Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The (Snapple) Facts of Life

Six-year-olds laugh an average of 300 times a day. Adults only laugh 15 to 100 times a day. - Snapple "Real Fact" #831
While I am aware that there are many Snapple facts (those interesting, bite sized bits of trivia found on the underside of Snapple Iced Tea bottle caps) that are supposedly misleading or inaccurate, I found this one in particular to be saddening. Even if it is not necessarily true in terms of numbers, I think most would agree that the underlying statement of the Snapple fact rings true; adults do not laugh nearly as much as children do.

That is depressing.

Obviously, the many responsibilities that increase with age teach us that life is not all fun and games. Indeed, as we get older we quickly learn that there is a lot of pain and unpleasantness that can accompany life experiences. Perhaps we laugh less because we can better appreciate the necessity of taking things seriously, that there are consequences to our actions, and we must approach our daily dealings with maturity. Perhaps. But I still believe that there is a lot of merit to the child's willingness, readiness, to laugh.

Like the Brisker Rav admonished his overly severe colleague, the "childish" capacity for joy is truly our natural state; as we get further from our experience with the Divine, we forget our own joy. We lose our innocence as a corollary of dealing with the "real world"; we become calloused, cynical, without mirth. Occasionally we allow ourselves a chuckle, to throw our shriveled up psyches a little laughter, just enough to keep us going.

Many would attribute the child's ability to laugh so much to the fact that everything is so fresh and new; the thrill of discovery makes no distinction between paradigm shifting lessons that open them up to a new understanding of their world and the sight of a tiny caterpillar humping along on the sidewalk. Everything is met with the same wide-eyed curiosity (this is also becoming a thing of the past, unfortunately. Cynicism is affecting our society from the top down) when you are young and there is so much to absorb. After all, an adult knows so much, has seen so much, that there seems to be very little left to learn (!) and besides, who has the time?

But I think that there is more to it. The child expects to laugh, and therefore laughs. The adult has no such expectation, and thus only laughs in situations in which laughter is deemed the appropriate response.

This is what is known in psychology as a self-fulfilling prophecy, a form of confirmation bias (when one perceives occurrences as conforming to preconceived notions that may be erroneous, despite the fact that they don't actually confirm the beliefs). Usually confirmation biases are looked upon as negative, because they often do not accurately reflect reality; essentially the individual is "fooling" himself. But I would suggest that in this case there are more benefits to adopting the child's approach. Expecting to find opportunities for joy can create joy without diminishing the capacity to deal with life in a mature, realistic fashion; it's a question of attitude and perception. If we were more willing to laugh, to allow the vulnerability that accompanies that hopefulness, the world would be a happier place.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Good eye!

Rav Sholom DovBer
When Rav Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn (sixth Rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch) was a very young boy, he once approached his venerated father Rav Sholom DovBer (the Rebbe RaShaB) with the following query:

"HaShem created us with one mouth, and one nose. Why then, did He create us with two eyes?"

The Rebbe RaShaB responded to his son: "Tell me, do you know the Alef-Beis?"

"Yes, father," came the reply.

"And what is the difference between the letters Shin and the Sin?"

Little Yosef Yitzchak considered this for a moment. "The Shin has a dot on the right side, and the Sin has its dot on the left."

Rav Yosef Yitzchak
"Indeed," said his father. "HaShem gave us two eyes; with the right eye we view things with favor, love, and respect. With the left eye, we perceive things with indifference, with disdain. If you see a fellow Jew, or a sefer, you must always view them with your right eye. A candy or a toy? You can look at it with your left."

Many years later, Reb Yosef Yitzchak reported that he never looked at a fellow Jew the same way after hearing this life lesson.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Rav Kook and The Satmar Rav: Common Denominators

This is the speech I prepared for my son's bris last week. Although there was some slight variation in the actual delivery, this is the crux of the message given over.

I apologize about the tardiness of posting the speech, but as can be imagined, there were many other things to deal with...

The rach hanimol is named after my mother-in-law’s father, Reb Elyakim ben Yaakov Yehoshua Roth.

I saw a very interesting medrash when I was looking into the sources of the name Elyakim in Tanach. According to the Sifri and others, the biblical Elyakim belongs to a unique group of individuals in Tanach: among the many personalities mentioned throughout the twenty four sifrei Tanach only a select few earn the kinui of eved HaShem. Elyakim is one of them, as can be seen in Isaiah, where the Navi explicitly mentions Elyakim as an eved HaShem (22:20).

So what qualities are needed to be considered an eved HaShem? According to the Radak, this special status indicates that the person in question has fully given himself over to the carrying out of God’s will, b’chol me’odo, until the last drop of his reserves. This leads us to the question of what traits one needs to begin on this path. Where is the starting point?

The rach hanimol was born on 26 Av, the yahrtzeit of the Satmar Rav, Reb Yoel Teitelbaum zatzal. Today, the day of the bris, is 3 Elul, the yahrtzeit of Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook zatzal. At first, this observation seems ironic considering the ideological differences between these two great tzaddikim, but soon I came to appreciate what this connection between the two symbolized. Despite their obvious differences, the truth is that they had more similarities than differences. To enumerate them all would take too much time, but we will focus on two main ideas:

The first is the unwavering commitment each had to their cause, their vision of what Torah Judaism could and should be. In a world where many caved to various pressures from all sides these two tzaddikim gave no quarter; they could not be swayed from what they felt was yashar. This iconoclasm was so much more than a tendency to be contrarian for its own sake; rather, it was a natural progression from their intense desire to fight for emes. It didn’t matter if it was the popular way, or the politically correct way – if it needed to be done, they did it in their inimitable fashion, often polarizing their surroundings. It may not have been the most popular way, or the most politically correct but that never stopped them.

The second is their boundless love for every single Jew, one of the driving forces behind all of their efforts. Despite the Satmar Rav’s many political stances which were often underscored by polemics, there is no question that the Rebbe loved every single Jew with a burning passion. The same is true for Rav Kook; his many writings expressed an outpouring of love for his fellow Jews that was unparalleled in any way that we have seen.

This second point is especially fitting in light of what I have learned about the rach hanimol’s namesake. I never had the pleasure of meeting my wife’s grandfather, but when I asked her to describe him, the first thing that came to mind – and indeed, to everyone’s mind when asked about him – was his tremendous resources of love for all, especially his family.

It is my hope that our son Elyakim will continue to exemplify these two traits as he develops into a true servant of God.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Strength to Strength, Indeed...

My wonderful friend Reb Ally has just shared impressively awesome news on his blog: the beginning of a new post high school yeshiva in the holiest place in the world!

Mazel tov!

Everyone here wishes him much success in this and all future endeavors!

Friday, August 3, 2012

Siyum HaShas retrospective

Seven and a half years ago, I passed up the opportunity to go to the Eleventh Siyum HaShas of the Daf Yomi. I recall my some of my justifications; while some were legitimate, for the most part my primary reasons for not attending stemmed from post-adolescent cynicism and a general desire to avoid anything that "everyone" was doing. While those non-conformist instincts still manifest themselves in subtle ways, I didn't let them get in the way of going to the Twelfth Siyum last night (my wife's gentle prodding helped significantly as well).

The experience was very inspiring, and emotional as well.

Some of my highlights:

The Masmidei HaDaf children's tribute - especially heartening and made me pray for my own children that they should love and live a Torah true life;

I was very impressed and pleasantly surprised to learn that not only did Rav Malkiel Kotler (who was honored with making the actual siyum) study the daf yomi, but that his grandfather Rav Aharon did as well. It makes the fact that there is a stigma associated with the daf in the yeshiva world all the more so perplexing;

Rav Frand rocks. 'Nuff said.

Rav Sheiner was charming. To see a gadol speak to such a tremendous crowd with such a lack of pretense is refreshing. And his rousing endorsement of Rav Frand (and many effusive praises throughout his speech) was particularly awesome;

Chacham Yaakov Moshe Hillel rocks. If you don't believe me, follow the below link to my recording of his speech.

Rav Lau was my personal highlight. The applause and ovation before he even began speaking was enough vindication in light of the "controversy" of last week. An elegant elder statesman, the former Chief Rabbi of the medina was eloquent in his gestures to his colleagues as well as the crowd. His speech can be found by following the link:

Kel moleh rachamim by Chazzan Helfgott:

All in all, a wonderful (albeit long) evening. No negativity, just positive energy all around and a sense of belonging to a larger idea...

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Empire Strikes Out

Awesome t-shirt my wife saw at the Gap. Unfortunately the Gap's idea of size Large includes pygmies in that category...