Monday, August 31, 2009

Desert Island Sefarim

Remember "Desert Island Discs"?

The radio station in my hometown used to ask listeners to submit three songs that they would take along if they knew they were going to be stranded on a desert island. These would be the only three songs they would be able to listen to for the rest of their lives.

Along similar lines, I wondered: What if I knew I was going to be stranded on a desert island and could only bring along a limited number of sefarim. Which would I choose? I find the exercise helpful because I have this theory: If you are, like me, not engaged in full-time Torah study (and, perhaps, even if you are), you would be better off focusing on a few learning projects for the rest of your life than randomly learning this and that, perusing every sefer that happens to catch your eye, or even attending myriad shiurim.

Mind you, I'm not suggesting that you not learn everything you can. But time is finite, and I have come to the conclusion that most of us would be better off—that is, would accomplish more and become better talmidei chachamim—by focusing on fewer books. Keep in mind that "fewer" is still an enormous amount. If you told your chavrusah that you were no longer going to look at any sefer that was not on your "favorites" list, he might argue that you’re condemning yourself to a life of amaratzus, but realistically, it would be a tremendous accomplishment just to learn—and relearn—those favorites.

So for the past several years I have been randomly asking people I know, What sefarim (a set of sefarim –anything you can buy as one unit—counts as one) would you bring? Initially, I asked for a top-ten list, but then decided to put the pressure on and narrowed the number down to five. Nearly everyone included a Chumash on their lists. Ah, yes, but which one? Personally, I would be torn between the Toras Chaim and the Torah Temimah. I could take both but that would be 40% of my total. And then what would I do about Nach? In the end, I would have to take along a standard Mikraos Gedolos Tanach.

A certain rav, whom I polled recently, shared a terrific story with me, which only deepened my belief in this theory. He learned at Ner Israel in Baltimore. Once, a famous physicist came to Baltimore from the Soviet Union for a scientific conference. He was escorted all over by Russian police, but he was able to persuade them to let him visit the yeshiva. He spoke with the rosh yeshiva, Rav Ruderman, zt”l, who was duly impressed with the man’s knowledge, especially considering his background, living in such an anti-religious environment.

How did you become such a scholar? Rav Ruderman asked.

The man replied that when he was young he had a melamed, and when the communists took over his melamed died. He took upon himself to learn six hours a day in memory of his teacher (mind you this was on top of a very rigorous secular-studies schedule through which he developed as a physicist).

All he had in his possession was a Talmud and a few books of the Rambam. He had many questions on the Rambam that he brought to the attention of Rav Ruderman. The rosh yeshiva was able to show him that all his answers could be found through an examination of the volumes of the Rambam which he did not have access to.

I wish I could tell you that the story has the happy ending that the man got out of Russia, or that he at least was able to smuggle in the “missing” Rambams. But history rarely has such fairy tale endings.

In any event, my rav told me, after that encounter he recognized the power of staying focused on just a few sefarim. So what would he bring with him to the desert island? His most intriguing choice was a Ritva. “I can’t learn Gemara without one,” he said.

The most remarkable response I received, however, came from one of my cousins who offered that he didn’t really like sefarim; he was more interested in reading Torah articles. Hmmm.

But in the end, most people included a Tanach and a set of Shas on their lists. So assuming that the desert island shtibel has those sefarim in its library (along with a siddur, a machzor, a selichos, and a haggadah), here are the additional five I would bring along:

One, the Torah Sheleimah, the most thorough collection of midrashim on each parshah.

Two, a set of Kehati mishnayos. I cannot imagine learning mishnayos without my "chavrusah," Rav Kehati. One can argue that his thorough commentary is too much of a crutch, but because it’s in Hebrew (I never use the English version), I allow myself the “luxury” of utilizing it.

Three, the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, preferably the Frankel edition.

Four, the Aruch Hashulchan. The closest thing we have to Kol Hatorah Kulah in one work. I am continually blown away by the work of Rav Epstein as he guides you from the Mishnah, through the Gemara and Rishonim, all the way to the practical laws and customs. The publisher, Oz Vehadar, recently did a magnificent job of republishing this masterpiece, including footnotes containing the rulings of the Mishnah Berurah.

Five, a Jastrow dictionary. It was a close contest between this critical reference book and the Alkalai dictionary. But as I need more help deciphering Aramaic than Hebrew, Jastrow is my pick.

So the reality is that I'm not headed for a desert island any time soon (I hope!), but I believe this is a good exercise in staying focused. If I spent all my learning hours with "only" these books, is that not a life to be proud of?

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Eric Bruntlett's Elul

One of the joys of being an "ex-pat" Phillies fan, living in New York, is that I can watch my team's games over the internet. This sure beats the good ol' days when, in order to listen to my favorite team play, I had to drive around the county in my car, with the radio set to 1210 on the AM dial, until I found a spot that picked up, all the way from Eastern Pennsylvania, a somewhat static-free signal.

Nonetheless, when the Phillies come to New York, I am, ironically, left without video coverage of the game. You see, the way it works is that the local cable companies pay enormous sums of money to reserve all broadcast rights within a team's market. So if you want to watch a game, in New York, featuring the Mets or the Yankees you first need to buy a cable television packages. In each market, Major League Baseball "blacks out" the local games from its internet service. So when the Phillies play the Yankees or Mets, I'm in a bind. It's either the radio or Kosher Delight.

Such was the case today as I drove back from getting a tooth filled at my dentist's office in Queens. The Phils were getting ready to take the field against the Mets at their brand-new home, Citi Field, just as I was driving past, my lower left jaw still numb from novacaine. I debated turning off the Grand Central Parkway and heading for the stadium parking lot to look for a last-minute ticket. But with more important things to do with my afternoon than invest three hours in a ballgame, I did the sensible thing and headed home, trying to convince myself that radio broadcasts are as good as the real thing.

The game appeared over as soon as it started. The Phillies hit two three-run homers in the first inning. But the Mets, down by six runs twice in the game, started to chip away at the Phillies lead. By the ninth, the Phillies were still in front, 9-6, but the momentum had begun to shift toward the Mets.

At this point my computer—through which I was listening to the game—informed me that the blackout had been removed for the bottom of the ninth inning, and the video feed commenced. This was great only briefly, as the first Mets hitter wound up on third, on a three-base error by the Phillies' first baseman. That play, coupled with an unreliable Brad Lidge and his 7.05 earned run average, on the mound for the Phils, made the phaithful understandably edgy.

That unease gave way to unbridled nail-biting after second baseman Eric Bruntlett muffed the next two plays—the first, scored an error; the second, charitably, a hit. Why was Bruntlett even in the game? Where was Chase Utley, the Phillies' perennial All-Star, and unofficial leader? He was being given—he never takes—a day off. Bruntlett, hitting .128 for the year, numbers that do not befit someone competing on a championship team, was subbing.

All of a sudden, it was deja vu all over again for the Phillies: holding a slight lead, the tying runs on base, the winning run at the plate, and nobody out—all being protected by Brad Lidge, who was carrying the weight of eight blown saves on his shoulders. We phans have been here before, we've seen this picture, and it doesn't always end pretty.

And then it did.

The next hitter, Jeff Francoeur hit a bullet up the middle. Bruntlett, moving to his right, jumped up, caught the ball and landed on second base, doubling up Luis Castillo, who had been running to third on the pitch. Bruntlett then engaged in an awkward two-step with Dan Murphy, who was just arriving at second base, before tagging him on the letters. And just like that, the game was over. Phillies win.

An unassisted triple play!

I had never seen one before. Not surprising since this was only the fifteenth time in Major League history that one had ocurred. It is the rarest feat in baseball.

Eric Bruntlett, who had been responsible for allowing the two runners to reach base safely to begin with; who was on the verge of being the goat of the game; who because of his awful hitting this year might have been cut from the team if they had gone on to lose this game, emerges as the hero and will have his name in the record books. He was in the right place at the right time and reacted decisively.

Life, like baseball, has many twists and turns—some of them sudden. Elul is a time when we all are asked to come to terms with our behavior throughout the year. Perhaps we are hitting a spiritual .128 for the season. Perhaps we made a couple of errors over the summer. Perhaps we are on the verge of blowing the Big Game.

Now we are in the right place at the right time. We, too, must react decisively. Eric Bruntlett reminds us: "Yeish shekoneh olamo besha'a achas"—it's never too late to turn it around. Redemption can come more quickly than you ever imagined possible.

See the play here.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Caring Enough to be Careful

One of my fondest memories is the time I was traveling with a vanload of public school kids to some JEP or NCSY shabbaton, and we got a flat tire. Pulling over the side of the road, in a light rain, with traffic around us and limited time until sundown, I got that ominous feeling I sometimes get on Erev Shabbos when there’s a sudden wrench thrown into my erstwhile perfect plan. Also, I was a yeshiva bachur. What did I know about fixing a flat?

Fortunately, within a few minutes another car pulled up behind us and some other bachurim—who apparently went to a yeshiva that appreciated the virtues of flat-fixing—popped out. With a quick introduction they got to work. No sooner had they started than another car pulled over. More bachurim. More flat fixers. At this point I’m thinking that I attended the only yeshiva in America where basic auto maintenance was not an elective.

By the time the job was done, two more cars had stopped to see if we needed help. Both were helmed by what my father affectionately calls “frummies.” We were back on the road in twenty minutes, and made it to the shabbaton with time to shower. But what delighted me more than being on time for Shabbos was the reaction of one of the kids. Noticing that everyone who had stopped to pitch in wore a yarmulke, he asked, “Are all Orthodox Jews this nice?”

In an effort to ensure that the answer to that question is always yes, I offer the following ideas.

Every day starts with the morning. Most people are, like me, not morning people. This means they are a bit crankier, a bit more sensitive, a bit groggier in the morning. How refreshing it is, therefore, to be greeted by someone, a stranger, with a smile and a cheerful “Good morning.”

This simple, straightforward salutation invariably pays outsized returns.

In the bank where I work, I have developed a reputation for greeting all my colleagues at the beginning of the day with a cheerful “Happy Monday,” “Happy Tuesday,” and so on (Everybody loves “Happy Friday”; “Happy Monday” is significantly less popular). One morning, I walked into work distracted, and moved through the bank floor quickly to my desk to get started on what I knew was going to be a hectic day. At about mid-afternoon, I was feeling a lot less tense and made it over to the service desk. One of the associates gave me the cold shoulder, which I quickly picked up on. “Everything okay?” I asked.

“You forgot to wish me a Happy Wednesday,” she said.

Indeed I had forgot. But who would have thought that it mattered? Who would have thought that she’d be hurt by my innocent slip? It did. She was.

Benjamin Brafman, the famed attorney who spoke at a recent Agudath Israel asifa, made a comment that stuck with me for its simplicity and truthfulness: “If you are careful, it’s very easy to do a kiddush Hashem; if you’re not careful, it’s very easy to do a chillul Hashem.”

Recently, a major news magazine interviewed grocery store cashiers about the behavior of their customers. Most were appalled by the lack of manners. One of the biggest offenses was talking on the cell phone while checking out. Go to your local store and I'm sure you'll see plenty of your “nicest” neighbors doing this. They don’t mean anything by it, simply multitasking through a very busy schedule, but the message to the cashier is plain: “You aren't a real person to me.” Obviously most people don't intend it that way, but that's how it's perceived by the people who are on the other side of the counter.

Smiling, waving, nodding, greeting—these are all small, simple ways we can improve our lot, both personally and nationally.

On a stronger note, I am often asked by people starting out in my profession (financial planning and investment advice) what they should do to build a successful practice. I tell each of them, Jew and gentile alike, that if you strive to be the smartest person on Wall Street, you have lots of competition; if you try to be the luckiest person on Wall Street, that probably won’t happen either; but if you aim to be the most honest, ethical person on Wall Street, you have a pretty good shot at landing near the top.

The Talmud teaches that at the end of our lives we are asked four questions. One of those is, Did you deal faithfully in business? I would suggest that the emunah, the faith, that is under discussion is not merely the faith expressed between two business parties, but also the faith one must have in God that He will provide one’s daily bread. If we deal in business with the faith that God will give us what’s coming to us, then we are less likely to be tempted to cut corners in order to make ends meet.

The Rambam, in Mishneh Torah (Yesodei haTorah, chapter 5)¸ discusses the mitzvos of kiddush Hashem and chillul Hashem. His initial discussion revolves around the particular circumstances—idolatry, murder, and illicit sexual relations— requiring one to sacrifice his life, whereby doing so would create a kiddush Hashem, and not doing so would create a chillul Hashem.

But in the final halachah, the Rambam discusses more pedestrian concerns. He writes: “There are other matters which are incorporated into chillul Hashem. These are things that if done by someone who is great in Torah and prominent in piety, things that society will slander him because of them, even if they are not actual sins, he has desecrated the Name.” The Rambam goes on to describe activities that are on the opposite side of the sin spectrum, indiscretions much less severe than idolatry, murder, and illicit sexual relations. Things like paying bills late, hanging out with the riff-raff, and not speaking courteously.

I would argue that in our time, anyone who presents himself to the world as an Orthodox Jew falls into this category of “great in Torah” and “well-known in piety.” To the gentile world, to the non-Orthodox Jewish world, and even within the Orthodox world itself, we are the exemplars of Judaism. Whether we truly are “great in Torah” is irrelevant. Our behavior is seen as reflective of the Torah’s standard.

If we do not see ourselves this way, if we believe that we are not so different from the secular world, if we think that despite the yarmulkas on our heads we still “fit in” with everyone else, then we will—wrongly—fail to live up to this higher benchmark.

But if, on the other hand, we truly believe ourselves to be God’s chose nation, if we see ourselves as the touchstone of the Jewish people and if, above all, we are careful at all times, then we ought to succeed in our Divine mission of being a light not only unto the other nations but unto our own—our families, our communities, and our people.