Archive for May, 2014


Last January, I wrote about Michelle Holstein, who had battled cancer for ten years (“Laughing With Cancer”). She did so with courage, grace and humor. Regrettably, the Malach HaMavet—the Angel of Death—cannot be put off forever. Last Tuesday, Michelle died. She was fifty.

We all share the same sad stories. A cousin of mine died of leukemia at age twelve. A cousin’s brother-in-law succumbed to the same disease at nineteen. My fraternity brother Howie Schnabolk was killed in Vietnam at 25. A client died in a car crash at 27. Other friends and relatives also died too early.

How do we cope? We start by mourning. It’s important to face our sadness and our fears. Then we live. We love, care, thrill, discover and laugh—above all, laugh. Not just for ourselves but also for those we’ve lost.

Does heaven offer consolation? For many Christians and Muslims, yes. For Jews, not so much. The Torah mentions Sheol, the place where the dead go. It’s underground, but that’s all we know. What do the dead do there? The Torah doesn’t say.

Centuries after the Torah was written, the Rabbis absorbed concepts of heaven and hell from Christians. But Rabbinic Judaism offers diverse positions on the afterlife and remains light on specifics. Most Jews doubt there’s a place where the good sprout wings and play harps, and the bad suffer fiery torment.

Prominent is the Jewish practice of providing the dead with continuing life through memory. At the conclusion of each worship service, mourners mention the names of their departed and say the Kaddish prayer. (In Reform practice, the entire congregation joins with them.) Kaddish never mentions death. Rather, it praises God. Saying Kaddish acknowledges the Creator of life and enables us to deal with perhaps the most worrisome aspect of death—being forgotten

When I join with mourners then or at memorial services, I think of my father Morris and my mother Blanche. Also of my Aunt Anne and Uncle Moe Horowitz. I say their names on their yorzheits—the anniversaries of their deaths—before reciting Kaddish for them. I hope my children will say Kaddish for me.

Which brings me to my own death. I anticipate being around for some time. My health is great. But this July, I turn seventy. That’s the span of life enumerated in the 90th Psalm. This milestone has had me thinking about my accomplishments (few) and failures (many). I haven’t enjoyed the process, and I’ll make more of a celebration of reaching 70–1/2, the milestone past and my days less weighted with self-reflection.

I’ll also continue thinking about the Talmud’s (Shabbat 153a) guidance that we repent one day before our death. Since we never know when our last day will be, we should repent each day. Our lives may not be longer, but they’ll be better.

Death is inevitable. Memory is strong. Here’s to those who’ve gone before us, including the men and women who gave their lives for the United States. May we never forget them. And may we repent each day so that others will have no cause to forget us.

I’ll be taking off the next two weeks. A new post will appear on June 13.

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Russia threatens Ukraine. Nigerians cry for schoolgirls abducted by Islamist terrorists. China and Vietnam confront each other over sea rights. Turkey and Thailand are in turmoil. Again. And Iran, says a UN report, is developing more advanced ballistic missiles. So this is the perfect time for me to announce that I’m thinking about considering maybe running for the presidency in 2016.

Here in America, we’re not making much news. Politics have entered the dog days. Primary elections approach. Few voters will participate. With summer almost here followed by November midterms, Congress maintains a low profile. Since nature abhors a vacuum, what better time to steal a few headlines?

Question: Can I offer Americans more than Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush or Rand Paul if I ponder kind of thinking about possibly competing for the Oval Office? Answer: Definitely maybe. Because I’m willing to reveal just what’s behind my ambitions:

— I want to sleep in the presidential bedroom on Air Force One. I’ve flown overseas first-class, and while the seats turn into beds, they’re not all that comfortable. Don’t get me wrong. First-class is great. But Air Force One takes flying to another level just below that of some of the newer Middle East airlines.

— I want to travel the world on someone else’s dime, and have a staff do all the planning. I’ve been lucky enough to explore Western Europe, Israel, Jordan, Thailand and Cambodia. I spent three nights in Tokyo. Mexico and Canada? Been there. But every trip cost me money. As president, you visit interesting places and meet self-important people for free. And few people complain that you accomplished nothing.

— I want to deliver the annual State of the Union address so I can quote from any of my books, like The Boy Walker. Imagine the spike in sales! Not to mention heavyweight contracts for future books.

— I want to throw out the first ball at major league home openers and get great seats at NFL, NBA and NHL games. Do you know how much premium seats cost? And beer? That sucking sound you hear is concessionaires emptying your wallet.

— I want to light the national chanukiah on TV—all eight nights.

— And yes, I want both the presidential retirement package and those six- and seven-figure fees for giving speeches saying what I’ve already said.

Sure, I might be able to help Americans at a time when millions are unemployed or underemployed. And advance an energy policy that makes sense not just in theory but also in reality. And even spur real-world talks between Israel and the Palestinians—unless they’ve read my previous posts suggesting that each side make meaningful concessions rather than blow out a lot of hot desert air. Admittedly, given the way things are, I might not—which wouldn’t add up to less than other presidents’ records.

But this I can tell you. My reasons for entering political life will be open and aboveboard. I’ll say what I mean and mean what I say. Sure, all politicians promise that. But how many put it in writing

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Leviticus 19:4 commands us not to put a stumbling block before the blind. The Rabbis interpret this as not placing temptation before the morally weak. Both the youth culture of Missoula, Montana and Montana law—the “castle doctrine” allowing residents to defend their homes with deadly force—seem to have violated this mitzvah to the detriment of both.

According to The New York Times, a 29-year-old Missoula man shot and killed a 17-year-old German male exchange student on the night of April 27. The victim entered the shooter’s garage uninvited. Missoula teens, it seems, like to sneak into people’s homes to steal a six-pack of beer or other relatively inconsequential item. Male teens are not noted for sound judgment.

The shooter, who was arrested, set down a stumbling block. He left his garage door partially open so that he and his partner could go out for a smoke every now and then. The teen went in not knowing that burglars had twice broken into the shooter’s house, and that the shooter is the father of a 10-month-old. The shooter was understandably nervous.

Here, Montana placed down its own stumbling block. State law legitimizes shooting someone who attempts to enter a home in a “violent, riotous or tumultuous manner.” Muddying the waters, the dead teen’s actions seemingly wouldn’t fall under Montana’s “castle doctrine.” But the shooter was a skittish resident, not a lawyer. He had no idea who was inside his garage and to what purpose.

Both pro- and anti-gun forces would like to believe that the issue is crystal clear. It’s not. Criminals do enter people’s homes and commit heinous acts. The dead boy, on the other hand, wasn’t likely one of them.

I don’t have a gun. I’m aware of the temptation to use a weapon if I had one. But I have no problem with people who possess guns legally. If I lived out in the country, I’d strongly consider owning both a shotgun and a pistol. Plus a big dog. Maybe two.

But there’s a problem. Americans can legally possess weapons without undergoing the extensive training taken by law-enforcement officers. And even cops, faced with challenging situations, sometimes make fatal mistakes. It’s easy to pull a trigger. It’s not so easy to know when.

The shooter never faced a serious threat. We know that. He didn’t. He also lacked the training necessary to determine a more prudent course of action. Still, I don’t doubt that his fear was genuine. I also understand that he preferred not to take chances with an intruder whose purpose he could not analyze.

Here I note Exodus 22:1. It states that a thief who tunnels into a home—and whose intentions are impossible to decipher—may be killed without bloodguilt. While the Rabbis nearly two millennia ago made implementing the death penalty virtually impossible, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 72a) strongly supports self-defense.

Yet again, Americans’ love of guns mixed with fear of criminal attack has led to a needless death. But the death of an innocent person falling prey to a criminal serves no purpose. I offer no easy answers. I don’t think the jury will, either.

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Anti-Black comments by Donald Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles’ Clippers, have been heard and rejected far and wide. NBA commissioner Adam Silver defused the anger of players and coaches, the dismay of fans and withdrawals by Clippers sponsors by banning Sterling for life. But let’s consider another issue potentially more frightening than Sterling’s racist comments.

We gain some perspective with this week’s Torah portion, Emor (Speak), in the Book of Leviticus. In addition to key commandments relating to priests in the Temple and the food offerings they consume. Emor relates the story of a “half-Israelite” (Egyptian father), who fights with a full Israelite. The “half-Israelite” then profanes the name of God, although we don’t know what he says. God instructs Moses that the man is to be stoned to death, and the sentence is carried out.

The condemned man does not die for any act he performs. The fight is not an issue. Rather, his words prove offensive to the holiness of God and Israel. The Torah doesn’t reveal how many Israelites hear the condemned man profane God’s name, but he makes his statement publicly. His words could have incited some or even many in the Israelite camp to join him in rejecting God, thus his punishment.

There’s a parallel in Donald Sterling’s voiced rejection of African Americans and the firestorm that hit him. But the circumstances, God aside, also present serious differences. Sterling made his comments, wrong as they are, in private. It seems that only he and his girlfriend, with whom he spoke on the telephone, heard his remarks. It also seems that his girlfriend purposely recorded him, perhaps goaded him as they spoke then released the recording to embarrass him.

Let’s be honest. Sterling’s remarks were never intended to be made public or to sway anyone but his girlfriend. This should lead us to consider two ideas. First, hateful talk, even when private, can come back to haunt us. Second, we no longer enjoy any comprehensive freedom to express ourselves—including our prejudices. Who knows when we’re being recorded and by whom? And the means to air recorded comments abound. If private words are made public, we may be condemned not for what we’ve done but for what we’ve said. Our deepest feelings, misguided as they may be, can be used against us.

Are the thought police now out in force? If so, who has the right to determine which of our private utterances—even those we view as innocent or taken out of context—can be leveraged to take away our jobs and possessions not to mention our reputations?

I make no excuses for Donald Sterling. I also believe that Adam Silver did the right thing for the NBA. But someone recorded a private conversation without Sterling’s permission then used it against him. There’s something wrong about that.

The Rabbis cautioned against lashon hara—bad/evil speech or gossip. Their counsel is even more important today, in part because the Donald Sterling affair takes us towards, if not down, a slippery slope. Should Americans’ private statements condemn them not simply to disapproval or ridicule but also to some form of punishment? We as a nation say we revere free speech. Is this just words?

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