Posts, Writings, Ramblings and more from Yaakov Menken

You Gotta Have Faith

by Yaakov Menken on August 15, 2014 at 11:05 am

thank_you_inscription_04_hd_pictures_170884Have you ever had something bad happen, and said a quick (or not so quick) prayer?

The truth is, it’s really not supposed to be that way. [It's not? What do you mean by that?] Let me explain:

The Torah tells us that G-d wants to bless us. G-d wants to give us everything, as our kind and beneficent Father. And most of all, He wants us to come close to Him, rise spiritually, become more “godly” throughout our lives.

Unfortunately, due to our own failings, these often don’t travel together: if our lives are blessed with material success, we are not as focused upon G-d! This is what Moshe warns us about in this week’s reading: “Guard yourselves, that you don’t forget Hashem your G-d, to not observe His commandments and judgments and laws which I have commanded you today; that you don’t eat and drink, and build good houses and dwell in them… And you will say in your heart, my might and the strength of my hand have made for me all of this wealth” [Deuteronomy 8:11-12, 17].

When that happens, when we forget G-d after receiving His blessing — well, that’s when He needs to remind us Who is really in charge. But we shouldn’t need something bad to happen before we turn to Him. Our goal should be to recognize His kindness when we receive blessing — so that we don’t need less pleasant reminders to turn to Him at every moment.

Death of an Icon

by Yaakov Menken on August 12, 2014 at 5:28 pm

I grew up watching Mork. I’ve seen Aladdin. I even, during college, watched him perform live. But I never knew Robin Williams.

He was the consummate entertainer. He just knew how to make us laugh. His improvisation, his off-the-cuff remarks, were brilliantly funny. But we never understood who he really was.

And that was, perhaps, the problem, that which made him so depressed as to bring him to a tragic end.

With his passing, journalists and commentators are talking about mental illness and depression, recognizing the challenges he faced. [UPDATE: And let me make it clear that I am not commenting about most cases, or even necessarily his case, of mental illness or depression. A person with either must seek professional treatment and it is a Mitzvah to do so.]

But I don’t believe that Williams simply had a mental illness. Few are discussing how common depression seems to be among the leading entertainers — or why this is so. While I could of course be wrong in this one case, it is hard to imagine that so many entertainers, upon finding success, coincidentally develop depression.

Someone challenged me, asking whether it is true that so many entertainers are depressed, so I did a little research. I looked up Rolling Stone’s list of the top 500 albums, and found that nine of the top ten artists (those with the most albums on the list) had a drug problem (Bruce Springsteen being the exception). So did all five of IMDb’s top five actors (that’s where I stopped looking, though #6, Dustin Hoffman, did as well). Sports figures, of course, must stay in shape, but even there you find one drug scandal after the next. And what are drugs? Escape from the plain, real, often-depressing world.

[UPDATE: Someone sent me the link to comedian Jim Horton's article about Williams. In it he writes: "So many comics I know seem to struggle with the demons of self-hatred and self-destruction... In the 25 years I’ve been doing stand-up, I’ve personally known at least eight comedians who committed suicide."]

I’m not aware of any other industry whose top practitioners are so likely to have trouble with drugs, alcohol, broken marriages, other self-destructive behaviors, and of course suicide… as entertainment. Not politicians, not the military, not any other profession or (legal) blue-collar field. In order to find a similar level of prevalence, one must look at drug dealers or prostitutes.

Isn’t something wrong with this picture? The entertainment industry is supposed to be about making us happy; entertainers are sharing happiness with us. Yet behind the scenes, they seem to need to escape. Either temporarily by getting drunk or high, or all too often permanently, whether via overdose or deliberate action.

The answer, I believe, is that what I said above is not really true. Entertainers are not sharing happiness, they are acting. Comedians practice their art and make people laugh… and then go home, where life isn’t funny. They aren’t creating something real, or (usually) making a lasting difference in someone’s life, so the feelings of accomplishment are similarly transient. Thus the need to escape.

True happiness is not found via entertainment. Happiness is tied to attainment, to achievement, especially to attaining completion as a person. The Vilna Gaon says on Megillas Esther (8:16) that in this world, Simcha, happiness, precedes Sasson, joy. “Happiness is moving forward to reach an objective in happiness, and joy is afterwards, when one has already achieved the objective and feels joy in his heart.”

Happiness is not a casual thing, it doesn’t just happen, it is something that one can pursue and develop. This is why Chazal say “it is a great Mitzvah to always be happy” — it’s something we can cultivate.

This statement also teaches us that happiness is not a state of laughing delight. Rav Alexander Mandelbaum, in his “V’hayisa Ach Samayach” (“and you shall only be happy”), speaks about two types of happiness considered by Chazal — happiness with one’s lot, and happiness in performance of Mitzvos. Happiness with one’s lot is developed by considering that G-d gives each individual precisely what that person needs — so he or she, even in a difficult situation, should be happy with the understanding that HaShem saw that the difficult situation would prove to be of ultimate benefit. That sort of happiness doesn’t “just happen.”

One does not always feel Sasson, joy. But it is a Mitzvah to always be happy — even on Tisha B’Av, even during Shivah. How can this be? We can comprehend this by understanding Simchah as a feeling of moving happily in the right direction, pursuing a goal. That is something that can remain with a person even during times of grief and pain.

That is real happiness. Unfortunately, the purveyors of what the modern world calls “happiness” — the entertainers — realize within themselves, either consciously or subconsciously, that they have not found and are not providing true happiness.

What makes this especially sad is that now that he is gone, the stories are emerging of Robin Williams, the humanitarian, who visited hospitals on Dec. 25 to give presents to all the children. When he met the doctors and nurses who had spent their holiday stabilizing a premature baby, he teared up — recognizing people whose efforts were real and transformative. Perhaps he didn’t realize that yes, you can make others happy, you can give people something lasting, just with a smile — and even a joke or two, which Robin Williams had in abundance.

Yes, it’s sad that he went, and it’s sad that he was so sad — he could have been so happy.

Two Tweets about Israel and Gaza

by Yaakov Menken on August 12, 2014 at 11:45 am

These are two of my more popular (commonly “retweeted”) entries about current events.

Just your everyday Kiddush HaShem

by Yaakov Menken on August 8, 2014 at 1:38 pm

Last night my wife and I celebrated our anniversary in typically Jewish fashion: we went out for Chinese food. Initially we both ordered a dinner special, but in the waitress’ presence my wife changed her order to a slightly more expensive option. [For the locals, David Chu's crispy chicken Szechuan style is outstanding, and well worth the extra $1.40.]

This is relevant because when we got our bill, I could see a mistake without reading Chinese: the amounts for both orders were equal. We had been billed for two dinner specials. So when the waitress came back, I asked her to please make the correction.

Did we have to do that? No. Because it’s not standard practice among the nations of the world to voluntarily correct an error in their favor, we are not obligated to do more. But that is really the nature of Kiddush HaShem — sanctification of G-d’s Name — doing something that everyone recognizes is “the right thing to do,” whether or not everyone does it. Not everyone gets to be Rabbi Noah Muroff of Connecticut, who became an international news item by returning $98,000 discovered in a desk he had purchased. But we should do it nonetheless.

In this week’s Torah reading, Moshe tells the people: “behold I have taught you decrees and laws, as Hashem my G-d has Commanded me, to do them in the middle of the land, which you are going there to inherit. And you shall guard them and do them, for this is your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the nations, which will hear all of these decrees and say, ‘just a wise and understanding people, this great nation’” [Deuteronomy 4:5-6].

Today, it may seem obvious that telling the waitress about the error is “the right thing to do.” But the story is told of a young Jewish man who, unaware of the richness of his own heritage, went to Eastern nations searching for spirituality. He was walking together with his teacher when the latter picked up a wallet he found on the ground, and pocketed it without investigation. The student asked if he wasn’t going to try to see who had lost it, and he responded that this was unnecessary, that it was destined that the wallet be his good fortune. This was enough for a young Jew to realize that something was amiss.

Yes, in our countries it’s different. Everyone recognizes that a spiritual leader, of whatever kind, ought to be returning that wallet. But where do you think they learned this wisdom? Is there something like that in Aesop’s Fables? I don’t think the sort of people who threw prisoners to the lions for entertainment would give someone back his dropped handkerchief before throwing him in!

The paradox of today’s Western world is that it bases its moral values upon the same “wise and understanding people” that it so often despises, persecutes, and accuses of imagined violations of those same morals. A recent example would be the UN Human Rights Council (populated by the representatives of such bastions of human rights and dignity as Syria, China and Venezuela) accusing the IDF of “indiscriminate” shelling that, just coincidentally, was 3.5 times more likely to hit a male than a female.

The best way to respond to that is through personal example. It is said that when Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky was a young Rav in Tzitavyan, Lithuania, someone came to him because the post office had made an error in his favor during a transaction. Rav Kaminetsky told the person to go back to the post office and repay the amount of the error. This happened several more times; it turned out that the Postmaster was surprised enough the first time that he deliberately tested other members of the Jewish community to see what would happen. Although the Rav left for America in 1937, the community he guided had sufficiently impressed that Postmaster that he personally helped save many Jewish lives during the Holocaust.

Simply do the right thing, whether or not you have to do it and whether or not others actually do — and not only will you be doing the right thing, but others will notice, as well.

Stopping Baseless Hatred

by Yaakov Menken on July 25, 2014 at 5:49 pm

We are about to enter the period of time called the Nine Days, the beginning of the month of Av. The Ninth of Av is the tragic day when Israel mourned needlessly after the the evil report of the spies [Num. 14:1 ff.]. G-d said that because we mourned for no reason, that day would become a day of mourning. And so it has been, as by the time of the Mishnah it was the anniversary of five tragedies:

  1. Our anscestors were told that due to their needless mourning, they would remain in the desert for forty years and enter Israel only after all the adults of the time had perished;
  2. The destruction of the First Temple;
  3. The destruction of the Second Temple;
  4. The city of Betar was overcome, and all of its inhabitants, tens of thousands of people, were killed;
  5. The site of the Holy Temple was plowed through, making it totally barren.

Since then, many other catastrophies have been associated with the Ninth of Av: Pope Urban II declared the first Crusade to Jerusalem, which led to the destruction of entire Jewish communities in Rhineland and France and the loss of many thousands of lives; Jews were expelled from England, France and Spain (on or around the ninth); Germany entered World War I, which resulted in 120,000 Jewish casualties and set the events leading to the Holocaust in motion; Heinrich Himmler secured Nazi approval of the “Final Solution;” and the deportation of Jews began from the Warsaw Ghetto.

Even more recently, the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires was bombed on the tenth of Av (the Temple continued to burn into the tenth, and thus it is connected to the mourning as well). And less than ten years ago, the tenth of Av began the infamous “Disengagement” from Gaza, which led directly to Gaza becoming the largest terrorist base in the modern world and to what is arguably the longest ongoing war crime in modern history, the firing of over 12,000 missiles aimed at civilians.

1370626668What can we do? We are told that the Second Temple was destroyed due to needless hatred between Jews. This is a time to focus our energies on increasing brotherhood and love between members of the Jewish people, especially keeping in mind the situation facing those of us who live in the Holy Land today.

Dr. Rene Levy, a neuropharmacologist in Seattle, recently sent me a copy of his book, “Baseless Hatred: What It Is and What You Can Do about It.” It could not be presented to you at a more appropriate time. It is a comprehensive study of the phenomenon of needless hatred, with suggestions for prevention and repair.

The book looks at hatred as a topic of intellectual study, increasing our awareness of the issue and, at the end, inspiring us to do better. It looks at the understanding of hatred by psychologists, neurobiologists, and of course our Sages. An entire section is devoted to Israel and the Jews, referring to the hatred of the State of Israel and the “new anti-Semitism” (it is worth noting in this context that Dr. Levy grew up in France, and received his BS in Pharmacy from the University of Paris before moving to the United States to study for his PhD). It received favorable reviews from not only Harav Shlomo Maimon, the head of the Rabbinical Court of Seattle, but a series of professors, Israeli politicians, columnists and others. In the truest spirit of brotherhood, there is something in this book for every reader, to be both informed and inspired. You are invited to read more about the book (and learn where to buy it) on its website.

For a more traditional, “mussar” (ethical) approach to increasing love and harmony, one can turn to books such as “Ahavas Chesed” (lit. the love of kindness) by the Chafetz Chaim (Rabbi Yisrael Meyer Kagan) among others. May our study of love over hate turn to practice, and bring us to the time when, we are promised, the Ninth of Av will be known as a day of joy, rather than tragedy.

When Waging War is Pursuing Peace

by Yaakov Menken on July 11, 2014 at 2:00 pm

RED FLAG 04-3As Pinchas taught us, sometimes an act of violence promotes peace.

At the end of last week’s Torah reading, we are told that one of the leaders of the Tribes of Israel engaged in an immoral act, deliberately violating the Commandments. He did it brazenly, “in your face,” challenging Moshe and all of the Children of Israel. Everyone was crying, but Pinchas knew what he had to do: pick up a spear. And how did G-d respond? Per this week’s reading, He bestowed upon Pinchas His Covenant of Peace.

We have no prophets today, but neither are any necessary to understand that there is no evil in killing barbarians bent upon killing you.

To those offended by my use of the term barbarians, I offer no apology. These are not civilized human beings with the same values as you and me. People who target women and children, hospitals and kindergartens, are barbarians. People who loudly proclaim that they “celebrate death,” are barbarians. People who bring their own children into buildings after a phone call from the IDF warning them that the building is about to be destroyed, are barbarians.

It is clear that Israel is making a maximum effort to minimize civilian casualties. When the barbarians have their families gather on top of the roof of the building, the IDF changes its mind and doesn’t destroy it. When the barbarians launch a missile next to a residential or office building, the IDF waits until it can target the precise spot. Multiple times they have targeted the vehicles driven by leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, waiting until no pedestrians were nearby. They have even destroyed entire buildings while barely damaging nearby residences.

So we pray for the safety of the soldiers. We pray for the safety of every civilian, on either side. And when Hamas decides to abandon the path of terrorism and join civilization, no one should try to kill them. But in the meantime, terrorism must be stopped.

As someone put it previously, “if Hamas laid down its weapons, there would be no war; if the IDF laid down its weapons, there would be no Israel.” And in their effort to protect lives, the IDF is going to kill terrorists. There will be “Palestinian casualties,” the majority of whom, according to all accounts, were active terrorists and others warned to leave buildings that served as operations centers or storage locations for missiles, and came inside instead. Sometimes the pursuit of peace requires waging war, and our regret at casualties must be tempered by the knowledge that the IDF is pursuing peace, not war.

Hamas Terrorism in 140 Chars

by Yaakov Menken on July 8, 2014 at 6:17 pm