grabbed it as evidence to show my father that his daughter wasn’t as angelic as she appeared. Three hours and one emergency room visit later, doctors laughed as my sister had become the only girl to be injured in such a manner. Throughout the ceremony and the youth-group induction, she wore a splint on her middle finger, not only as a health precaution but also as a reminder to me that for every path we choose there are consequences and repercussions.

I learned this the easy way. My sister, unfortunately, learned it the hard way.

Thanks for Nothing

While there were many challenges I faced throughout the bar mitzvah process, the hardest by far in my recollection was writing the hundreds of thank you notes by myself. “Men don’t say thank you” was one of my best arguments for trying to get out of the arduous task, but it was hopeless.

My mother owned me. The cards had to be taken care of, and there was only one man for the job. This perhaps was one of the greatest lessons I learned that I still rely on today. Even after the party’s over, there’s work to be done, and in order to achieve success, every task must have appropriate follow through — in addition to monogrammed stationery.

Question Revisited

I had studied for nine months, sacrificed an hour each week and then thanked a bunch a people I didn’t know. And then in a single day I was “a man.” But after 10 years of ignoring this question, I ask myself again: “Am I really a man now?”

I’m certainly a different person, with a lot more hair (in fact, the only thing I shaved for my bar mitzvah was seconds off my adrenaline-rushed speech). But aside from the physical difference, the mental transformation wasn’t as easy as I had originally thought.

I realize now that the bar mitzvah really meant I was finally ready to become a man.

At my bar mitzvah, I became a man to prove it to my parents. At my college graduation, I became a man to prove it to my peers. And after 10 years, I struggle to become a better man to prove it to myself.

I’ll let you know how I turn out in another 10 years.

Jay Firestone will read from the Torah on May 19, 9 a.m. at Temple Beth Israel, 8056 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of his bar mitzvah. Kiddush luncheon to follow.

Heroes and Villains


Brian Wilson penned the Beach Boys song “Heroes and Villains” during a turbulent, paranoia-filled time in his life, according to his biographers. Wilson had people
whom he trusted in the business, and others whom he felt were out to get him.

We all instinctively identify and label the heroes and villains in our lives, and Judaism supports the need for iconic heroes.

In Hollywood’s early days, the traditional villain was the hunched-over, mustachioed scofflaw sporting a black cape, while the hero was the pumped-up, 6-foot-3 blond hunk with gleaming-white teeth. And while today’s Hollywood has been mixing things by portraying schlubs as heroes (think “Shrek”), the Talmud states that a Torah scholar must be impeccably dressed. Furthermore, God will only allow prophecy to rest on someone who is “wise, strong, wealthy and tall.” In order for God to be well represented to his people, the messenger has to look like a mensch.

Moses didn’t appreciate this idea. When God first dispatched him to speak to the Jewish people, Moses tried to get out of it. He felt that no mortal could aptly represent God, and so God should represent Himself.

God disagreed. He taught Moses that the gap between man and God was too great at the outset of Jewish history. The people at the time were unsophisticated slaves who instead needed a heroic Moses as their icon of salvation.

God won the argument.

In last week’s portion, when Moses first spoke to the Jews about how God had sent him (the good guy) to defeat Pharaoh (the bad guy), they were very receptive and they believed him. But in Parshat Vaera, after Moses again complains about having to be the messenger, God teaches him a lesson.

“Therefore,” God says, “say to the Jewish people, ‘I am Y-H-V-H'” (Exodus 6:6).

God was saying: Moses, this time tell the Jews that the omnipotent and unknowable God will be taking them out of Egypt, and that it’s no longer about you, the hero, defeating Pharaoh, the villain.
And the second time out the Jews did not accept Moses’ words. “They did not listen to Moses from shortness of breath” (Exodus 6:9). They lacked the depth to appreciate a direct and ethereal encounter with God, sans the very tangible heroes and villains.

Therefore, it’s a bit surprising when the Talmud states that in the future, the Jewish Messiah will be a “poor man, riding on a donkey,” just as he is described in the book of Zachariah (9:9).
If it was so important during the Exodus that there be iconic heroes and villains, why is it now OK for the Messiah to look like such a nebbish?

Apparently, the Talmud feels that by the time the Messiah is ready to appear, the world will no longer be suckered in by external appearances. We will have evolved to a more mature appreciation of greatness, and our saviors will not have to look like Errol Flynn.

The Talmud also records a dialogue between the sage Shmuel and a powerful Persian ruler. The Persian asked Shmuel why the Jewish Messiah would be riding on a donkey.

“Allow me to provide him with a well-groomed Persian horse!” he mocked.

Shmuel responded, “Do you have a horse of a hundred colors?”

Shmuel says this because according to the Persian ruler’s superficial values, there is no horse in the world that would befit our leading man, the Messiah. So Shmuel’s doesn’t need the ruler’s horse or any other horse because when the Messiah comes we’ll be able to recognize him for what he is even without the clichéd symbols of heroism.

As human beings, we need icons to help us relate to God and the forces of good and evil. This, according to Moses Nachmanides, was why the Jews made the golden calf. Once they thought that their leader Moses was dead, they immediately had a need for a new intermediary icon to lead them through the desert.

Without black-and-white icons, life sometimes becomes too confusing and we lose our way. But, ultimately, we are meant to rise above the external images. We are to eventually become sophisticated enough to be able to recognize goodness and salvation even from the not-so-obvious sources.

So don’t be surprised when you meet the Messiah and discover “a poor man, riding on a donkey.” Or, maybe he’ll be short, bald and beardless, like Natan Sharansky. Who knows? I just hope I’m wise enough to recognize him when the time comes.


Daniel Korobkin is rabbi of Kehillat Yavneh and director of community and synagogue services for the West Coast Orthodox Union.

Shoah lessons drive curriculum


The Holocaust will play a major role in educating teens at a new Green Dot charter school in Exposition Park. The entire staff of the Animo Jackie Robinson High School — seven teachers and two principals — has been trained to teach a curriculum by Facing History and Ourselves, a Boston-based organization that uses the Holocaust to help kids understand the impact of moral choices they make daily.

“In making our school a Facing History high school, we are saying ‘what if we could really shape all the curricular components with this vision? What would happen with kids from the inner city who are really struggling with moral choices, and who often have no idea what it means to have remorse for your actions?'” said assistant principal Kristen Botello.

 
The school has written a four-year curriculum that integrates the Facing History approach through several disciplines, including English, history, science, art and community service. Animo Jackie Robinson is the first school in Los Angeles to adopt Facing History as an underlying educational philosophy.

 
The school opened this year with 147 kids in ninth grade; 18 of them are African American and the rest are Latino. Grades will be added over the next three years until there are 600 ninth- to 12th-graders, and all teachers hired will be trained by Facing History.

 
“I believe the thought processes that result from Facing History affect the kids not only in terms of learning the content of the Holocaust, but in looking at human behavior and the specific, personal events where individuals had to make choices, and how individual choices impact history,” Botello said.

 
Botello taught English at Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights for 14 years, 11 of them using the Facing History curriculum. She says she can always spot kids who had Facing History teachers.

 
“You can just see it in the way they behave, the way they treat each other and the tolerance levels they have for people who are different, not just in terms of race or ethnicity, but in terms of disabilities or challenges,” she said.
The Jackie Robinson educators were among 30 LAUSD teachers who participated in Facing History’s five-day September institute called “Holocaust and Human Behavior,” held at Mount St. Mary’s College Doheny Campus.

 
Around 1,500 teachers in Los Angeles have been trained by Facing History.
 
For information, visit www.facinghistory.org or www.greendot.org.

 
A helping foot
 
As they have been for the past 14 years, about 250 kids and families will lend their feet to AIDS Walk Los Angeles Oct. 15 as part of Kids Who Care, a team made up of kids from more than a dozen schools, including Stephen S. Wise Day School and Milken Community High School.
 
Last year, Kids Who Care raised $65,000, placing it fifth among the top AIDS Walk fundraisers, most of them corporations.

The team was founded with 25 walkers in 1992 by then-8-year-old Leo Beckerman, a Stephen S. Wise member. Since then, Stephen S. Wise families have raised more than $500,000 for AIDS Walk Los Angeles, now in its 22nd year.
 
The money funds direct services, prevention education and advocacy on behalf of people living with HIV/AIDS in Los Angeles County.
 
There are approximately 55,000 people living with HIV in Los Angeles County, and there are 1,500-2,000 new infections each year.
 

For information visit www.WiseLA.org or www.aidswalk.net/losangeles.

 
Family dinners = better grades + better behavior
 
First ladies Maria Shriver and Corina Villaraigosa helped kick off Family Day at Thomas Starr King Middle School near Griffith Park Sept. 25. The Safeway Foundation launched a $2 million public service campaign to encourage families to eat dinner together.
 
The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University founded Family Day in 2001 — and this year 600 cities participated. A CASA study found that compared to kids who have fewer than three family dinners per week, children and teens who have frequent family dinners are at 70 percent lower risk for substance abuse; half as likely to try cigarettes or marijuana; one-third less likely to try alcohol; and almost 40 percent likelier to say future drug use will never happen. The report also found that teens who have frequent family dinners are likelier to get better grades in school.

 
For information visit www.safeway.com or www.casafamilyday.org.

 
The next step for girls: Israel
 
The Orthodox Union’s (OU) Machon Maayan one-year program in Israel opened with its first class of 39 women, many of whom have scant Judaic studies background.
The post high-school seminary in Beit Shemesh — a half hour from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem — attracts girls who graduate from the National Conference of Synagogue Youth, the OU’s outreach youth movement, and want to continue in their Jewish studies.
 
“Where we stop, programs like Machon Maayan continue,” said Rabbi Steven Burg, National Director of NCSY, who was formerly the movement’s West Coast director.
For more information go to www.machonmaayan.org.

 

Post-Gaza: A Time for Israelis to Reunite


The disengagement or expulsion has ended. But is this also the end of religious Zionism? Are there lessons we can and must learn that may enable us to emerge stronger from this most difficult period?

The first lesson we learned is that we are indeed one nation. There was no real violence, and there was even majestic fortitude and an exaltation of spirit displayed by many Gush Katif settlers and leaders.

On the other side of the barricades, only a small number of soldiers refused to carry out military evacuation orders, despite the charge to do so from major rabbinic voices; the soldiers and police behaved with incredible sensitivity and restraint.

It was heart wrenching but uplifting, a period in which I was both tear-filled and pride-filled to be an Israeli Jew.

Is this the end of religious Zionism? Only if the definition of religious Zionism is greater Israel, and only if “we want the Messiah now” has become not merely a future wish but the description of our present historical reality.

Remember that Maimonides developed a position of “normative messianism,” teaching “no one ought imagine that the normal course of events will be transformed during the messianic era, or that there will be a change in the order of creation; the world will continue in its normal course….”

From this perspective, no one had the right to declare, for example, that God would never allow Gush Katif to be dismantled, as some religious leaders did. Or that if we all prayed together at the Western Wall, our prayers would have to be answered. The only guarantees the Torah gives is that the Jewish people will never be completely destroyed, and that there will eventually be world peace emanating from Jerusalem.

As far as everything else is concerned, pray and work to achieve the best, but prepare for and be ready to accept the worst. The Talmud teaches “even when a sword dangles at your throat, you must not despair of Divine mercy.” But, our sages declare, “It is forbidden to rely on miracles.”

Achieving the best means living a life of dialogue and engagement with our secular brothers and sisters.

It also may mean returning to the understanding of religious Zionism that predominated until the immediate aftermath of the Yom Kippur War. This Zionism was based on compromise regarding land, on our acceptance of a partition plan, which required our withdrawal from Sinai in 1956.

We held the modest belief that our era was merely “the beginning of the sprouting of our redemption,” which would be a lengthy process fraught with advances and regressions, achievements and setbacks. It was this attitude of compromise that prevented us from a no-exit collision course with Palestinian fundamentalists screaming “not one grain of sand” on one side and our nationalists insisting “not one inch” on the other.

This spirit of compromise has fostered our constant presence in the government, even at times in rabidly secular governments, as an expression of our willingness to continue dialogue, even when we may vehemently disagree about issues of state. Only such a spirit of compromise will enable us to live together in a democratic state, and prevent our self-destruction in a fire of internal enmity, which destroyed the Second Commonwealth, even before the Romans touched the holy Temple.

It was after the agonizingly belated victory in the Yom Kippur War that car stickers began advertising “Israel has confidence in God.” At that point, a significant portion of religious Israel began to feel that the Messianic Age had already arrived, that greater Israel was an unstoppable phenomenon and that we must build settlements throughout Judea, Samaria and Gaza. It was as though the Almighty entered into a covenant with our generation: We were to build the settlements, and God would guarantee their permanence.

And so we did. But in the process, we left the rest of the nation behind. Most of our settlements had screening committees — mainly religious conditions. During the last three decades, more and more national religionists have chosen to live in separatist communities apart from their secular siblings. Two nations were beginning to emerge — two nations that rarely interacted.

We also created magnificent schools, from day care centers for 6-month-olds to different strokes for different folks-type yeshiva high schools — running the gamut from Talmud intensive to music and art intensive. But these schools were all religious and inward reflecting in orientation. We did not take seriously many social problems plaguing Israeli society: forced prostitution, exorbitant bank interest rates, corruption in the highest places and the ever-climbing poverty graph. And although we were deeply involved in our own education, we seemed totally disinterested in secular educational institutions.

This disconnect was not all of our own making. Even though some of our founding fathers enjoyed bacon and eggs for breakfast, they were a far cry from Yossi Beilin, who wrote that his grandfather made a mistake for preferring Israel to Uganda in the Zionist Congress. And there’s Shimon Peres, who would have us join the Arab League and treat Rachel’s Tomb and the Cave of the Couples as unimportant pieces of real estate.

No wonder we have drifted so far apart.

The main lessons of this disengagement must be our return to normative messianism, and the critical necessity of establishing a common language between the religious and secular based on Jewish culture — for the entire populace. One that must permeate our music, art and theater; our matnasim (Jewish centers) and our schools; our TV and radio.

And there must be more mixed neighborhoods and opportunities for interpersonal dialogue. We must resurrect the initial flag of religious Zionism, our tripod ideals of land, Torah culture and people. We must never again forget the majority of our people in our enthusiasm for land and Torah.

By so doing, we will learn to respect each other. And we may even create the kind of shared culture and values that will transform our state from a mini-New York to a light unto the nations, from a mirror of a decadent Western society to a model for a world of peace and mutual respect.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chief rabbi of the settlement of Efrat in Gush Etzion, Israel, and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone, an educational network serving students from all religious backgrounds. He will be the scholar-in-residence at Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills the Shabbat of Sept. 10. For more information, call (310) 278-1911.

 

Dead Right


 

I met Bob and Susie at the end of a float plane trip deep in the Alaskan wilderness. Most of the year they live on a 40-foot boat surrounded by nothing but forest and water. There are no roads and it’s 100 miles by plane to the nearest neighbors. Occasionally, fisherman will fly in to spend the day halibut fishing.

During the fishing season, Bob and Susie never know on a given day whether or not they will have company. Most days they are alone with nowhere to go but 40 feet of boat.

Bob is tall and wiry with leathery, sunburned skin and hands scarred and rough as wood cut against the grain. He smells like halibut and diesel. Susie is thin with dirty blonde hair streaked with gray and sparkling blue eyes. She has a kind smile with lines of weather and age cut deep in her face. She smells like halibut and diesel, too.

After an hour or so of uneventful fishing, I can’t help but ask Susie and Bob the obvious question: “How do you guys make this work, just the two of you alone for months with only 40 feet of boat? How do you stay married?”

“There’s just one simple thing we cannot do if Bob and I want to stay on this boat and stay married,” Susie said. “We can’t keep score. You can’t have a relationship, you can’t live in the present, you can’t have love if you keep score.”

I think about Susie’s answer as I ponder this week’s Torah portion. After all God has done for them — plagues, a splitting sea, manna from heaven — Moses is a few hours late coming down from Mount Sinai and the Israelites lose faith in him and in God. Frantically fashioning a golden calf they proclaim, “This is your God O’Israel.”

I don’t know about you, but if I were God, I’d be pissed. And, of course, God is. But it doesn’t take long for God to forgive. Before we know it, Moses is back up there on the mountain receiving a second set of tablets. After all, this week the Torah reminds us that God is “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness….” Apparently, God doesn’t keep score.

It’s hard not to keep score. We all do it. In his book “The Scorecard: the Official Point System for Keeping Score in the Relationship Game” (Owl Books, 1997) author Greg Gutfield makes fun of how couples keep score. For example:

On her birthday you surprise her with:

A. Beautiful diamond earrings (+75 points)
B. A bread machine (-25 points)
C. Your new girlfriend (-400 points)

It’s a funny book, but in truth there’s nothing funny about keeping score in a relationship. I see it in my office all the time. Husbands and wives who argue by pulling old grievances off the dusty shelf of memory to hurl at each other like emotional grenades. Brothers and sisters who cannot forgive each other for simply leading different kinds of lives. Grown men and women who act like little attorneys, each providing evidence from months, years, even decades past, for why they were the wronged party, how they were dealt the greater injustice, why they are right. Sound familiar?

Maybe you are right. Maybe your brothers or sisters have hurt you more than you have hurt them. Your children are ungrateful. Your parents are too demanding.

When I was 15 years old and my father was teaching me to drive, he told me something I have never forgotten. He said, “Always remember that you can be dead right.” What he meant was that even if I had the right of way, even if the law was on my side, I could end up dead if I wasn’t careful. It’s true on the road and it’s true in our families. If we keep score, we lose even if we win. Do we really prefer being dead right over having a relationship with the people we love?

Then there is the world at large to consider.

Two merchants in a large town were fierce competitors. Their shops were across the street from each other. The sole method each man had of determining the success of his business was not daily profit, but how much more business he had than his competitor. If a customer made a purchase at the store of one merchant, he would taunt his competitor when the sale was complete. The rivalry grew with each succeeding year.

One day, God sent an angel to one of the merchants with an offer. “The Lord God has chosen to give you a great gift,” the angel said. “Whatever you desire, you will receive. Ask for riches, long life or healthy children and the wish is yours. But there is one stipulation. Whatever you receive, your competitor will get twice as much. If you ask for 1,000 gold coins, he will receive 2,000. If you become famous, he will become twice as famous.”

The angel smiled. “This is God’s way of teaching you a lesson,” he said.

The merchant thought for a moment. “You will give me anything I request?” he asked.

The angel nodded.

The man’s face darkened. “I ask you then to strike me blind in one eye,” he said.

Israelis and Palestinians, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, parents and children: Is life about winning by wounding — winning on points but losing peace and love in the process? We who know the score so well ought to know, too, that Susie and God were right. It’s best to live in the present — compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness.

Steven Z. Leder is a rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple and the author of “The Extraordinary Nature of Ordinary Things” (Behrman House, 1999) and “More Money Than God: Living a Rich Life Without Losing Your Soul” (Bonus Books, 2004).

 

Yeladim


 

The Fire of Money

In Parshat Ki Tisa, each Israelite is instructed to give a half-shekel to the “temple fund” every year. There is a midrash – a story told by rabbis to teach a lesson – about this portion. Rabbis say that God took a fiery coin from under His heavenly throne, showed it to Moses and said: “Like this shall they give.”

What can we learn from the image of a fiery coin? The rabbis say that fire can be destructive if misused, but can be very useful and beneficial if used properly. And so it is with money. Perhaps money is – or can be – the “root of all evil,” but it can also be used for charity and acts of kindness.

Back Words

Solve the clues. The second answer is the first answer written backwards!

Give money

– – –

A high-pitch bark

– – –

A Yiddle Riddle

Turn the following description into two words.

A scratchy inflammation in the middle of your body.

Now, put the two together to get one Hebrew word and one big prize!

Being Jewish in America

Written by a fifth grade,

Emek Hebrew Academy

It is difficult sometimes to be one of a small number of Jews in America and in L.A., especially around Christmastime, when a lot of stores are sporting trees, lights, etc. Yet, somehow, my family manages to celebrate Shabbat, keep kosher and go to a Jewish school. There are lots of churches in L.A., but there are also a lot of shuls and Jewish organizations that make it easier and more fun to be a Jewish American!

 

Silence Is Golden


A saleswoman, driving home in northern Arizona, sees a Navajo woman hitchhiking, stops the car and invites the Navajo woman to join her.

As they drive, the Navajo woman glances repeatedly at a brown bag on the front seat between them.

“If you are wondering what’s in the bag,” the saleswoman offers, “it’s a bottle of wine. I got it for my husband.”

The Navajo woman is silent for a while, then nods several times and says, “good trade.”

Chauvinism, of one kind or another, probably has always been with us. This week’s Torah reading, Parshat Vayera, for example, appears to lend itself to the charge of male chauvinism. The Torah tells us that the three angels who came to visit Abraham brought news that Sarah would give birth to Abraham’s son. Sarah laughed when she heard this, whereupon God chastised her, saying to Abraham, “Why is it that Sarah laughed … is anything too hard for the Eternal?” (Genesis 18:13-14).

Our sages point out that this sharp response seems strange considering that in last week’s Torah reading, when God told Abraham that he would have a son from Sarah, he, too, laughed, yet in that instance God was not critical at all.

Why the different treatment? Could sexual discrimination be at the heart of the disparity or something else? Perhaps we can find our answer in a suggestion made by the late Hannah Levine, wife of the late saintly Rabbi Aryeh Levine, known as the Tzadik of Jerusalem.

Hannah Levine suggested that the story of the Shunamit woman and the prophet Elisha mentioned in the haftorah for this week’s Torah portion can help solve our question. The story relates that the woman’s young son came running in from the field in great pain screaming, “My head! My head!” and then died. The woman took the boy, placed him upon Elisha’s bed in the room that she had prepared for the prophet in her home, and set out to find the prophet.

The woman then asked her husband to provide a chariot and driver for her so that she could find Elisha. Puzzled, he wanted to know why, to which she replied with one word, shalom. When she finally reached the prophet, he saw her from afar and sent his assistant to find out if everything was well with her, to which she answered only one word: shalom. The story continues that Elisha knew something was wrong, went back with her and revived the child.

We, however, must wonder why the Shunamit woman responded to each query with the one word, shalom, when everything was the antithesis of peace. Hannah Levine suggests that this teaches us a lesson. For a miracle to work, one cannot drown it in everyday verbiage. Once it is subsumed by ordinary reality, the miracle will not occur.

Rashi, the classical medieval biblical commentator, offers a similar observation in regard to Abraham and Sarah. Sarah’s laugh reflected ordinary incredulity. She scoffed. She verbalized. As her words indicate, she did not believe such a promise could be fulfilled.

Abraham’s laugh, the Torah tells us, “was in his heart” (Genesis 17:17), but it expressed delight. Not a torrent of words but a simple, heartfelt laugh, reflected firm belief that the promise would be fulfilled.

What a powerful lesson for us who live in this information age, besieged by torrents of words. If we would realize that it is not so much what we say but what we do and what we feel in our hearts that can cause miracles to happen, then, like Abraham, we could influence a whole world for good.

This column originally appeared in The Journal on Nov. 14, 2003.

Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.

Lenin, Meet Noah


Fall was just beginning to turn the Moscow air crispy when the lot of us — 10 high school seniors and three faculty members of Yeshiva University Los Angeles Girls’ School — trudged down the stairs of our Intourist Hotel in the late ’80s, and began our walk of several miles, not to the better-known Chabad Lubavitch Synagogue or to the Moscow Choral Synagogue, but to another shul in the city’s north.

Marina Roscha was discreetly tucked away, just out of view from the street it shared with a major hospital. Its old frame building was as unobtrusive as its beginnings. It had been built in those first few years of post-Revolution confusion, when it was still possible to act without Big Brother noticing. (Although it had withstood decades of Communist rule, it was firebombed — twice — since our visit, and only recently rebuilt as a Jewish community center.)

The minimum mandatory age for the local attendees appeared to be 85. Besides us, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, the famed Israeli thinker, davened there that Shabbat morning. After services, many of the men gathered around a table to study Mishnah. The class had invited Steinsaltz to speak, so I listened in as he addressed them in Yiddish.

“Yidden, this morning we read the portion about Noah. Do you know what the lesson of this portion is in a nutshell?” Not waiting for a response, he continued: “There are two lessons. One is that it is possible that a person can wake up and find that the entire world has gone mad, that he is the last sane person to survive. Two is what you should do when this happens.

“Let me tell you a story. After World War II, I returned to Paris to look for family. The last thing I expected to find was a shul to pray in on Shabbat. In fact, there was such a shul, and I joined a handful of old, broken survivors for davening. Ten years later, I returned, and sought out the same shul. Certainly, I thought, all the old ones would have passed on, and the shul would have closed. Instead, I found more people than a decade before. There were some middle-aged people, and even a few children.

“Another decade or so passed. How delighted I was to find that the shul was now bustling with people of all ages, with children running everywhere.

“A week ago, I visited again, and found fewer congregants than before. They told me that the shul had become so big that it had spawned two breakaway shuls, and siphoned off many people! Those few beaten-down survivors had succeeded in creating a vital community!”

He looked hard at the faces of the men who had known nothing but communist oppression for the last 70 years.

“What do you do when you are the only sane person left, when there is nothing but madness around?” he asked. “You keep to your principles. You keep doing what you know God wants you to do. You may discover one day that you have triumphed, and single-handedly rebuilt a better new world.”

Although these old men were hardened by adversity, there was hardly a dry eye among them. They recognized the message as the summation of their lives. To Lenin goes much of the “credit” for inventing state-controlled terror as an instrument of imposing the government’s will. Individuals simply did not matter. And religion had to be crushed to make way for more progressive ideas.

Many of us find ourselves crushed under the weight of a world burdened with a new variety of madness. At the same time, the principles and practices that offered Jews dignity and purpose in other stormy times are often attacked as outdated and insufficiently progressive.

Noah showed that tenaciously clinging to the truth can be profoundly lonely, but crucially effective. Ultimately, he got the best of Lenin. It just took a while to find out.

This column originally appeared in The Journal on Oct. 19, 2001.

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein directs Project Next Step for the Simon Wiesenthal Center and holds the Sydney M. Irmas Chair in Jewish law and ethics at Loyola Law School.

Iraq Situation: It’s Vietnam Deja Vu


Determination is a virtue. Remember how determined we were in Vietnam?

No bunch of barefoot peasants was going to force the United States of America to cut and run. No sir. Through eight long years and 58,000 dead soldiers we demonstrated our refusal to be cowed.

We were in Vietnam to protect the freedom of the South Vietnamese people against the godless communists who were out to enslave them. Unfortunately, the fact that the enemy was ethnically identical to the citizens we were protecting made it a little hard at times to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys.

Some of the troops got so fed up with the effort that they stopped trying to tell them apart. On their helmets they had a catchy solution: "Kill ’em all. Let God sort ’em out."

Then, as now, we had persuasive reasons for persisting, even after it became apparent that we couldn’t win. There was the infamous "domino effect" of collapsing Asian countries if we left. And of course, the ever-popular "bloodbath" that would follow if the communists took over the South. Naturally, we had to keep fighting so as not to abandon our POW’s, who, it turned out, were repatriated immediately after we left.

Then there was the knotty problem of how to leave. We needed to "save face," to ensure our continued credibility among the nations of the world (most of whom thought we were crazy to be there). We finally left the way we came — on boats and planes.

During our prolonged adventure in Southeast Asia, we heard constantly that we were engaged in a struggle for the "hearts and minds" of the Vietnamese people. Sound familiar?

We tried to win them over with crop assistance and relocation to "strategic hamlets." We built schools and clinics. When that didn’t work, we established "free-fire zones," where we shot anything that moved, including water buffalo.

And we were always making progress. Maps showing steady increases in territory "pacified" were popular backdrops for briefing senior administration officials when they visited. But the people doing the killing and dying had a slightly more cynical view. On a restroom wall in Long Binh I read, "Would the last person out of the tunnel please turn out the light."

In the end, we lost because we didn’t belong. We were foreigners pursuing what we considered our own self-interest at the expense of a people we saw as "underdeveloped."

They sent us packing, because, in the end, they were more willing to die than we were to kill them. It was, after all, their country. Vietnam should have taught us this: Determination in the pursuit of folly is the indulgence of fools.

Now we seek to disengage from Iraq, that ungrateful tar baby of a country, wondering all the while at the absence of the flower petals with which the inhabitants were supposed to greet us, their liberators. Instead it appears that many of them hate us so much that it is not enough to kill us. They want to dismember our burned bodies and hang us from the nearest bridge.

Can’t they see that we only want for them the freedom and democracy that is the natural condition for all people?

All right, we tell ourselves, the resistance to what is best for them is the work of a few "insurgents" or "Saddam loyalists" or "outside terrorists." Surely, most of the Iraqis like us and appreciate what we’re trying to do for them.

Meanwhile, in a related story, our own country is in the hands of the most arrogant, secretive, ill-informed administration in memory. These are people for whom the lesson of Vietnam was that we didn’t try hard enough, didn’t give the military free rein. Sure we dropped more bombs on the place than were used by all parties to World War II, but, by gosh, if Washington hadn’t micromanaged that war, if we had really taken the gloves off, we could have won.

As with Vietnam, we were wrong to go to Iraq, and we are wrong to stay. The action-oriented neoconservatives currently controlling our government are convinced that our proper place in the world is as an imperial power, disdaining the opinions of other nations, attacking preemptively whomever we feel threatened by. Do we imagine that the skewed intelligence and downright deceptions used to justify this war are irrelevant to its outcome?

And now, once again, standing on the ash heap of lies and miscalculations that have characterized this disastrous and unilateral aggression, the gang in charge looks at the rest of us smugly and speaks of a need to "stay the course" in an effort to sell this misbegotten invasion as an example of determined leadership in the war on terrorism.

If we are stupid enough to buy this approach for another four years, we deserve the whirlwind that awaits us.


Gordon Livingston is a West Point graduate who served as an Army doctor in Vietnam. He became an antiwar activist, and is now a psychiatrist in Columbia, Md.

New UJ ‘Tradition’ Starts


Tevye, Tzeitel, Golde and all the other memorable characters of "Fiddler on the Roof" graced the big screen at the University of Judaism (UJ) on Sunday, April 25, but it was the audience who stole the show.

Five-hundred people — some bold enough to come in costume — sang along with the memorable songs of "Tradition," "If I Were a Rich Man" and other classic "Fiddler" tunes. The UJ singalong event capitalizes on the popularity of participatory shows, such as "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," "Tony ‘n’ Tina’s Wedding" and "Grandma Sylvia’s Funeral."

UJ staff passed out kitschy props highlighting key points in the film — ring pops for "Matchmaker" and boxes of gilded chocolate coins for "If I Were A Rich Man." When the sun set on Friday evening at Tevye’s house, the audience munched on mini challahs.

Participants, drawn into the excitement of the production, led performances of their own. During the graveyard scene of the film, Sandy Erkus, dressed as the ghostly Fruma Sarah, ran about the theater in her tattered wedding gown, reviving the role of Lazar Wolf’s dead wife. Erkus said she didn’t plan to steal the spotlight, but fellow audience members coaxed her to get up and play the part. "Me, being a ham and a half — wait that’s not kosher is it? — I went up," she recalled with a laugh.

At intermission, timed with the wedding of Motel and Tzeitel, Tevye’s oldest daughter, the UJ treated the audience to a mock wedding reception with sliced wedding cake, champagne and even a fiddler playing in the background.

Sandy Kanan, wearing a shawl over her head and a long cloak-like dress, enjoyed coming out and dressing up like Yente the Matchmaker.

"I love getting into it," said Kanan, who finds the program an entertaining lesson in Jewish tradition.

"This is so important; this is our culture; this is our heritage," she said. "There is a lot of truth in it."

The next "Fiddler" singalong has been set for March 20, 2005. A "Grease" singalong is also being planned. For more information, call the UJ’s Department of Continuing Education at (310) 440-1246.

The Giving Ladder


"Rambams Ladder: A Meditation on Generosity and Why It Is Necessary to Give" by Julie Salamon (Workman Publishing, $18.95).

Even a wizard at niche marketing would tremble before the title of Julie Salamon’s most recent book. "Rambam’s Ladder," based on an ancient text by Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, sounds like it’s bound for the remainder bins even before it hits the Judaica sections. Don’t be fooled; this slender volume is a (mistitled) must-read for every individual, Jew and non-Jew alike, who recognizes his or her greater responsibility as part of a family, community and member of society.

Ben Maimon, a 12th-century physician, philosopher and scholar, is best known as Maimonidies or Rambam. Salamon uses his text, the Ladder of Charity, as the inspiration for her title and the basis for her eight-step ladder explaining different levels of charitable giving: the reluctant giver is at the bottom of the ladder and the individual whose charity enables someone to become self-reliant at the top. In between fall all vagaries and levels of giving — unsolicited charity, giving with a smile or giving with a scowl, anonymous donations — with a separate chapter dedicated to each rung of the ladder.

The ground beneath the ladder of charity is always shifting, Salamon says. By the time you have finished her text you fully grasp that there is no such thing as a simple act of charity. Do we give out of self-interest, to atone for past sins, to alleviate guilt, to impress, to ingratiate favor? At the end of the day, who is giving to whom?

Billed as a road map to charitable giving, "Rambam’s Ladder" begins as one woman’s journey, subtle and stirring, to make sense of her world following the horror of Sept. 11. An inveterate volunteer and do-gooder, Salamon’s reaction to the tragedy of Sept. 11 was to gather her children near and to protect her own. Her husband bolted into action, running to donate blood, to dispense sandwiches, to search for the missing. Sept. 11 is the crucible for inhumanity and terror on the one hand, and profound acts of kindness and charity on the other.

"The tragedy of human history lies in the enormous potential for destruction in rare acts of evil, not in the high frequency of evil people," said the late Steven Jay Gould in response to Sept. 11. "Complex systems can only be built step by step, whereas destruction requires but an instant. Thus, in what I like to call the Great Asymmetry, every spectacular incident of evil will be balanced by 10,000 acts of kindness, too often unnoted and invisible as the ‘ordinary efforts’ of a vast majority."

Paolo Alvanian is an ordinary man responsible for one such act of kindness. He watched from his downtown restaurant as the Twin Towers crumbled. The events of that day transformed him from a man who did not believe in charity — an immigrant who believed that everyone should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps — into a giving man. He dedicated a day for charity where all proceeds from his restaurant were donated to the Red Cross. He did away with his set prices and asked his patrons to pay what they could afford. One woman ate a small salad and wrote a check for $400. The lesson of the reluctant giver: "Giving may begin as a way to make order out of chaos, and turn out to be a transformation."

Alvanian’s simple act changed his perception of himself, his place in the world and his feeling of responsibility to others. "I’m not Mother Teresa. I’m not equal to her liver for generosity. But I believe that if you give from you heart you will have it returned back."

Each and every one of us is not only capable of, but obligated to be charitable. Reading this book forces us to examine how we stack up — or which rung of the ladder we are on. The book is thoughtful, poetic and a gripping read.

Salamon interviews the homeless man on the street and the CEOs of major corporations. She references Enron, Sotheby’s and Scarlett O’Hara all in the same breath. She is brutally honest about her own conflicts, preferring to give money to a presentable homeless man rather than the crazy one muttering under his breath. And her reporting is thorough and relevant. We learn that the United States has more billionaires than any other country in the world: 216 out of 497 in 2001: "Yet the U.S. Bureau of the Census reported in September 2002 that 32.9 million Americans, 9.2 percent of the total population, were officially considered poor."

Too many Americans, it would seem, have yet to reach even the first rung of the ladder.

It is not natural to want to give away one’s money; in fact, one could argue that being philanthropic is counterintuitive. Ramban’s goal — and Salamon’s mission — is to press the importance of our hardwiring a charitable instinct into the soul. No easy task, but one she takes on with courage and zeal. Every parent will immediately recognize the importance of this book not only for themselves, but also for their children. No child is too young to understand the importance and the impact of a charitable life. The sooner the indoctrination begins the better.

Roots of the Divine


For all of you ecologists out there (and I believe every good Jew should be one), you know there’s been a lot in the news lately about this new "Healthy Forests Initiative," which was introduced by our government to help thin overcrowded forests. The debate continues among different environmental groups as to whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. But imagine, for a moment, a world without trees at all. Indeed, this could have been the fate of our world had God’s original plan been realized. But I’m getting ahead of myself….

As the world was undergoing revolution and renaissance in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Jewish world was undergoing the same. New ideologies, theologies and practices were introduced, many of which are still with us to this day.

Chasidism was one such movement. It emphasized that Judaism is something for every Jew, not just for the intellectual elite. One does not have to be a scholar to achieve Divine closeness. Instead, one’s deeds and the joy that one expresses to the Creator are the most necessary ingredients for spiritual greatness.

Later, the Mussar movement arose among non-Chasidic Jews; it emphasized the need for self-development, introspection and a constant questioning of one’s true motives and spiritual level.

While overlaps certainly exist between Chasidism and the Mussar movement, there are distinct differences. Chasidism emphasizes action and emotion — introspection is only of secondary importance in one’s Divine service. For the Mussarist, however, if one is not constantly examining himself to make sure his character is intact, every mitzvah runs the risk of being tainted.

In discussing creation, the Midrash attributes sentience to the various components of God’s new world. When it came time for the trees to sprout forth from the earth, God had commanded that the trees be produced in such a way that the actual wood of each tree would be edible and taste just like their fruits. However, the earth chose not to obey God’s command, and instead only produced trees with edible fruit, while the trees themselves remained hard and inedible.

What a bizarre Midrash. Obviously, there’s a deeper lesson here. The Torah teaches that the earth not only sprouted forth trees — it also sprouted forth man. It would seem, therefore, that whatever phenomenon manifested in trees would also have some parallel in the human experience.

The tree is an analogy to man. Extending the metaphor, man’s roots, trunk and branches are just different components of his essence — his personality, his character, everything that makes him uniquely that person. The fruit that one’s tree bears is man’s good deeds — the "fruits" of his labor, the imprint of himself that he leaves in this world for others to share.

What is the problem with a tree having a good taste, like fruit? A person may be tempted to eat the tree itself before giving it the chance to bear fruit.

Similarly, a person who emphasizes his "tree" over his "fruit" — his own character development over his actions — may end up becoming so self-absorbed that he is no longer able to bear fruit and be a productive Divine servant.

This is why the earth did not want to have trees that tasted like fruit.

But there was a downside to this objective. If man only addresses his behavior and completely ignores his character, then he is in danger of developing into a diseased tree that can no longer bear the same quality fruit.

This is what happened when Adam sinned. He decided to degrade and corrupt his own "tree" by eating from the Tree of Knowledge. As a result, he could no longer produce the same kind of quality actions in this world.

That is why when Adam was cursed the land was also cursed. Just as now, Adam would manifest negative behavior together with his good deeds, so, too, would the land produce thorns and thistles together with its delicious produce.

And so the lesson in all of this is that one cannot be exclusively a Chasid, or his tree may wither. But nor can he be only a Mussarist, or he will consume his tree before it can properly bear fruit. Introspection and self-analysis are vital for one to be able to know oneself. But all my years of meditation and self-knowledge won’t amount to a hill of beans if, at the end of the day, I haven’t been a productive member of society and made this world a better place.

Let’s hope that the "tree problem" is resolved soon. And let’s remember how much there is to learn about ourselves from a tree.


Rabbi Daniel Korobkin is rosh kehilla at Kehillat Yavneh.

Where You Stand


We are standing before God and God is standing before us — especially during this particular time, when certain fundamental liberties are being denied individuals and when justice is being withheld from specific groups — all in the name of "homeland security." This week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, comes to teach us — all of us without exception — that we are obligated to build a just society not only for ourselves but for all people.

Thus, our reading, studying and thinking about the essential lessons found in Shoftim are of great importance right now.

Meanwhile, this parsha reminds me of a very strange personal experience that occurred many years ago. It’s one that I’ll never forget.

While I was away from University Synagogue one afternoon, visiting a hospitalized congregant, a very well-known Catholic priest called me. When he realized that I wasn’t there, he left a message on my voice mail asking that I contact him as soon as possible, because a situation required an immediate collaborative interfaith response.

For reasons that I can’t technologically explain — but it may have been God’s handiwork — something extraordinary happened: Although my caller terminated his call, my message device recorded what happened next.

Once he hung up, he telephoned a prominent rabbinic colleague of mine. During their ensuing conversation, the non-Jewish leader indicated that he had tried to reach me, found that I was away from my desk, left a message asking that I contact him without delay and he said that he was certain that he’d hear from me as soon as I learned that he had reached out to me.

In turn, the rabbi expressed his doubts about my dependability and without hesitation he conveyed his feelings of disdain toward me by using that occasion to utter some very derogatory comments.

These unflattering remarks were instantly rebuffed by the priest, but they lingered in the air nevertheless.

Naturally, when I listened to their recorded discussion, I was deeply hurt and terribly confused because I couldn’t recall any incident that would have inflamed the rabbi’s emotions and cemented his negative opinions about me. And throughout the years we have worked together in the community, he had never led me to believe that we were anything but the best of friends.

A few days later, he and I happened to see one another at a public gathering where he greeted me with a bright smile, open arms and some affectionate remark.

"Oh," I thought to myself, "if he only knew that I was aware of his genuine feelings about me, which make this display of supposed fondness reek of hypocrisy."

As a result of a mechanical error — or did God provide me with an opportunity to hear words that would never have been uttered in my presence by someone who posed as a friend? — I had a chance to encounter the authentic nature of a relationship instead depending on some false pretense.

Now, what has all of this to do with our reading five particular chapters found in the Book of Deuteronomy this Shabbat?

Within Shoftim, we are instructed: "Zedek, zedek tirdof" ("justice, justice shall you pursue").

When we dig deeply into the parsha, we come to realize that not only are sacred and secular laws to be faultlessly carried out by government officials and interpreted by appointed and elected judges — all of them are expected to be unrelentingly fair and impartial — but you and I are instructed to treat everyone we encounter in our own lives in a similar fashion.

You see, it is not only justice that keeps chaos away and society afloat, but it is steadfast righteousness that should be ever-present in every interpersonal relationship we have — be it a casual contact or one which is intimate and enduring .

This is why Rashi taught: "Consider what you do and conduct yourself in every judgment as if the Holy One, Blessed be He, were standing before you."

Had the rabbi known that I would hear his candid opinion of me, or had he imagined that God was standing in front of him when he spoke in such a hateful way about me in one instance, and then so lovingly in my presence very soon thereafter, to what extent would he had been anxious to render harsh judgment?

And, that prompts me to ask: Do any of us have the right to be judgmental? Maimonides didn’t think so, because he observed that all of us are obligated (actually, he wrote: "commanded") to give each person the benefit of the doubt.

So, as we demand that ours must always be a "just society," and when we attempt to individually "pursue justice," it is necessary that we also rely upon that same concept to temper our own words and actions.

Much will be accomplished individually and collectively when we remember this lesson at all times, because we do stand before God and God stands before us. Under these circumstances, there simply is no room for injustice in any of its many forms — be it in our society at large or in the way we relate to one another.


Allen I. Freehling served as University Synagogue’s senior rabbi for 30 years before becoming that congregation’s first rabbi emeritus a year ago. He is now serving as the executive director of the Human Relations Commission of the City of Los Angeles.

Age-Old Dilemma


My friend Lindsay’s friend, Michelle, hosted a 30th birthday bash for her friend, Beth, last Saturday night. So of course I was there.

And so was birthday girl Beth’s friend Michael’s friend, Rob. And Rob was hot.

Six-foot-two before breakfast, with broad shoulders and blue eyes, Rob had the kind of sarcastic bite that kept me entertained. He worked for a music label, traveled often and liked my smile. And for the first hour and a half of the party, he liked me — until I mentioned that I was a junior at UCLA when the Bruins won the national championship.

"So wait, you graduated college in ’96? I didn’t even graduate high school until ’97."

Insert awkward pause here.

Still awkward….

And after what seemed like an excruciatingly long time for Rob to do the math, he said, "I can’t believe you’re 28. You don’t look old."

And the round goes to Rob with the K.O. punch. I don’t think of myself as old. I get carded often, I still wear pigtails and I have the same energy I had when I was a high school cheerleader (not to mention the uniform — which comes out on occasion).

But none of that mattered to Rob once he discovered our age difference. I’ve heard younger men are supposed to find older women alluring, because we’re experienced vixens who can teach them a thing or two. But Rob wasn’t interested in a private lesson with me. He mumbled something about me being old enough to have seen "Star Wars" in the theater and him being born in the ’80s. Then he grabbed his full beer cup, said he needed a refill and sprinted toward the nearest minor in a miniskirt. I was going to run after him, but who can run with my arthritis? Oy. An alter-kacker like myself doesn’t need to go shlepping after some shmendrick she just met at a party.

Now, Rob’s reaction to my Mrs. Robinson status would have hurt less had it been unique. But the truth is that not only do younger men prefer younger women — older men prefer younger women. The guys who should be in my dating pool are splashing around in the kiddie pool. They, too, are looking to meet a barely legal girl. How low do they go?

Most men follow the Seven principle. To find their lowest dating denominator, guys divide their age by two then add seven. Any girl of that age is considered fair game. According to the formula, guys at 28 dip as young as 21. 40-year-old men are snogging with 27-year-old chicks. Even Abraham went 10 years younger with Sarah. And since that worked out pretty well, Jewish men feel free to follow in their patriarch’s footsteps and date the younger babes.

So where does this leave me? Do I follow some predetermined dating age rule, too? Of course. All women do. The female formula for age and dating goes something like this:

Never discuss your age. Flirt at will.

Single gals are well aware that exposing our age to a suitor too soon has costly consequences. If our number’s too high, men’ll toss us in the ineligible pile faster than you can say early-bird special. Which is why we women reveal our cleavage, but not our age.

But why does age even matter? Why are men so determined to date younger women? It’s a physical thing. Men are attracted to women who can still pull off knee socks and a little plaid skirt. And they prefer if you pull them off slowly. It’s a Peter Pan thing. Men don’t want to grow up, and they think dating a girl who is younger will keep them younger. And it’s a commitment thing. Men are convinced that women past their mid-20s have just one thing on their minds. And it’s five letters longer than what men have on their minds.

Well men, stop being so ageist. A 22-year-old with a Britney bod can be looking for kids, a picket fence, and a man on a short leash while a 35-year-old woman with a doctorate might be looking to play the field.

Young Rob was too quick to judge. He said himself that I didn’t look old. And trust me, he was looking. And while I may be 28, I’m not some psycho husband hunter who’s looking to lasso in any unmarried cowboy who happens to ride my way.

The point is, men should consider a woman’s social age, not her actual age, when making a dating decision. But I’ll be the Blanche Deveraux of Leisure World before men start thinking that logically.

Sure, fairy tales can come true, it can happen to you, if you’re young at heart. But in the L.A. singles scene, it’ll happen a lot faster if you’re young and hot.


Carin Davis, a freelance writer, can be reached at sports@jewishjournal.com.

True Tales From the Holocaust and After


"Drohobycz, Drohobycz and Other Stories: True Tales From the Holocaust and Life After" by Henryk Grynberg. Translated from Polish by Alicia Nitecki. Edited by Theodosia Robertson. (Penguin Books, 2002).

Until recently, the word Drohobycz (pronounced "Dro-ho-bit-ch") sounded to most American readers like an exotic Eastern European tongue twister.

Then, three years ago, the name of this Ukrainian town appeared in the world press when representatives of Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial controversially claimed a set of murals painted by Bruno Schulz, a lifelong resident of Drohobycz who was gunned down by the Gestapo there in 1942, and is now considered to be one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.

It is Bruno Schulz’s haunting self-portrait that gazes at us from the cover of Henryk Grynberg’s powerful book, "Drohobycz, Drohobycz and Other Stories," and it is Schulz and his fellow residents of the eastern borderlands of prewar Poland who inspire Grynberg’s tales, which have been awarded the 2002 Koret Jewish Book Award for Fiction.

A child survivor of the Holocaust and longtime resident of the United States, Grynberg has dealt directly or indirectly with the Holocaust in 26 books of prose, poetry, essays and drama, all written in his native Polish.

He considers the Holocaust singularly important as a lesson, a warning and a turning point in the history of our civilization, and frequently calls himself a guardian of the graves and the writer of the dead.

The documentary-like stories of "Drohobycz, Drohobycz" are set in almost a dozen countries. His narrators are survivors of ghettos, labor and death camps, as well as wartime deportations to the Soviet Union.

The narrators recall hundreds of names, places and local historical events; in the face of destruction, these details of the past acquire a new poignancy, and Grynberg’s allusions underline the wide geographical scope of the Shoah.

Letting others speak is Grynberg’s conscious strategy — he takes his inspiration from real testimonies but crafts them with fictional techniques. We can only guess that the names mentioned in the dedications preceding each tale — "Halina M." or "Janina" or "Ben, Zoila, Michal and Basia" — belong to the real-life victims on whose lives the fictions are based.

Grynberg dutifully catalogs these survivors’ responses to the horrors they have experienced and the challenges of survival. In some cases, the survivors, many of whom like Grynberg, himself, are children of the Holocaust, view the world from a child’s perspective.

After the war, the narrator of "A Hungarian Sketch" is surprised to see mothers with children strolling in the street; having miraculously escaped the clutches of Mengele, she imagined there can be no more mothers and children in the world.

Others experience permanent alienation: "To the Americans I was a foreigner," says the narrator of "A Pact With God." "To the Poles, a hidden Jew. Who was I to the Jews?" The narrator of "A Family Sketch" remarks, "I married twice and didn’t try after that. I didn’t want to have children. I’d rather be by myself." Another woman narrator argues survivors are like painters unrecognized during their lifetimes.

Although Grynberg is very careful to give his narrators their own voices, his authorial touch is felt in the ironic distance, sense of absurdity and even humor of these tales. A former actor, Grynberg has said that he has been encouraged by his editors to exploit his talent for comedy in his fiction. Though only so much humor is appropriate in stories as grim and often heartbreaking as these, Grynberg’s ironic sensibility makes his tale-testimonies easier to read, as their tragedy is tempered for the reader who otherwise might be overwhelmed with the scope of suffering and horror he describes.

Twenty years ago, Philip Roth introduced Schulz to the American audience in the series "Writers From the Other Europe." Since then, Schulz’s life and work have inspired novels by Cynthia Ozick and David Grossman, and a powerful biography by Jerzy Ficowski, recently translated into English. Schulz’s famous example illustrates how important it is that new stories of tragedy and survival continue to be unearthed from the wartime and post-war experiences of Polish Jews. In "Drohobycz, Drohobycz," Grynberg carries on this work, using fiction to tell "True Tales From the Holocaust and Life After" and to create a compelling portrait of the effect two totalitarian systems — Nazism and Stalinist communism — had on the lives of millions. By sharing his own story and those of more than a dozen survivors, Grynberg helps these millions become less anonymous.


Monika Adamczyk-Garbowska is a professor of American and comparative literature
and head of the Center for Jewish Studies at the Maria Curie-Sklodowska University in Lublin,
Poland, and the co-editor of “Contemporary Jewish Writing in Poland: An Anthology.” This review originally
appeared on the recently redesigned JBooks.com, the online Jewish book community produced by Jewish Family & Life.

The Matzah Bull


Christmas Eve 2001. Bing Crosby’s on my radio, Jimmy Stewart’s on my television and I’m on my couch.

I usually find a night with my remote pretty satisfying, but tonight it’s not hitting the spot. Tonight I’m feeling grumpy, disheartened and a little bit lonely.

It just seems like everyone else has someplace to be. There are stockings to hang, friends to meet. Most other Jews have Chinese food to eat. And here I am kicking it home alone. No fam, pal or jolly man in sight. My peeps all bailed on our plans to hit up the Matzah Ball dance. And I know Santa won’t be paying this naughty girl a midnight visit. I’m just settling into an "I don’t have a date. I’ll never have a date. I hate the holiday season. Bah humbug" huff, when I remember the comic.

Earlier that day, The Journal’s associate editor, Adam, tossed me a piece of Bazooka. The gum was jaw-crack hard, but the comic was mighty good. Bazooka Joe said: "You can’t hit the ball if the bat stays on your shoulder."

Or in my case, you can’t hit on men if your butt stays on your sofa. In Los Angeles, it’s easy to stay home with a quart of Chunky Monkey, a bottle of Merlot and an "I’ll always be single" attitude. But, that behavior only perpetuates your sans man status.

To live and date in L.A., you have to put yourself out there. Take a risk. Be all that you can be. So armed with my red tube top, my super-low jeans and my new proactive attitude, I decide to brave the Matzah Ball on my own. I have nothing to lose. I might end up back where I started. But I might bag a little drummer boy. Won’t find out if I don’t go out.

I’m two strides out of my cab when I hear, "Are you heading to the

Matzah Ball?"

Meet Matt and Josh, two fine looking Jews. They inform me it’s like Nate ‘n Al’s on a Sunday morning in there: totally crowded.

"We’re meeting friends for beers at Saddle Ranch while we wait for the line to go down. Why don’t you join us?" Mom said never talk to strangers, but she didn’t say anything about tall, Jewish, single strangers. Besides, the whole point of my adventure is to meet new people. So I follow my pied pipers across Sunset Boulevard.

Once we hit Saddle Ranch, it’s go time! Matt serves up a round of shots, and some small-talk chasers. Where are you from? What do you do? Who do you do? Josh is into hiking, Matt’s into music and I’m into them. These guys are great. Our conversation comes fast; our drinks come faster. And just as I’m getting my buzz on, the rest of Matt’s Jew crew arrives. Suddenly, I have more men than Santa has reindeer. And each man’s more interesting than the next. There’s Dashing and Smashing and Doctor and Victor. Comic and Cutie and — well, you get the picture. I haven’t met this many smart, Jewish men since I walked in on the wrong side of the

mechitza.

Can’t believe I almost stayed in to snuggle up with "A Very Brady Christmas."

I’m flirting my little kishkes off when the crowd starts whooping and hollering. All eyes turn to the mechanical bull. Some city slicker is actually staying in the saddle. Before I can say "bucking bronco," the boys pay my bull-riding fee. I’m hesitant at first — but all work and no play makes me a dull Jew.

So in the Bazooka Joe spirit, I sign a waiver, hand Matt my ID, and name Josh my "in case of emergency." Well somebody buy this Jewish babe some chaps, cause I stayed up for two full rounds (which is more than I can say for my tube top. Note to self: not ideal rodeo wear).

The bartender yells "last call" all too soon. I never even made it to the dance, but if my goal was to find good times, good laughs and genuinely good guys, then mission accomplished. The Magnificent Seven are the type of fun, friendly, easygoing men who make my jingle bells rock. And to think, I almost didn’t

meet them.

So I grab some chutzpah — and a handful of matchbooks — and write down my number. "I’d like to stay friends with you guys. So I truly hope one of you calls." And one of them did. Matt. The very next day — but partially because this Cinderella left her ID at the ball.

And although a year later I’m not dating any of my Matzah Ball menches, the Bazooka Joe comic still hangs on my fridge. It reminds me to go to that party, accept that blind date, embrace the dating adventure. Cause Joe was right. You may swing and miss. You might even strike out. But you gotta take the pitch to

find out.

"Afterschool Special" lesson learned: I’ve got to start chewing more gum.

Carin Davis, a freelance writer, can be reached at sports@jewishjournal.com.

The Sadat Legacy: 25 Years Later


Throughout last month, the Israeli people commemorated the 25th anniversary of the historic visit to Israel by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, and the resulting peace accord between Israel and Egypt. During that November in 1977, the physical distance traveled by Sadat from Cairo to Jerusalem measured only a few hundred miles — less than one hour’s flying time. Yet the distance his visit covered in emotional and psychological terms measured light-years.

Until that point in time, no Arab country recognized Israel’s right to exist, and the Arab-Israeli conflict seemed an inescapable, eternal feature of the Middle Eastern landscape. Instead, Sadat proved that our lives could be different, and that our children need not fight the same wars as their parents. Regrettably, the hope engendered by the Egyptian leader’s political courage has all but disappeared in the wake of the unprecedented wave of Palestinian terror during the past two years. Perhaps, therefore, this is precisely the moment to recall those aspects of the Sadat legacy that can be instructive in facing today’s crisis.

First, Sadat demonstrated that true peacemakers must have the courage to confront political opponents and domestic extremists. On his journey to Jerusalem, and later to Camp David, he was willing to sacrifice the support of two of his foreign ministers in order to advance his vision of peace. Yasser Arafat, on the other hand, has permitted — and even encouraged — the Palestinian rejectionist factions to continue slaughtering Israeli citizens. Arafat’s duplicity in this regard is legendary. After a suicide bomber killed 21 Israeli teenagers at a discotheque in Tel Aviv, he condemned the atrocity in English — while to his own people, in Arabic, the described the perpetrator as a “heroic martyr … who turned his body into bombs … the model of manhood and sacrifice for the sake of Allah and the homeland.” Recently, after Arafat publicly denounced the Nov. 10 murder of five Israeli civilians — including a mother and her two young children — by a Palestinian terror cell, it was discovered that he actually paid $20,000 to the organizer of the attack.

Second, Sadat’s legacy underscores both the challenges and opportunities deriving from formalized peace agreements between governments (as opposed to deeply rooted reconciliation between peoples). Sadly, his tragic assassination in 1981 at the hands of Islamic extremists derailed the expectation that the citizens of Egypt and Israel would themselves develop a flourishing and warm relationship.

Hosni Mubarak’s government has halted, and indeed reversed, nearly all efforts at normalization. The state-controlled Egyptian media routinely employs the most anti-Jewish rhetoric imaginable in its articles and broadcasts. Such behavior betrays the vision of Sadat, and deprives both the Egyptian and Israeli peoples of the enormous potential economic and social benefits to be gained by truly normalizing relations. At the same time, the principal terms of the peace treaty have been maintained, despite these very disappointments and despite the assassination itself. In the past quarter-century, not one Israeli soldier has had to be dispatched to fight and possibly die in a war on the Egyptian front. For that reason alone, the essential value even of today’s “cold” peace with Egypt is undeniable.

Third, and maybe most importantly, the legacy of Sadat teaches that when Israel is offered real peace, via negotiation and not intimidation, it reciprocates with eagerness and vigor. When Israelis are convinced that a neighboring nation truly desires to co-exist with them, and not uproot them, their willingness to make painful concessions is remarkable. With the opening of Sadat’s address to the Israeli parliament: “I come to you today on solid ground to shape a new life and to establish peace,” he spoke directly to the hearts of the entire Israeli people.

With his dignity and clarity, he convinced Israelis that no matter what the point of contention between the two nations, solutions did exist, and there would simply be “no more war; no more bloodshed.” When Sadat chose our open hand of peace, Israel gave all the land and all the oil he requested.

Similarly, when a Jordanian soldier murdered seven young Israeli schoolgirls, Jordan’s King Hussein bin Talal personally visited the homes of the girls’ grieving parents, cried before them and begged their forgiveness. When King Hussein

chose Israel’s open hand of peace, he received all the land and all the water he sought.

Only when there emerges a new Palestinian leader who not does not employ the language of jihad, the option of terrorism, and the policy of hatred and incitement will Israel once again prove its readiness to undertake the necessary compromises for the sake of peace.

There is no more important lesson that must be declared directly to the Palestinian people: Israel has no reason or interest to fight you. There is no wish to control you, rule over you or determine your lives. Israel wants to live with you, and not die because of you. Israelis want to share with you, and not take from you. We want to respect you as good neighbors, and not fear you as dreaded enemies. Like Sadat, choose our open hand of peace. Forsake the cult of death which has been imposed upon you. Appeal to our hearts, and you will find us yearning to make a generous peace with you.


Yuval Rotem is the consul general of Israel in Los Angeles.

Thanksgiving’s Jewish Roots


The Pilgrims of New Salem, Mass., were so moved by the stories of the ancient Israelites that they thought of America as their Zion and New Salem as their Jerusalem. They based their first Thanksgiving celebration on the pilgrimages the Jews were commanded to make to Jerusalem on Sukkot. There, the Israelites offered the first wheat and barley of their fall harvest to the Temple.

A Different Pilgrim

Here’s another idea of something to do during your Thanksgiving break — read the story or watch the video of “Molly’s Pilgrim.” It is based on the children’s book by Barbara Cohen (Lothrop Lee & Shepard) and winner of a 1985 Academy Award. It tells the story of a young Russian Jewish immigrant who comes to America with her parents to escape religious persecution. Instead of acceptance, Molly finds a group of insensitive classmates who make fun of her. A lesson is learned that “it takes all kinds of pilgrims to make a Thanksgiving.”

No Vacancy


Last week, before the premiere of my new show “While You Were Out,” I got my first big national magazine review.

I wasn’t expecting it. I had just had a tooth pulled and my mom was in town for the day to take care of me. I was just minding my own business, sprawled on the couch, taking painkillers like Pez, flipping through a magazine. There it was: my name with the two-word description, “incessantly vacant.” Incessantly vacant.

Me? Vacant? I got up, gripping the folded-over magazine, and commenced one of those slurry, self-important monologues not uncommon to guys hanging out in front of a halfway house with no teeth (fitting, since I was down a tooth myself).

“I’m a lot of things, Mom, but vacant? I didn’t put down ‘The Bell Jar’ until the end of junior high. I won first and second place in a poetry contest when I was 9 — and both poems were about the Holocaust! Vacant! There’s no vacancy here!”

It wasn’t clear whether this was a review of the host I replaced or of me, but it didn’t matter. As I must have said 30 times in four minutes, pacing and stumbling around with that stupid magazine in my sweaty grip, “You can’t un-ring a bell.”

What I felt at that moment was so painful, it was hard to believe I was on painkillers. Sure, I thought, no one reads this crap, other than all of my peers. It was a humiliating sucker punch. It was picking teams and I was last, right after the kid with an inhaler in his pocket. It was what we humans live to avoid — being shamed in a public forum.

I sat down, looked at my mom, and realized I should do her proud by acting with grace and dignity. Instead, I got on the Internet and got the journalist’s home phone number in Staten Island, N.Y. He was going to get a piece of my drug-altered mind. I wrote his number on a scrap of paper and my mom gently suggested I wait 24 hours before making the decision to call. If you shouldn’t operate a car on Vicodin, you probably shouldn’t get behind the wheel of your career.

The longer I thought about it, two things became clear. The first was that, once and for all, I would have to accept the idea that not everyone was going to like me. I really hate that. But if I was visiting a mental hospital and a patient yelled, “You’re Marie Osmond,” would I start singing “I’m a Little Bit Country”? No. I don’t agree with that narrator. Do I honestly think I’m vacant? I don’t, and my opinion of myself has to matter more than some guy in Staten Island who doesn’t even know me.

The bigger lesson is that most painful things in life are eventually funny. My friend said to me, “At least you’re consistent. He could have called you ‘periodically vacant.'” Within two days, the review was becoming a funny anecdote, and that’s no small thing. That’s everything.

In college, I had this blond-haired, blue-blooded boyfriend from Massachusetts. I went to stay with his family for Thanksgiving and I was so in love and so nervous that I actually wet the bed. Yes, wet the bed. It traumatized me so much I’m pretty sure it actually changed my DNA. Five years later, I wrote a show about it. People loved that story. They could relate.

I finally understand the trick. If you can compress the amount of time from shameful incident to funny story, you’re golden.

In the recent flap about the movie “Barbershop,” Jesse Jackson took offense at comments in the movie about several black icons. “You would not make Golda Meir the butt of a joke — it’s sacred territory,” he said. Once again, Jesse is wrong about us Jews. I swear I’ve looked at myself with a severe hair-do and no makeup and sighed, “Ugh, I look like Golda Meir.”

Humor is healing and we’ve always needed it. My dad made a joke at my grandfather’s funeral. We joked when my aunt killed herself. We still joke about that, not out of disrespect but out of necessity. Taking tragedy and death and humiliation seriously won’t stop them, so it seems the only course of action is to feel, process, grieve and, finally, lighten up if you can.

I never called that writer in Staten Island. I did call to cancel my subscription to the magazine (I may not be able to chew solid food, but I do have my pride). The phone operator asked, “Why are you canceling? I have to put a code in the computer.”

“Well, I try to understand your magazine, but I’m too … vacant.”

Burden of Leadership


After 22 years of separation, believing his beloved son dead, Jacob was startled to hear that Joseph was not only alive but that he ruled the land of Egypt. Yet, the Torah tells us that this news was not enough: When he saw the wagons that Joseph had sent to carry him, the spirit of Jacob, their father, revived. (Genesis 46:5)

What was it about the wagons that brought Jacob back to life?

The Midrash examines a curious wordplay. The wagons sent by Joseph are called agalot, the singular of which is a homonym with eglah (calf). The rabbis explain that Jacob was revived because the last Torah study he engaged in with his beloved Joseph before they were separated was the law of the Eglah Arufah (broken calf), found at the end of our parsha. (Deuteronomy 21:1-21:9)

The Torah mandates that if a murdered corpse is found in a rural area, the elders of the closest city perform a ceremony that includes the proclamation: “Our hands did not spill this blood nor did we see.” Our rabbis were bothered by this formula and explained that it cuts much deeper than a declaration of innocence of murder: “The man found dead did not come to us for help and we dismissed him, we did not see him and let him go (i.e., he did not come to us for help, that we dismissed him without supplying him with food, we did not see him and let him go without escort).” (Sota 38a)

In other words, the community leaders must testify that they did everything within their power to make this wayfarer feel welcome in their town. Imagine any contemporary political leader making such a declaration. Can we picture the members of the L.A. City Council accepting responsibility for every traveler who comes through our fair town?

Yet, that is the standard the Torah demands of our leaders. This declaration admits of a great responsibility not only toward visitors, but, ultimately, toward their townsfolk. The level of hospitality and kindness that is the norm in their town rests on their shoulders — if they can make this declaration, then they are indeed fulfilling their job. This means that the power invested in them by Torah law has not separated them from their “constituents” (as so often happens in any power position); rather, they have maintained a close relationship with the people and continue to keep their finger on the pulse of their community, which they are leading toward a full commitment to the ideals embodied in Torah.

Jacob’s spirit was revived when he saw the wagons and was reminded of his last lesson with his son. But why?

When the brothers told Jacob that Joseph was now the governor of Egypt, he didn’t believe them. What didn’t he believe? That Joseph was alive, or that Joseph was indeed the leader of Egypt? Consider this: What motivation would the brothers have to lie about such a matter? If Joseph really was dead, what did they stand to gain by generating a rumor about his being alive?

Perhaps what Jacob didn’t believe was that Joseph ruled in Egypt. In other words, Jacob may have been willing to grant that his son had somehow survived whatever terrors the past 22 years held for him, and had, through his brilliance, insight and charm, risen to a position of power in Egypt. As hard as this may have been to accept, it paled in significance next to the incredulous report that this governor of Egypt was still Joseph.

Whoever heard of the vizier of a major world power maintaining his youthful idealism and tender righteousness? When the brothers reported: “Joseph is yet alive, and he is governor over all the land of Egypt,” Jacob did not believe them. When he saw the wagons, a reminder of their last discussion of Torah standards, he realized that Joseph had never relinquished the values taught by his father.

Leadership carries with it the burden of responsibility for all members of the community — their physical welfare as well as the nurturing of moral growth and ethical conscience. This is the lesson of the Eglah Arufah — a lesson Joseph never forgot.

Living Through Chemistry


The ancient rabbis practiced a relatively simple form of medicine: cabbage for sustenance, beets for healing.

It was easier then to prescribe, although harder to heal.

"Woe to the house through which vegetables are always passing," sums up the Talmud. There were no guarantees then as to what would work, the red or the green. This week, amid the controversy surrounding hormone replacement therapy, I’ve wondered how far past cabbages we’ve come.

When I first began taking the tiny pink estrogen/progestin mix, my doctor at the time assured me that it was safe.

"Would you take the pills yourself?" I asked.

"Absolutely."

But she was more than 10 years my junior, and her certainty had a distant ring, a bell that won’t soon toll for thee. I never confused her with God. If I continue to take the pill, it’s not because I don’t think yams might work as well. I trust western medicine, and I hate hysteria. I’ve been down this road before.

I’m a baby boomer, particularly blessed by an outpouring of biochemical industry that did indeed bring us better living through chemistry. Capsules, tablets and curatives of all kinds have graced my every life-cycle advance, should I want them. There are drugs developed for just about every condition that drove women of the past crazy — literally. If we feminist women have, at times, felt like guinea pigs, we have also been pioneers.

As for the hormone study, it showed only that the risks were slightly higher, not that the drug is unsafe. I’m not acting until I have a better grip on what I’m doing.

But if I want a grip, I get no help from the media, which is playing "blame the victim." Both Time and Newsweek, among others, were quick to suggest that hormone replacement was a silly dream to stop aging or otherwise "preserve their youth."

How wrong can you get? The press reacted as if menopause was mere vanity, another form of Botox. But medicine’s purpose has always been one part palliative, to comfort and relief of symptoms, even where there is no cure. And if there’s selfishness to hormone replacement, what does this tell us about Viagra?

Aging is hardly the big news of the hormone study. Lesson No. 1 is the need for a vigilant medical community. The National Institute of Health waited years before recognizing that previous data on hormone replacement was based on faulty premises. In Tuesday’s New York Times, Dr. Susan Love wrote, "We need to demand medicine based on solid evidence, not hunches or wishful thinking."

Especially in preventive medicine, it is important to take "the time to determine the safety and efficacy of a particular therapy before we embrace it." In other words, doctors, heal yourselves.

Lesson No. 2 is, if anything, equally important: that presented with difficult medical situations, patients must, against great pressure, think for themselves.

My hunch is that many of us are ready for this step. Mine is the first generation to take birth control pills. They gave us free love and arguably a better image, but also mood swings, not to mention five extra pounds. We determined that the side effects were worth it.

Once married, we took fertility drugs, which gave us yet more mood swings, not to mention teaching us more than we wanted to know about the population density of sperm. There, too, the costs were deemed worthwhile.

And then came menopause. In my own little group, there are women who take half the recommended dose of estrogen, every other day; others eat yams. Some took estrogen until halted by a family member who got breast cancer; others, who take no hormone replacement, work on their bone density with drugs like Fosamax.

Independent thinking is the key lesson for an aging population. One of the most difficult transitions I’ve made since receiving a diagnosis of lung cancer is that there is no right answer. There is no medical god in whom to put my faith. There are only doctors with alternative theories, and some of them make sense. The Internet guides me from step to step, defining the next level of confusion, so the right treatment can work its way.

Scientists promised better living through chemistry. What they deliver isn’t perfect, but it beats cabbage and beets.

A Portion of Parshat Noah


God gave Noah many instructions on how to build the ark. It took Noah 120 days to build it. The rabbis ask: “Why did it take him so long?” And the answer: “God was giving Noah a chance to talk to his neighbors.” The neighbors would come up to Noah and say: “Why are you building this ark?” And Noah was supposed to say: “Because God is sending a flood to destroy all you wicked people.” Chances are, many of the wicked people would have repented and been saved. But Noah was too shy to talk to his neighbors. And so, he built his ark, got into it and sailed away, while everyone else drowned.

Has there ever been something you know you could change if you only spoke up? Maybe someone has wrongly accused you or your friend of doing something that you didn’t do. Maybe your friend got punished because the cafeteria lady thought he squirted ketchup at her, but really, it was the kid next to him. If you had not been afraid to speak up, your friend wouldn’t be staying after school. It’s one thing to be responsible for your own good behavior, but sometimes, you have to go out on a limb and help others. So next time you feel you need to change something for the better, stand up straight, make your voice heard, and say what needs to be said.

Recognizing Goodness


The news is replete with sensationalistic stories that expose the violence and callousness in our society. The media seem to be competing in a contest of one-downmanship. The gossip of human denigration captures our attention. The good men do is oft interred with the bones, the evil lives long after.

An incident occurred a few months ago in which two of my congregants participated. Russell Barkan, a rabbinic student flying back to the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York, was accompanied by his wife, Adina, both seated in coach. Adina is confined to a wheelchair, and early in the trip, she used an aisle chair to get to the lavatory. It was a cumbersome maneuver.

Upon seeing this, a young man approached her and insisted that she take his seat in first-class. She thanked him for his kindness and explained that she was traveling with her husband.

“That's okay,” said the man, “my friend will exchange seats with him so that you can sit together.”

Adina accepted and was moved by the man's generosity. When they were seated in first-class, Russell whispered to her, “Do you know who that was?”

Adina didn't have the remotest clue.

“That was Mike Tyson, the former heavyweight champion of the world.”

This gesture was not reported at the time, nor was it meant to be publicized. But I share this because there is an important lesson to be learned from such an event. We have a tendency to either divinize or demonize our heroes. Either extreme is dangerously misleading. But it is especially important in a society which needs heroes to recognize the goodness of their character. In the Jewish tradition, this virtue goes by the name hakarat ha'tov, the recognition of goodness.

Collective Hearing


Not long ago, on a trip to Israel, I heard the following story about an Israeli doctor and patient. The patient came to the doctor with a case of poor hearing. After a few moments the doctor realized that his patient had a drinking problem, which was affecting his hearing. The doctor instructed the man to refrain from drinking any more alcohol, hoping that this would remedy the problem.

A few weeks later, the doctor met the patient on the street, and his hearing was perfect. The doctor asked him if he was drinking, and the patient responded, “No, I am doing just what you told me.” The doctor was delighted and reminded the patient to remain off the bottle.

Two weeks later, the doctor met the patient for a second time, but now things had reverted to the old situation. The hearing had regressed and the doctor asked if the patient was drinking again. The patient responded that indeed he was back on the bottle. “But why?” cried out the frustrated doctor. “Didn’t I tell you that if you drink you won’t be able to hear?” The patient answered, “Yes, doctor, that is true, but I must be honest with you, I like what I drink better than what I hear.”

In this week’s Torah reading, Jacob’s sons did not want to hear everything he had to say. As he lay on his deathbed, Jacob gave his sons instructions on how to conduct their lives after he was gone. The Torah tells us that Jacob gave each child his own blessing combined with a unique and individual instruction. Jacob knew the strengths and weaknesses of each of his sons, and he addressed each accordingly.

The late Torah scholar Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetzky, in his commentary on the Torah, “Emes L’Yaakov,” asks why Jacob introduced his personal comments to his sons with the following words: “And Jacob called for his sons and said, Gather around and I will tell you what will happen to you in the end of days” (Gen. 49:1). What business is it of each tribe to hear what Jacob had to say to the other tribes? Wasn’t this a personal and confidential moment for each one of the sons? How then could Jacob violate the privacy that was needed?

Kaminetzky explains that Jacob wanted to teach us all a lesson. True, we have our own unique individual and personal needs, but those needs and demands must also include the community. He writes, “Although each person is an individual, nevertheless he is a member of the collective, and he can’t forget that.”

If Judah had thought only of his leadership qualities, Issachar only of his Torah scholarship or Zevulun only of his business acumen, they never would have viewed their talents as part of a bigger picture, namely the Jewish people. If this had happened, the Jewish community could not have been formed. If we thought only of ourselves, we would have been individuals pursuing our own selfish agendas, but the community never would have been forged, and we would not be here as Jews today.

Although President Kennedy in his inaugural address coined the saying, “Do not ask what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” this has always been the Jewish ethic, for the community is our most precious asset.


Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.

The Image of an Honorable Man


Every summer, my sisters and I, along with our husbands and children, spend a few days with our parents at Red’s Meadow resort near Mammoth. The cabins are rustic; the air is bracing; the pace is deliciously unhurried. By now, our visits are a cluster of beloved rituals. One day we go fishing; one day we take the short trail to Rainbow Falls; and on the third day, when we’re used to the altitude, we go hiking with my father up the mountain to Shadow Lake.

The rest of us keep up a constant stream of commentary while we’re walking, but my father never says much. He is close to 70 this year, but, as far as I can tell, he has no trouble making the climb. He does it the way he does everything — quietly, dependably, never flashy, but strong and steady on his feet. I like to watch him taking the trail like a mountain man, or standing contented at the summit when we’ve reached the shore of the lake. That’s how I picture him all through the year, while I’m in my office and he’s in his — still working, with no thought of retiring yet. My father doesn’t know the meaning of quit.

This week, the Torah brings us the story of Joseph, a vain, spoiled boy at odds with his brothers. Joseph is a dreamer; he’s full of self-importance; he’s a snoop, a tattletale, a troublemaker — no wonder Jacob’s other sons find him insufferable. Because he dreams of power, because his dreams nakedly reveal his yearning to rule over his brothers, our Sages tell us that Joseph deserves the comeuppance he gets: cast into a pit, sold into slavery, carried down to Egypt, where he’ll spend the rest of his life.

But Joseph is, above all, a work in progress. At one pivotal moment in our portion, the spoiled boy emerges as a man of substance. Handsome young Joseph is pursued by the wife of Potiphar, his Egyptian employer. She is frank and importunate in her sexual demands: “Lie with me,” she commands. Joseph puts her off, but she persists. Finally, she catches him alone in the house, seizes him bodily and insists that he take her to bed. And Joseph, unaccountably, becomes a hero. Defying his master’s wife, resisting the urgent call of his own adolescent hormones, he tears himself away and flees.

How does Joseph find the strength to resist the wiles of Potiphar’s wife? He isn’t sure, at first, how to handle the situation; the Talmud suggests that he came into the empty house ready to give in to her demands. But at that crucial moment, says the midrash, Joseph saw his father’s image before him. He saw Jacob’s face, he heard his voice, and, all at once, Joseph knew the right thing to do.

Esa einai el he-harim,” says Psalm 121. “I lift my eyes to the mountains — from where will my help come?” And a midrash comments: “Our fathers are called ‘mountains.'” From where shall our help come? From those who made us, from those who formed us and shaped our minds and hearts, from the parents and grandparents whose lessons we will never forget. They are monumental in our memory; the touch of their hands lives forever; their voices echo as long as we live.

Like Joseph, I think of my father, and of the help that has come from him for so many years — quiet, steady, dependable, unstinting. He will always be a picture of strength to me, even when he’s no longer strong enough to hike the Sierra Nevada. It helps to hold before you the image of an honorable man. Sometimes, when you need him most, he helps you figure out the right thing to do.


Rabbi Janet Ross Marder is director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Pacific Southwest Council.