Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Wah, Wah, Wah

One of the greatest mussar sefarim one can study, Rav Mendel Kaplan, zt”l, was purported to have said, is the daily newspaper. While I don’t usually consider The Wall Street Journal to be part of my daily learning experience, I do find that every once in awhile a story strikes me, leaving Rav Mendel’s words ringing in my ears.

And so it came to pass the other day that pharmaceutical giant Merck was found liable, by a Texas jury, for the death of Robert Ernst.

The trouble began with a relatively new drug produced by Merck, called Vioxx, whose function is to kill pain. But in doing so, it has been accused of killing patients, including Mr. Ernst. The reasoning behind the allegation is that Vioxx causes blood clots, which can lead to heart attacks. Mark Lanier, the family’s attorney, argued that just such a scenario killed Mr. Ernst.

Yet Mr. Ernst’s autopsy says he died of an irregular heartbeat, called arrhythmia, not a heart attack. No problem, countered Mr. Lanier: The arrhythmia had been triggered by the heart attack, which had been triggered by the blood clot, which had been triggered by the Vioxx.


According to that line of reasoning, however, Mr. Ernst must have had a heart attack prior to contracting the arrhythmia, which killed him. But that never happened. Mr. Ernst had no record of ever having had a heart attack. And lest one argue that this theoretical heart attack had gone undetected during his lifetime, the autopsy—the very autopsy that blamed the arrhythmia—would have revealed the telltale damage to the heart muscle that a heart attack always leaves in its wake.

Except it didn’t. The heart muscle was sound.

Nevertheless, this simple syllogism—no heart damage means no heart attack; no heart attack means no evidence of clotting; no evidence of clotting means no liability for Vioxx and Merck—was lost on the jury, which awarded the Ernst family $253 million in damages. Ouch.

What astonished me most, however, was not so much the conclusion of the jury, but the fact that one of the largest corporations in the world, with far-reaching financial resources, with sound science on its side, and with hundreds of millions of dollars on the line, could have blown what should have been an open-and-shut case.

Then I read the newspaper, and it quickly became clear to me how one simple mistake is now threatening to bring down a great American corporation.

Speaking to reporters, juror John Ostrom explained the judgment of the jury. The problem was that, despite a highly paid legal team, Merck never made its argument. Mr. Ostrom compared Merck’s lawyers to the adults in the Charlie Brown cartoons, whose voices are unintelligible. "Whenever Merck was up there,” he said, “it was like ‘wah, wah, wah.’ We didn't know what the heck they were talking about."

Merck’s mistake was its inability to break down complex scientific analysis and legal language into layman’s terms. Reading Mr. Ostrom’s comments in the Journal the next morning, brought to mind Paul Newman’s line in Cool Hand Luke: “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”

Communication failures happen all the time. In the corporate world, we now see that they can cost a quarter of a billion dollars.

But in the world of Jewish education the loss is no less steep. I once had a rebbe who said the laws of Shabbos could be listed on one side of an index card. Today’s teachers would howl—in protest or in laughter—at such a suggestion. But in teaching the minutia of the 39 melachos, are they forgetting to convey the radiance of Shabbos? In teaching the dos and don’ts of halachah, are they neglecting to transmit the majesty of Torah and the privilege of mitzvah observance? Are students simply hearing wah, wah, wah?

One wrong word, one misspoken phrase and children can become discouraged to the point that they abandon observance entirely. The blogosphere carries the testimonies of many such people.

The other great tragedy is that we are barely communicating outside of our own community, standing by while millions of Jews remain unlettered, oblivious to their golden heritage. Those who practice Torah observance are keenly aware of the misconceptions non-observant Jews have. It is heartbreaking that we have not been able to convey the beauty, breadth and brilliance of Torah to a wider audience.

Even among those who show an interest, few commit themselves. Why is that? Why doesn’t the message of Torah inspire them to declare, as King David did, “I rejoice in your words, as one who finds a great treasure”?

What we have here, I believe, is a failure to communicate.

More than once, I’ve sat in on classes geared for the non- or newly-observant and had a hard time staying awake. People visit a class, for possibly the first and only time, to gain some insight into Judaism, and often all they get in return is wah, wah, wah. Speakers carry on about mysticism, hidden codes, halachic extremities—and don’t focus on the simple, salient issues of Judaism.

Communication need not be complex to be deep. It can be simple without being simplistic. “In the beginning, G-d created Heaven and Earth.” Stop there and you could spend a lifetime delving into those Divine words. But at its surface, it still makes sense. The story is understandable to a child.

The beauty of Torah is that it can be studied by five-year-olds and ninety-five-year-olds. The stories of the Chumash can be understood simultaneously on the simplest and deepest levels. The Mishnah, too, with its simple structure and clipped clauses, is easily memorized and triggers deeper understandings. The Torah is designed to grow on its students and with its students.

The state of Jewish education today leaves plenty of room for speakers, writers and, yes, even bloggers to make an impact. But in order to do so they must, in the words of many a communications coach, “keep it simple, stupid.” There is a way to transmit Torah to a generation thirsting for guidance. There are many ways not to. Let us choose wisely.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Feeling Bullish

One interesting consequence of human interaction in general, and posting on a blog in particular, is that people don’t always seem to pick up the message you’re sending. For a writer this can be especially frustrating, because his raison d'être is to communicate, which fundamentally is about being understood. But as former Boston Celtics head coach Red Auerbach would put it: “Communication is not what you tell them. It’s what they hear you say.”

Recently I posted about how a friend of mine had decided to stop keeping Shabbos because she saw it as an inconvenience. I countered with a thought that sometimes Judaism isn’t all fun and games. My point—or so I thought—was that sometimes you have to go through rough patches, sometimes you have to roll with the proverbial punches.

But reading through some of the comments to the post, I got the sinking feeling that I had unearthed a dormant feeling of negativism: “Let's face it, being an orthodox jewish person can be really HARD. IS really hard,” wrote one reader. “This is what most people who are honest to themselves do—clinch their teeth and drag along, hoping for better in the future,” wrote another. And worst of all, one stated: “I never understood what would motivate a person that grew up unreligiously to change their lifestyle.” Perhaps I am making too much of these comments.

Perhaps I am quoting them out of context. But they struck me as a response to something I said but didn’t mean. Because, with very limited exceptions (see my post, “Siz Shver Tzizein Ah Yid”), I don’t believe that following Halachah is terribly difficult. Uncomfortable at times, yes, but not overly grueling. I fully understand why a secular person who discovers Torah would embrace it, restrictions and all.

So I began to think. And I happened upon a helpful analogy.

Although sometimes I wish that blogging was my full-time enterprise, I do actually have a day job, and that is as a financial advisor. The other day (in the shower, I believe, where most of my best ideas hatch) it occurred to me that being a Torah Jew is a lot like investing in the stock market.

Why do we invest money in the stock market? Because we want to get rich. Sometimes our expectations are unrealistic and we get disappointed. But if we have a proper understanding of investments, of the ups and downs of the market, of the expanding global economy, of P/E ratios and dividend yields, we begin to understand the wisdom of investing and we don’t let the down days discourage us.

Furthermore, we are willing to delay gratification—spending our money now—in order to fund a long-term, disciplined investment plan, the benefits of which may not become apparent for decades.

Sound familiar?

I am absolutely confident that this is what King Solomon had in mind when he wrote, in Mishlei, “Im tevakshena kakesef, vechamatmonim techapsenah—If you seek it like silver, and like hidden treasure you search for it, then you will understand fear of G-d and find knowledge of the L-rd.”

Being a good Jew is a lot like being a good investor.

When clients ask me if a particular investment is a good idea, I give them a litmus test, which I call the Pillow Question. “If you do this, how will you sleep at night?” I ask them. “In other words, even if a particular investment is a great idea objectively, statistically, but you’re not personally comfortable with it, and it’s going to keep you up at night worrying, then it’s not worth doing.”

“But,” I add, “If it really is a good idea, part of my job is to help you become comfortable with it, to make you understand why it makes sense and why it’s a sound investment.”

Torah observance is similar. When we don’t understand what we’re doing, it can be uncomfortable. We may be plagued by questions and doubts. But by studying the mitzvos, we gain a better appreciation of each one. By studying Torah generally, we gain insight and wisdom, and are better equipped to handle our responsibility to serve G-d and observe His Torah.

Experience is another factor. People who have been in the markets for awhile know how to distinguish between the noise on the financial channels and the truly important stories. They have witnessed the bulls run, the bears sleep, and the pigs get slaughtered. These folks tend to be the most comfortable of clients—regardless of how their portfolio is doing. When the markets fall, they aren’t fazed. In fact they invest more. They know (although they can’t really prove it!) that over the long-term they’ll be in good shape.

With Torah observance, as well, experience is a guiding light. The longer you observe the more you learn to distinguish between the noise and the real issues. You tolerate the ups and downs of life and you’re aware that when things get rough it’s a good time to “buy low”—to pray more, to study more, to contribute more to charity. We can all be good Jews when we’re comfortable; when we’re being knocked around a bit by life, that’s how we prove our mettle and dedication.

Long-term—not just in the next world, but in this one as well—we know we’ll be in good shape.

But wait.

Don’t there exist people who have been observant their whole lives yet are still miserable? How do we explain that?

I blame it on poor investment strategy. Perhaps their Judaism simply “follows the herd,” by mimicking the outward behavior of others, without any depth. Perhaps their Judaism is heavily concentrated in just a handful of positions, and lacks a fully diversified portfolio of mitzvos—both bein adam lachaveiro and bein adam laMakom. Perhaps their Judaism has been unduly harmed by bad brokers (teachers). Perhaps they inherited a distorted worldview from their parents.

And so they wallow in misery and frustration.

But they can change that.

I know a lot of people who got creamed in the stock market crash of 2000 and now keep their money exclusively in FDIC insured certificates of deposit. But I also know a great deal more people who saw it as a learning experience. They are still open to learning the proper way to invest. They’ve given up on their methods—not on the markets.

Like the personal finance section in Barnes & Noble, the bookshelves at your local Judaica place are filled with good advice. And if you don’t like to read, you can always listen to tapes. It’s all there “if you seek it like silver, and like hidden treasure you search for it.”

Finally, it’s all a matter of trust. My best clients generally do whatever I recommend without question. They don’t do that because they’re idiots. They do it because they understand that I have their financial well-being in mind and a vested interest in the success of their portfolios. Over time, they have learned to trust my judgement.

The Torah observant Jew, who studies, who practices, who prays, who struggles, who succeeds, who fails, who repents, who grows, develops a trust in Torah that sees him through the good times and the bad times. We may not see the logic, we may not appreciate the goodness, but we know that G-d has intended the best for us, and we are willing to surrender our short-term depressions and anxieties to the greater long-term good of a Torah lifestyle.

Monday, August 15, 2005

We Interrupt Your Regularly Scheduled Blog for This Important Announcement

With the disengagement today, there is a possibility, Rachmana litzlan, of Jews pointing guns at other Jews.

I think it's important that everyone, regardless of your position, take a moment today and over the next few days to say one chapter of Psalms to beg the Good L-rd not to allow any bloodshed.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

The First Time I Ever Cried on Tisha B'Av

Tisha B’Av is right around the corner and the days and weeks leading up to it are structured halachically to evoke a certain sense of pain, sorrow, and yearning for better times. This is a difficult task for most of us. In 21st century America, it’s hard to “get in the mood” for Tisha B’Av. We live, more or less, in comfort. Some of us live in great luxury.

I imagine it was easier to be mournful in Nazi Germany, or in Stalanist Russia, or during the time of pogroms, or the Crusades or the Spanish Inquisition. Yes, then Jews could sit on the floor and cry out to G-d to redeem us and bring us to a better place and time.

But today? You must be joking.

It is difficult to legislate emotion. Therefore, the halachic strategy (as a good friend of mine terms it) legislates behavior, which, through proper analysis and understanding elicits (one hopes) the requisite emotion.

Many of us have gone without shaving and bathing these past nine days. We have shut off our radios and i-pods. We have curtailed certain joyous activities. But while these behaviors may make us uncomfortable, we are still far from grief-stricken. I doubt that many of us feel truly despondent over the lack of a Temple in our midst. We go through the motions of mourning, but the emotional component—which is the point of it all—remains elusive.

One Tisha B’Av, I was sitting on the floor in shul, the lights dimmed, and I thought, Why am I here? Why are any of us here? Because a building was destroyed? What does that have to do with me? How does that affect me?

I acknowledge its tragic place in Jewish history. I am willing to go through the routine of recognizing the catastrophe. Yes, I want to feel badly about it, but try as I might I can’t conjure up any real sense of pain, loss and longing.

I decided to focus instead on something sad that had recently occurred in my own life. That year I had discovered that a friend of the family had married a non-Jew. I was devastated. How could this have happened? Here was someone who had a Jewish education, a strong connection to Judaism—strong enough to question why other Jewish friends had forsaken Torah—yet, who ran off and did the same thing.

It dawned on me that this was the great tragedy of Tisha B’Av. I wasn’t mourning the destruction of the Temple; I was mourning the result of the destruction of the Temple. The real destruction continues to this day—the fallout of that terrible day, the consequences of our people being uprooted. Our people were exiled. They moved from place to place. Life became increasingly difficult. Jews dropped off. Without the Temple, the Jewish people became unmoored, lost in a harsh and hateful gentile world.

My friend was destroyed by these aftershocks. This betrayal would not have happened in a properly functioning Jewish society. The temptations of the outside world would have been muted rather than amplified. The greatness of Torah and the Jewish Nation would be blatant. But instead my friend struggled, and ultimately rejected this lifestyle. My friend's departure from Torah marked the end of a long series of events that began not at birth or at high school graduation, but centuries earlier, when our ancestors were forced to leave their homeland, when G-d estranged Himself from His people.

And then I cried.

First I cried for those Jews who were no longer sitting on the floor on Tisha B’Av, those Jews who got up, dusted themselves off, and abandoned their faith for the pleasures and freedoms of this world. Next, I cried for those Jews who never knew to sit on the floor, whose grandparents threw their tefillin overboard on their way to Ellis Island, whose connection to Judaism is so tenuous it would take the Messiah to bring them back.

Then I cried for those of us who remain—the frum Jews. Are we really living the way G-d intended us to? Are we lost in the triumphalism of our own success? What of those we’ve left behind? I cried for those of us who have the talent and resources to do something to stop the outflow of young Jews from their heritage, and promote the inflow of baalei teshuvah back to their heritage.

Finally, I cried for myself. What if I had grown up down the street from the Temple in Holy Jerusalem, living in a Torah society framed and legislated by the Word of G-d, instead of in a foreign land, where temptation “crouches at the door”? Would I not be a holier person? Would I not be a more complete person? Would I not indeed be a happier person?

This Tisha B’Av while you are sitting on the floor in shul or at home, think of all the people who are not there to join you—your neighbors, your colleagues at work. Ask yourself where their Yiddishkeit has gone. It no doubt went up in the same flames that burned the stones of the Bais Hamikdash.

Is your Yiddishkeit not far behind?

I wish everyone a mournful and meaningful Tisha B’Av.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Where Do You See Yourself In Nine Hundred Years?

A friend of mine tells the story of the fellow on a job interview who is asked, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” Without missing a beat, he opens his day planner, flips through the pages, and looks up. “I’m free,” he says. “What did you have in mind?”

But seriously folks.

Today marks the 900th yahrtzeit of Rashi. What this means to the casual observer is that Rashi has been gone for nine centuries. But to the thoughtful Jew it means that Rashi has been with us for nine centuries.

I was told that several decades ago, on the occasion of the Rambam’s 750th yahrtzeit, several students approached Rav Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik, zt”l, for his thoughts on the event. He looked at them with utter bewilderment. “You mean the Rambam is dead?” he asked.

We are aware of the famous aphorism of our Sages that the righteous, even in death, are considered alive, but it often takes a milestone to bring home the truth of that statement. Rashi is alive this very day. Rashi, if we had the advantage of an elementary Jewish education, has been with us from our youngest years, and, if we kept up with our studies, remains a staple in the diet of Torah learning. Rashi will grow old with us.

Rashi’s accomplishments are practically beyond human comprehension. His commentary on the Written Torah is the very first stop when studying Chumash and his commentary on the Oral Torah is also the very first stop when studying Talmud. Imagine that! Forgive a crude sports metaphor (lehavdil!), but that would be like Babe Ruth and Wayne Gretzky being the same person.

And Rashi does it so simply. A word here; a quote there. For this reason children are able to learn and understand Rashi almost as soon as they learn to read Hebrew. A great rabbi once likened Rashi to an adult who holds the hand of a child and helps him cross the street through traffic.

But Rashi’s simplicity is also deceptive, for it masks a deeper intention. Why, for example, does Rashi quote one midrash and leave out another? Why does Rashi define a word by referencing a similar word in a verse in Nevi’im, when he could have quoted a more primary verse from Chumash?

Several years back, a scholar wrote a book called, What’s Bothering Rashi? where he tackles these sorts of problems. The hidden genius of Rashi is that you didn’t recognize that these even were problems until the answers were pointed out to you.

And while Rashi is envied for his brevity, the sheer volume of his work is awe inspiring. Rabbi Berel Wein, shlit”a, tells the story of his days as a high school principal when he once punished a misbehaving freshman by having him write out all the Rashis of a certain parshah. Simply copying all that Rashi was enough to bring the boy back to the straight and narrow.

Speaking of Rabbi Wein, he published a small synopsis of Rashi’s life in the Summer issue of Jewish Action magazine. I located it online and printed it out this afternoon at work. But before I could pull it off the printer, a colleague approached me, holding the document. “This would either be yours or mine,” he said, judging from the context, “and I know I didn’t print it.”

Until that moment, I hadn’t realized he was Jewish.

“Oh yes, I’m Reform,” he said. “But I have a friend who’s trying to upgrade me.”

I laughed. “Keep the article,” I said. “It’s about one of the greatest Jewish scholars in history. He died nine hundred years ago, but his work is studied in every Jewish school to this day.”

So if you’re free, here’s what I have in mind: pull out a Chumash or a Gemara and learn a little bit—with Rashi.

Monday, August 01, 2005

In Praise of Small Things

With the period of the Three Weeks that culminate with the anniversary of the destruction of the Temple (Sunday, August 14, this year) upon us, it behooves us to reflect on our values and our behaviors and to see what we might due to improve ourselves as Jews and as human beings.

One of the strategies utilized in this effort is known as the kabbalah. No, we’re not talking about Madonna here. Without going into the etymology of the word, this kabbalah means a commitment—a commitment to do something different going forward, to better oneself in some fashion.

One might think that in order to foment a real spiritual awakening in oneself, that this commitment ought to be something spectacular. Perhaps one ought to fast every Monday and Thursday. Perhaps one ought to rise each day at dawn and recite the entire book of Psalms. Perhaps one ought to give fifteen or even twenty percent of his or her earnings to charity, rather than the traditional tithe.

Yet, we find that the great giants of Judaism, when looking to make such a kabbalah, always picked something seemingly small.

For example, many years ago, when the Intifada had first broken out in Israel and religious Jews were looking for ways to connect with G-d, Rav Elazar M. Schach, zt”l, the pre-eminent rabbi of the day, made known his latest commitment—to always recite the Grace After Meals from a text rather than by heart.

At first blush this seemed almost silly. What exactly was the big deal there? Couldn’t Rav Schach do better than that? What was he really “committing” himself to exactly?

But the Torah has always maintained that it is far better to commit to something small and keep your word than to commit to something larger and risk not doing it. So in that sense a small commitment is safer.

The larger point, however, is this: G-d likes the small stuff.

A commitment, even a small commitment—even the smallest commitment—is, nonetheless, a step in the right direction. G-d is less interested in how big that step is than in the actual creation of the step. When we make a small kabbalah, we are taking that step, we are announcing our intentions to move in a better direction, we are acknowledging our need for improvement and demonstrating a willingness to better ourselves.

We may not take these baby steps seriously, but G-d sure does.

How so?

By making an improvement in our behavior, even the smallest improvement, we are exercising our humanity. G-d gave people free will to choose between Good and Evil. He made no such accommodation for the plant world or the animal kingdom. A tulip cannot decide to make any adjustments in its daily routine. The tulip cannot do anything to “improve” its lot. It is a tulip and a tulip it shall remain.

Animals, as well, have no free will. True, an animal can be tamed and trained by humans; but the animal itself cannot wake up one morning and decide to be a charitable monkey, a more compassionate dog, a more studious goldfish. What separates us from the animals, from all of G-d’s other creations, is our ability to change on our own, to recast our destiny, to determine in our own minds who we want to become and then set the trajectory of our lives accordingly.

Speaking of trajectory:

When NASA sends up a spaceship, the trajectory they establish must be perfect. If the engineers calculating the angle of the launch are off by so much as an inch, the error will inflate to thousands of miles up in space. The same is true of our efforts to become better people, better Jews. The smallest adjustment in our behavior today has repercussions for our future—both in this world and the next—that are immeasurable.

So if you’re looking for improvement, small is beautiful. Commit to saying one blessing a day with concentration. Study as little as one verse of Torah before heading out to work. Give blood once a year. Put a penny in the pushka.

Do something small because, after all, in Judaism, there really is no such thing.