Friday, February 14, 2014

SHABBAT: Iphone vs. iShabbat

כי ששת ימים עשה ה' את השמים ואת הארץ

Shabbat is the day in which Jews celebrate Creation. On Shabbat we give our testimony that the world is not here by happenstance. Our beautiful planet and the whole universe was made by an Intelligent Creator.  The way we celebrate Creation is by not disturbing Creation. We do not modify, recreate, ignite or activate anything.  Similar to God's purposeful lack-of-Creation on the seventh day, we too stop all forms of human creativity. The creative tasks applied to the construction of the Mishkan serve as the model of all creative tasks we refrain from on the seventh day.

But, beyond this, is Shabbat still necessary?

Well, I believe it is.  I actually think that in certain sense Shabbat is today more relevant than ever in human history.  Think about the newest addiction: "The average American teenager sends or receives 75 text messages a day, though one girl in Sacramento managed to handle an average of 10,000 every 24 hours for a month."    Says Pico Iyer in the NYT (December 29, 2011).  Texting and Whatsapping became epidemic. And we are not communicating better. Actually "We have more and more ways to communicate...but less and less to say."  

Pico seems to believe that Shabbat is the future of human civilization  "Since a function of scarcity, the children of tomorrow... will crave nothing more than freedom, if only for a short while, from all the blinking machines, streaming videos and scrolling headlines that leave them feeling empty and too full all at once." 

Shabbat is needed to re-humanize us: "Two journalist friends of mine observe an 'Internet sabbath' every week, turning off their online connections from Friday night to Monday morning, so as to try to revive those ancient customs known as family meals and conversation."

Lastly, Shabbat also helps us to save some money: "Those who part with $2,285 a night to stay in a cliff-top room at the Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur pay partly for the privilege of not having a TV in their rooms; the future of travel, I'm reliably told, lies in 'black-hole resorts,' which charge high prices precisely because you can't get online in their rooms"

Disconnect your phones (and see that your children do the same!). And reconnect with HaShem, with your family and with yourself. 

Shabbat Shalom!

Candle lighting in NYC:     5:09pm
Shabbat ends in NYC:         6:11pm

Thursday, February 13, 2014

'amida (berakha 9) , "Make us rich... and save us from Affluenza"

The 9th berakha of the Amida, barekhenu or barekh alenu, is the blessing in which we ask haShem to grant our livelihood (parnasa).

This blessing focuses specifically on requesting dew, rain, a good year's crop, and a successful production of vegetables and fruits.  We ask HaShem to provide us material blessings and protect our source of livelihood from weather inclemencies and other natural disasters.

We particularly ask God to send rain. One of the most disastrous scenarios for the economy of Israel, and this is true even today,  is a period of drought.  Rain coming on its due time is God's blessing to the people of Israel, as it is explicitly recorded in the Shema Israel. We also learned in the second part of the Shema that rain in the land of Israel is conditioned to the people of Israel's keeping God's Covenant. The Tora describes a sort of cause/effect dynamics between the People of Israel's behavior and Israel's skies. Heavens of the Holy Land are not governed by the rules of nature but by God's retribution or reward to Israel's loyalty.

Although this berakha refers exclusively to the agricultural aspects of Israel's economy, because it was conceived for the ancient Israel nation, when Jews dedicated mostly to agriculture, it also alludes to our general economic success. This berakha implicitly includes our request to God to bless our sources of livelihood in present times: our businesses, our jobs, our investments, etc. 

Another important thing we learn from this berakha is that we specifically ask God to send rain as 'blessing' (tal umatar librakha). In other words, we expect to receive whatever rain is needed for the land, and not more than that! Rain in excess is the opposite of blessing.  Similarly, in many areas of material life, excess might be counterproductive.  Material excess can turn into a psychological "disorder", which might affect us and our children, known as "Affluenza" 1. The feelings of unfulfillment and frustration that results from efforts to keep up with the Joneses. 2. An epidemic of stress, overwork, waste and indebtedness caused by tireless pursuit of the American Dream. 3. An unsustainable addiction to consumption.   

We should ask HaShem to bless us, providing us with what we really need.   

More on asking God in excess of
what you really need
"How the Lives of 10 Lottery Millionaires went Disastrously Wrong" (from

Who wants to be a millionaire? Most people, surely (except billionaires of course). But sadly, winning a truck-load of money on the lottery, any lottery, comes with a heap of baggage. Daydreams of a millionaire lifestyle seem to have a habit of turning sour faster than a sub-prime mortgage, isolation, paranoia, drugs, crime, poverty and prison await those who fail to adjust, as this top ten of 'Lottery Losers' shows:

1. Jack Whittaker won a record $314.9m Powerball Jackpot in 2002. But life since then has been a long list of arrests, lawsuits, broken relationships and even death. In 2007, his then wife, Jewell admitted she wished she had 'torn up the ticket'.

2. William "Bud" Post won $16.2 million in the Pennsylvania Lotrery in 1988. He later described the experience as a nightmare and wishes it had never happened - who can blame him after he was sued by a former girlfriend eager to get her hands on the cash and his brother hired a hitman in the hope of inheriting the winnings. He invested in ill-fated family businesses and within a year was $1m in debt. Today he gets by on social security payments.

3. Luke Pittard from Wales won a 'measly' £1.3m on the National Lottery. After the novelty worn off and the obligatory lavish holiday, wedding and new home were done and dusted, he got bored and returned to work at MacDonalds.

4. An as-yet-unnamed Sicilian won £79m on the Italian lottery in 2008. Before he or she could even collect the winnings consumer groups were demanding that the windfall be seized by the government. The winner has since gone into hiding, fearing the Mafia will come calling.

5. Janite Lee won $18 million in 1993. Her generosity in giving money to a variety of political, educational and community causes was commendable - but just eight years later she filed for bankruptcy.

6. Mark Gardiner from London won $ 11m in 1995. Thirteen miserable years later, he hasn't lost his money, but he has lost all his friends - even the ones he treated to new £100,000 homes - and lost touch with his family.

7. Michael Carroll won a £9.7m National Lottery Jackpot in 2002. Since then he has appeared in court more than 30 times and been jailed for drug related offences. In 2008, he admitted that 'just' £500,000 of his windfall remained.

8. Willie Hurt won 3.1 million in 1989. Two years later the money  was gone and he was on a murder charge. Hurt spent his fortune on a divorce and crack cocaine.

9. Charles Riddle won $1 million in 1975. The original lottery car crash, he quickly got divorced, faced several lawsuits and was eventually indicted for selling cocaine.

10. Ken Proxmire won $1 million in the Michigan Lottery.He moved to California and invested in a car business with his brothers. Five years later, he was bankrupt and back working as a machinist.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

SEPHARDIC RABBIS: Rabbi Ya'aqob Kholi (1689-1732)

Rabbi Ya'aqob Kholi (aka Culi, Koli, etc) was born in Yerushalayim in 1689. In those days the situation of the Jews in Israel turned to be disastrous, politically and financially, and at a young age, rabbi Ya'aqob established himself in Constantinople, Turkey.  There he met the famous rabbi Yehuda Rosanes. Rabbi Ya'aqob became one of this best students, and Rabbi Rosanes assigned him as Dayan of Constantinople.  In 1727 rabbi Rosanes died, leaving behind a vast literary work in handwriting. Rabbi Ya'aqob took upon himself to publish his teacher's books, knowing that the task will demand many years of his life.  In 1728 he published Rabbi Rosanes' Parashat Derakhim and in 1731 he published the most famous book of rabbi Rosanes: Mishne leMelekh, a commentary on Maimonides' Mishne Tora.  During these years he also began his own work, the famous book me'am lo'ez.  

Me'am lo'ez is an extraordinary book, a monumental anthology of Midrashim and Halakhic material, arranged according to the weekly Parasha. The special thing about this book is that it was one of the first books written for the masses, not for Tora-scholars.  One book of this sort was previously written, 'en-ya'aqob, by Rabbi Kholi's great-grandfather, rabbi Ya'aqob ibn Habib.  The book was written in Ladino, or Judeo-Spanish (Spanish written with Hebrew characters) the language introduced  by those Jews expelled from Spain in 1492, which became popular among most Sephardic communities.   

Aside form the rich Talmudic material, rabbi Ya'aqob introduced many autobiographic notes and anecdotes, which makes the reader feel transported to the ancient Sephardic communities in Turkey and other parts of the Middle East, where Jews were victims of permanent abuse and persecutions. In those difficult circumstances Me'am Lo'ez invites the Jewish families to see the Shabbat as an "Island of time", a 24 hours opportunity to disconnect from sadness and enjoy peace and happiness.  The author encourages Jews, most of them living in poor conditions, to practice Hesed (kindness) with those who are in a worse situation.  He found that the best antidote to cope with the feelings of hardship is not self-pity but opening one's homes and hearts to those who are poorer than him (hakhnasat orahim), to take care of the widows, the orphans and the sick.  Rabbi Kholi died at a very young age. When he was just 43 years old.  

ספר מעם לועז

Rabbi Kholi, the author of me'am lo'ez, wrote the book of Genesis and on two thirds of the book of Shemot.  He had a great zekhut: in the same way that he published the books of his ancestors and teachers, his own book me'am lo'ez was continued by several rabbis from Turkey and other communities, for generations to come. 

Rabbi Ytshaq Magriso completed the book of Exodus and wrote the commentary on the books of Leviticus and Numbers.

Deuteronomy was written by Rabbi Ytshaq Bekhor Agruiti. 

The Book of Yehoshua by Rabbi Rahamim Menahem Miterani. 

The book of Esther by Rabbi Raphael Hiya Pontremoli. 

Rabbi Shemuel Yerushalmi translated the Me'am Lo'ez to Hebrew. 

And Rabbi  Aryeh Kaplan from Ladino to English  (see this)

Monday, February 10, 2014

Amida (Berakha 8) The ultimate Healer

רְפָאֵנוּ ה' וְנֵרָפֵא 

"Cure us, Oh God, so we will be cured..."

In this berakha we acknowledge that God is the ultimate healer.  When we are sick, we assert, our cure ultimately comes from Him.

This Berakha, and the subject of being sick/being cured is a great example of the complex dynamics between man's freedom of choice and God's intervention in our lives. 

First, in the way a disease is acquired. Many times illness is a consequence of our wrong choices. If we make an habit of eating the wrong foods, or if we don't take care of our health, sickness might be directly or indirectly our own making. The Rabbis expressed this idea in TB Ketubot 30a: הכל בידי שמים חוץ מצינים פחים "Everything is in God's hand, except colds and insolation". In other words, if I willingly expose myself too much to cold or too much to heat, I cannot expect HaShem to protect me from my bad choices.   On the other hand, certain diseases (perhaps most) are not a consequence of our behavior, but an adversity out of our control. And many times it is impossible (and useless) to assess where the blame should be placed.  In any case, we pray to HaShem to help us and to remove from us all illness, pains and wounds.  

The second point is that the Tora forbids a person to rely just on God for getting cured. We are obligated to seek a physician's intervention (verapo yerape). We can't just hope that illness will vanish by HaShem's grace.  What this Berakha makes clear is that when we visit the doctor, we believe that it is still HaShem who cures us (harbe shelihim lamaqom). We believe that God acts through the medical advise of the physician, or through the hands of the surgeon in the operation room. It is ultimately Him, by means of myriad of human agents -doctors, researchers, nurses- who brings healing and alleviates the sick. Physicians are HaShem's privileged agents in the art of healing. God, we believe, is behind man's wisdom to develop medications, and behind man's ability to cure sickness.

We must do all in our power to avoid being sick. And we must do all in our power to get cured. Nevertheless, we pray and beseech God to protect us from all illness, to heal our pain, to cure our wounds and to prolong our lives.  We recognize Him as the ultimate healer. He has the final say.