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December 4, 2016 / 4 Kislev, 5777

Posts Tagged ‘Upper West Side’

Historic Upper West Side Conservative Synagogue Going Condo

Saturday, November 5th, 2016

Congregation Shaare Zedek, an egalitarian Conservative congregation at 212 West 93rd Street in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, is planning to tear down their 93-year-old building, in order to keep the congregation alive. Back in October, Shaare Zedek President Michael Firestone told a community board 7 meeting that the congregation had already signed a contract with a developer, who will build a condo building in which Shaare Zedek will own three floors.

Apparently, Congregation Shaare Zedek just can’t keep up with mounting costs. Firestone says the building is too big and expensive — with a capacity for 1,000 worshipers, the congregation only has about 80 families. In addition, they own and maintain the Shaare Zedek cemetery in Queens, to the tune of $80,000 a year. Firestone told News1 NY the sale would allow the congregation to fund its operations, including the cemetery, indefinitely.

“The synagogue will own the first three stories of the condominium, which will be a modern social hall, a modern sanctuary,” Firestone said.

The move does not sit well with the old synagogue’s neighbors, who hate losing this neighborhood fixture that’s been there since 1923, and are worried about the environmental effect of the new condo building. Some of them have filed a Request for Evaluation (RFE) with the Landmark Preservation Commission, as an emergency measure to prevent the sale. But, so far, the city has no plans to landmark the building.

Former Shaare Zedek president Roz Paaswell told DNAinfo the building is not as important as the congregation. “In Judaism buildings aren’t so important, they are places that we use… but we move, we move a lot,” she said.


Ground Zero for the Iran Deal: Rosenthal Versus Nadler

Friday, September 16th, 2016

More Jews live in New York’s tenth congressional district than in any other district in the United States. Philip J. Rosenthal – the kind of guy who could easily be a character on television’s The Big Bang Theory – wants its citizens to elect him as their representative.

Jerry Nadler, however, has been representing that area of New York, first in Albany beginning in 1977, and for the past 14 years in Washington, D.C.

So, why not vote for Nadler? Nadler voted for the Iran Deal, that’s why.

And if you don’t recall, the Iran Deal was the one issue behind which nearly all of the organizational Jewish world united against. The Iran Nuclear Deal which many Americans, especially Jews, and most especially Jewish New Yorkers, realized at the time was a deal only for Iran but a disaster for the safety of the United States, Israel and much of the West.

And yet, thumbing his nose at his constituents, Cong. Jerrold Nadler came out in support of the disastrous Iran Deal. Many folks in his district felt badly betrayed by Nadler. Some saw him as bowing to the wishes of the Democratic administration while ignoring their wishes and their safety. Nadler was the only Jewish member of the New York delegation who came out in favor of the deal.

Into the breach now steps Philip J. Rosenthal, a shiny example of a Bronx boy made and does good.

Rosenthal grew up facing a train yard and across the street from Bronx High School of Science, from which he graduated (“salutatorian, my father would want me to tell you,” he says.) Rosenthal went on to graduate from Yale University with a degree in Physics, “summa cum laude, phi beta kappa,” he says, sheepishly, again hearing his father’s voice echoing in his head).

Where next? The California Institute of Technology, where Rosenthal studied string theory and cosmology, garnering both a master’s degree and a PhD. Ouch.

When queried about whether he actually understood those topics, Rosenthal’s retort is pure Big Bang-ish: “Physics is beautiful, elegant, it’s the essence of everything; it’s politics that’s messy!” But back to that later.

As if Rosenthal’s resume wasn’t already impossibly impressive, after Cal Tech he went to work on a program dealing with Pluto. And this is when he began to realize that the American dream was no longer as assured as it had seemed.

“It used to be that America led the world in everything – today if you want to work in space, you need to hitch a ride with the Russians,” Rosenthal said.

“As a child I was inspired by the American space program, but now the greatest fundamental physics labs, the particle accelerators, they’re in Europe, at CERN labs, on the French/Swiss border.”  Rosenthal explained that is where the best research, the most exciting laboratories in the world are. That’s a huge economic and national security disaster for our country, he says.

Rosenthal wants America to again be the global leader. And the key to economic leadership and national security is for America to be second to none, Rosenthal insists. We need to focus on science, space and technology,” and, he says, we’re not doing that anymore.

Rosenthal’s sites began shifting away from science. In 1996 he graduated from Harvard Law School and went on to the venerable Washington, D.C. law firm of Covington & Burling, where he practiced, amongst other things, nuclear law.

Without access to legal research technology, Rosenthal recognized that individuals and even solo and small firm practitioners are unable to compete with the big guys. But legal research software is very expensive.

So Rosenthal, with a friend, created a new kind of legal research software that is far more affordable, faster and easier than the standard software packages. In addition, his company, FastCase, utilizes different kinds of tools which the old guard systems do not.

“There is a great lack of access to legal justice. We founded FastCase in order to democratize the law.” FastCase is being used by nearly a million lawyers today, and the FastCase legal app is both the first of its kind and absolutely free.

So what does Rosenthal want to do in Congress?

Though he’s been many places since his Bronx boyhood, Rosenthal still has the concern for the little guy that has long animated New York politics.  His focus on making the law more accessible to everyone also shows up in his platform — he’s a strong advocate of making sure poor Americans have access to the legal services they need to help them protect their rights, their homes, their jobs and their families.  And he’s strongly committed to helping the homeless in real ways — not just by feeding them today, but also by investing in them and their skills so they can become productive men and women tomorrow.

Last summer, when signing the anti-BDS legislation passed by Congress, President Obama announced that on his watch the U.S. would not be enforcing the provision of the law which prohibits boycotts of Israeli products in the disputed territories.

Rosenthal practically explodes: “Really? The President proudly tells everyone that boycotting certain Jews is acceptable? Where was our representative?” Incensed that Nadler didn’t make a peep about this, Rosenthal goes on to list the other ways in which this administration – without sufficient or any pushback from Nadler and others – has disrespected and mistreated Israel.

And he once again draws the conversation back to the Iran Deal. “This district is literally Ground Zero and our representative supported the Iran Deal? Is no one paying attention?”

Unlike many members of Congress, Phil Rosenthal has actually read every page made public of the Iran Deal. With his science and legal background, Rosenthal is confident we could have done much better, just as he knows America could and should be doing much better in the global economic arena.

“This is a wonderful year to run as an outsider. I haven’t been on Capitol Hill for the past dozen years, but,” he ticks off, “I have a background in physics, in law, I’m an entrepreneur, my dad was in manufacturing. I have experience in the real world.”

Most importantly, Rosenthal says he knows that the people in New York’s tenth congressional district deserve better representation than they have. And, he says, he’s ready to provide that.

Lori Lowenthal Marcus

Myths and Realities of the ‘Shidduch Crisis’

Monday, February 11th, 2013

There are few topics in Jewish society which can simultaneously evoke rage, empathy, and unsolicited opinions and advice as Jewish dating. There are numerous books on the world of Jewish dating including “Shidduch Crisis: Causes and Cures,” which ironically can be added to your wedding registry.

To be sure, I’ve done my share of personal reflections as a single – after all it’s great blog fodder. I’ve written my own share of articles on the subject, including a “Guide to Jewish Dating.” But fast forward several years, countless women, forgettable dates, even more encouragement, criticism, and unsolicited advice, I am still single.

However in the past few years serving as a Rabbi I’ve also gained a much better perspective. While my community attracts young Jews, it is by no means a “scene” which means there is significantly less communal pressure for single’s to get married. Furthermore, I have personally adopted a “no dating congregants” policy, meaning my religious communal experience of synagogue attendance is uncharacteristically devoid of any pretense of trying to impress women.

Thus I write from the relatively unique perspective of being a single rabbi – aware of the struggles of others while experiencing the same challenges first hand. Consider it unintentional participant observation if you will. And with this dual perspective I have come to the following conclusion: the so-called “shidduch crisis” is a collection of myths which only exacerbate the social pressures and anxieties at the core of the Jewish single’s community, specifically the denial of individuation.

Let’s start with just one example of the alarmist rhetoric regarding Jewish singles. Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld writes on the Orthodox Union’s website:

Shidduchim – Singles 12. Treat the topic of singles like the crisis it is. This is a plague affecting all segments of Orthodoxy and threatens our very continuity. Synagogues and organizations must put this on the front burner. Singles themselves must change attitudes. Women must put marriage before career. Men must consider the woman as a valued helpmate not just as a means of advancing their own life goals, be it career or learning. There is more to a human beings worth other than their money or looks.

There are several assumptions embedded in this paragraph which I hope to dispell one at a time.

Myth: Marriage is a Communal Issue

One would think that getting married is merely a union between two individuals who make a lifelong commitment to each other – i.e. it is a personal decision. But for R. Schonfeld, the “plague” of the shidduch crisis “threatens our very continuity.” From a demographic perspective R. Schonfeld has a point; the later in life Jewish couples get married the fewer Jewish children will be born.

Procreation is certainly important in Judaism as evidenced by the rabbinic dictum, “the world was not created except for procreation” (M. Gittin 4:5. Though notably this statement is not particular to Jew). But there is no indication that the intent is simply to produce more biological Jews, and I would suspect R. Schonfeld and others would not promote premarital sex with the intent of producing babies.

Yes, there are demographic concerns when the average marriage age rises, but the implication is that people should get married “for the sake of the children” or alternatively, singles should “take one for the team” regardless of the implications for their own well-being.

The reality is that no one should get married to meet the approval of others and certainly not out of a sense of communal responsibility (see T. Sotah 5:1).

Myth: Getting Married is a Goal

Related to the previous point is the sentiment that getting married is an goal in and of itself. One example from an Aish column states, “Admitting that you’d like to get married does not signal an affliction; it’s merely a defensible life goal.”

Getting married may be a strong desire for many people, but by no means should marriage be treated as a goal. The dictionary definition of “goal” is, “the result or achievement toward which effort is directed; aim; end.” Following this definition, the “goal” of getting married can be accomplished simply by getting married disregarding any concern as to the quality of said marriage. If marriage is a goal then people should just marry the first consenting person who comes their way and as soon as the ring is taken mission accomplished.

Rabbi Josh Yuter

Upper West Siders Forget to Think Jewish

Sunday, February 3rd, 2013

The crowd at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema on the upper west side is mainly Jewish and liberal—ultra-liberal. They behave as if they are superior to all “oustjuden,” the illiterate, superstitious, unwashed Eastern European Jews–and therefore, in their sleek leather boots and fashionable coats they are, surely, finally, safe. At least, safer. After millennia of persecution, here are Jews who are not self-hating, not even opportunist, just Jews who feel secure as long as they feel superior to other Jews. The “outsjuden today are the Zionists, the “settlers,” the “right wing.”

Psychologically, this means that they deserve to survive. They are the “good” Jews. Assimilated, exquisitely moral, the first to find imperfections in their co-religionists.

The line swells, people smile, conversations erupt.

“I am surprised those Zionists are not outside protesting,” says one woman.

“They’ll be here for the later showing, believe me” says another.

A man chimes in: “You have no idea how fanatic they can be. I know.”

His listeners nod approvingly.

And still, these safe-and-liberal Jews push and shove and behave like Jews do on a line, at the Jewish Film Festival or at the Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv. This I find funny and slightly endearing.

The film, “The Gatekeepers” directed by Dror Moreh, will cause Israel great harm, great damage. Even if each of the six former heads of the Shin Bet had the right to say what he said; even if the filmmaker had the right to direct just such a film—with messianic hopes of his own that his film will jump-start the Oslo Accords and influence the destiny of the Israelis and the Palestinians; even if more than half of what each former Shin Bet director has to say is true, either technically or factually or philosophically or metaphorically—the filmmaker has an agenda; he is following a lethal narrative script against the Jewish state.

For example, we mainly see Israeli soldiers in full battle gear, rounding up their unarmed, barefoot, blindfolded and handcuffed Arab cousins. Or, we see Israelis commanding targeted assassination drone attacks from safe distances with horrendous collateral damage. We do not see Palestinian terrorists knifing Israeli infants to death or stoning young Israeli boys to death in a cave, or blowing Israeli civilians and tourists up on buses.

Yes, we do see the bloody, heartless carnage of some bus bombings but we do not see the handlers sending their targeted “marks” off to do the bloody deed and thereby ascend to Paradise. Yes, we do see some quick shots of a Palestinian suicide video and of marching, face-masked Jihadists, but no one is ever tied to a particular attack upon Israeli civilians.

Only the Israelis are tied, over and over again, to a handful of specific (and alleged) military and “terrorist” attacks of their own.

Even if the scenes of the right-wing anti-Rabin protests and the alleged “settler” plot to blow up the Al Aqsa mosque are real, as in they really took place—the filmmaker does not manipulate the emotions of his audience by showing us, from within, the Palestinians building their bombs, indoctrinating the next generations, vowing to annihilate Israel and the Jews, torturing dissenters and “collaborators.”

We see Palestinians mainly as pitiful victims. We do not see Gilad Shalit in captivity. We have no fictionalized recreation of Kobi Mandel being stoned to death in a cave or of Israeli mothers and infants being murdered while they sleep. We have no footage of the rockets landing in southern Israel and the terrified children with only seconds to get to a bomb shelter—now traumatized for life. We do not see how 24 Israeli soldiers were massacred, one by one, in Jenin, as they went in on foot in order to avoid international censure for daring to dismantle the bomb-making apparatuses in Jenin.

Yes, we see some scenes of fiery Palestinian rock throwing and some of the awful bus bombings of both the first and second Intifadas. But, Mr. Moreh is no moreh.

He does not talk to the Shin Bet’s counterpart heads of Fatah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Palestinian Authority, or Hezb’ollah, etc. He has his six retired Israeli directors tell us that the Palestinians are ready for peace, that in private meetings they have said so, and that the Israeli government is blind, stubborn, refuses to listen—to the peaceful Palestinians and to their Shin Bet commanders. Can this be true?

Dr. Phyllis Chesler

From Five Kinds Of Hamburger To Mini Merguez

Friday, March 30th, 2012

Armed with a clever name, an award-winning chef, and a remarkable menu, Meat Me is poised to take the world of Kosher cuisine by storm.

Meat Me opened its doors half a year ago on the Upper West Side in Manhattan, and it has slowly been gaining a reputation among high class kosher diners as an excellent place for a lunch, dinner, or party. The restaurant is not very large and the décor provides a cozy and comfortable setting without being cramped. The walls are covered with large works of art and hanging tapestries and the atmosphere is relaxing as the veteran staff makes the experience of eating there a pleasure – and that allows one to focus on the best part of Meat Me, the fantastic food.

Meat Me is the latest project of culinary master Chef Serge Gorge. Born in Luxemburg, raised in Eilat, and trained in Switzerland, Chef Gorge has been the executive chef at restaurants around the world, and he has seamlessly blended together the various flavors of his international experience to craft Meat Me’s unique and exciting menu. The menu features some exquisite French dishes, like the Vole au vent de riz a la Parisienne appetizer ($19), but also keeps everyone at the table happy with its distinctly American hamburger options (the restaurant offers five types of burgers – including bison [$21]). “The hamburgers have been one of the most popular dishes,” says Gorge, “but people have been trying everything on the menu.”

My favorite menu offering is the appetizer sampler plate (for two people, $29), which contains tasters of five of the restaurant’s fantastic appetizers including mini peking duck and mini merguez (a spicy lamb based sausage), accompanied by three delicious dipping sauces.

Meat Me’s Peking duck

For the main course, my wife and I ordered two of the restaurants several steak options, and although we like our steaks prepared very differently, we were both extremely pleased with our dishes. The pepper encrusted rib-eye filet with brandy flambé peppercorn ($35) is served in a peppercorn sauce that is so rich and creamy it’s hard to believe it’s not dairy. For dessert we tried the molten chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream, a kosher restaurant mainstay that Meat Me has successfully mastered.

The front of the restaurant is comprised of a traditional bar as well as a sushi bar and a full array of sushi is available. Offering sushi on the menu is no longer enough of a novelty to be impressive on its own, but the sushi at Meat Me – while clearly not the focus of the restaurant – is made with extremely fresh ingredients and adds another appealing option for diners.

The restaurant is co-owned and operated by Gorge’s wife Yardena, and the two make quite the team. “She is really the boss,” says Chef Gorge, “she leaves me free to be in the kitchen and prepare my dishes.”

One of the advantages of Meat Me’s location is their ability to serve meals on Shabbos and Pesach. The restaurant offers diners the ability to prepay and then join them for a Friday night meal. They are also becoming kosher for Pesach, and in addition to being open on Chol HaMoed they are ambitiously offering Seder meals.

Meat Me is a restaurant that should be on everyone’s radar when looking for a place for a fine meal in New York City.

Visit www.meatmeny.com to see full menus, make reservations, and learn more about Shabbos and Pesach meals.

Yehuda Raskin

What Happened To Faith?

Wednesday, March 30th, 2011

As an Orthodox rabbi living and working on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, I’m thrilled to see so many single men and women actively involved in Torah and mitzvot. This is also the case in Queens, Brooklyn, Long Island, and wherever else singles are found. Whereas in the not so distant past the observance level of many Orthodox singles dropped the longer they remained single, today there are more scrupulously observant single men and women than ever before.

Sounds great, but let me qualify what I’m saying.

When it comes to ritual observance, there’s a tremendous amount of attention paid to even the most minute details and stringencies. But here’s one religious area, probably the most important, that seems to have gotten lost in the unrelenting quest for the perfect shidduch: faith – better known in the frum world as bitachon.

I recently tried to set up a man I’ve known for years. He’s 38, good looking, successful, and earnestly frum. I had just met a very attractive woman I was sure he would be excited to meet. I started off my pitch and he was interested. Then I told him she was 33.

“Sorry, but 32 is my limit.”

“But she’s only 33, that’s just one y…”

“No, I’m very sorry but I need to stick to my rules.”

“OK, best of luck to you!”

This is not an isolated incident. In my role as a Sawyouatsinai matchmaker, I read through dozens of profiles of men in their late 30s to 40s (and yes, even 50s) who are very blunt in demanding to only be matched with women below a specific age, usually ranging from 32 to 35. The reason they give always relates to childbirth. They want to have big families and they’ve determined that women past a certain age are not biologically qualified.

I’m not going to attempt to debate the scientific factors regarding childbirth and aging because I’m neither a doctor nor a scientist. The large number of women on the Upper West Side, clearly in their 40s, pushing sets of twins and triplets in fancy buggies is obviously not the kind of empirical evidence one brings into the lab. As a rabbi, however, I do think I’m qualified to speak about bitachon. When I hear or read the age and family planning requirements of an older single man who is scrupulous in all areas of halacha my response is, “What happened to bitachon?”

You don’t know what Hashem’s plan is for you. No one does. Do you know how many younger couples are struggling to have even one child? Do you know if you’re even meant to have more than one or two children? Do you realize that the years you are spending in search of someone you believe can bear you a large family are years during which you could actually be enjoying the amazing blessing of a precious child of your own? If you finally do have children, are you going to be young enough to be able to play with them? What about your second child? How old will you be at the bar mitzvah? The Wedding? When grandchildren come along?

The answer to all of these questions is that it’s all in Hashem’s hands. Bitachon. We don’t have ultimate control over our destinies – and when we think we do, we usually learn the hard way that we don’t.

I wonder how many single religious single men above 30 have asked ask a rav whether it’s better to marry a woman they connect with and are attracted to who is 37 – or spend another few years (or more) single in the hope of marrying a 32 year old.

Having gotten married at age 41, I know what my answer is, but I’d like to know what our Gedolei Torah would say. My guess is they would agree with me, especially knowing the range of potential issurim waiting to ensnare even the most scrupulously religious unmarried man and all of the mitzvot, joy, and blessings that these men are missing out on without a spouse and family. Perhaps by clearly articulating their position, our rabbinic leaders could make a significant impact on the decisions of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of single men.

Rabbi Arnie Singer

Measuring Your Net Worth

Wednesday, October 20th, 2010

In our quest to be spiritual entities it is incumbent on us to learn Judaism’s definition of a spiritual person.

Question: Two people are standing on a ladder. One is standing on the top rung, the other on the bottom rung. Which fellow is higher on the ladder?

It sounds like a trick question, but give it some thought anyway.

The great chassidic master the Rebbe of Kotzk gave a surprising answer.

The man standing on the bottom rung of the ladder is higher than the man standing on the top rung, because the man on the top rung has nowhere else to go but down, whereas the man standing on the bottom rung has nowhere else to go but up.

The same is true for becoming a better human. A person who seems to be spiritually impoverished may be on a higher plane than a very advanced personage because spirituality is assessed only by how much one is moving forward. A person born with refined character traits who never works to improve himself is inferior to a person born with crass traits who has moved from minus 2 to minus 1.

This lesson of spirituality was taught to the Jewish people the moment they were redeemed from Egyptian bondage. Upon emancipation, God gave them their first commandment: to sanctify the new moon. Isn’t that surprising? If someone were to ask you what you thought the first commandment should be to a newly formed religious nation, what would you say? Perhaps to be just, charitable, and holy. Maybe to honor parents, or not to steal, both of which are enumerated in the Ten Commandments. But why the sanctification of the new moon?

God was talking to a nation entrenched in slavery and servitude – neophytes to religiosity and spirituality – who were destined to become the spiritual beacons of the world. Their first instruction had to be a preliminary lesson on spirituality. That lesson was the moon. The moon is symbolic of life on earth. The moon, very much like one’s life, waxes and wanes.

Just as in life there are ups and downs, highs and lows, good days and bad days, the moon starts off small, ascends to brilliance, only to become small again. The sanctification of the moon happens not when the moon is at its peak, but when the moon has waned and is just a small sliver. This is to illustrate the amazing opportunity one has to achieve, accomplish, and grow just when one feels spiritually low. Just as the man standing on the bottom rung of the ladder may be spiritually higher than the fellow on top, the person who feels spiritually inept may be more spiritual than the person who feels spiritually proud.

Becoming a spiritual human being is not easy. Nobody is perfect. But while some people are more spiritual than others, no human being wholly lacks spirituality.

* * * * *


In the Torah’s story of Abraham and the city of Sodom, God informs Abraham that He plans on destroying the city and its evil inhabitants. Abraham beseeches God to spare the city; he argues that there must be some righteous people there. God responds that there isn’t even one righteous person in the entire city.

This story always troubled me. After all, why would a righteous person live in such a wicked and depraved society? What was Abraham thinking? The answer may be that Abraham was conjecturing that there must be individuals who, despite all the seemingly insurmountable evil, tried to rise, even a bit, above the evil. Although they would not have stood out as shining examples of piety, their feeble efforts to rise above the evil surrounding them would have qualified them as righteous.

A person’s spiritual level is subjective. How a person behaves relative to his or her society and the challenges of that particular period of time determine his or her spiritual level.

John’s story can teach us a lot about the worth of every human being. John, a high-profile corporate attorney, owned a mansion in an exclusive Long Island suburb, a villa in the Bahamas, a Mercedes, a Jaguar, and a yacht. He considered himself a very important person.

One spring morning, John took a leisurely walk in New York’s Central Park. His case involving the Securities Exchange Commission and a major client was weighing heavily on his mind. He became lost in thought and didn’t realize he’d veered off from the walking lane into a dangerous trap. The butt of a revolver aroused him from his reverie.

John looked up to see a well-dressed man who looked like a corporate executive. With him was a man who gave the appearance of a vagabond. The executive had the one who looked like a vagabond in handcuffs. The executive spoke up. He told John that his hostage knew an incriminating secret that could damn him for life. He had to do away with his hostage if he was ever to live without fear. The executive demanded that John kill the secret-bearer. If John refused to squeeze the trigger, the executive would kill John and find somebody else to kill his hostage.

The executive figured that police investigators could trace him to the murder of the vagabond, whereas no one could trace him to the random murder of John.

John was in a complex quandary. What should he do? He stole a glance at the hostage and quickly surmised that the fellow was probably a homeless vagrant. Why should he give up his life for somebody so worthless? John thought of himself as a successful person and figured that this other fellow was a failure and loser. John deduced that his life was more important than the vagrant’s life, and he pulled the trigger.

The vagrant fell to the ground. The executive walked away. John fled the scene with little remorse. After all, it was crystal clear that he was a more worthy human being than the man he killed.

According to the Talmud, what John did was patently wrong. The Talmud teaches that God doesn’t measure a person’s worth by money or possessions. The idea that somebody could be “worth five million dollars” is an abomination in Torah. Also, according to the Talmud, no human being is capable of measuring the value of another human life.

The reasoning behind this is simple. The human being is set apart from the rest of the animal kingdom by the way he or she responds to complex challenges. If one confronts a challenge head-on and responds in a positive fashion, then one grows into a better human being. Because we can’t see into the deeper recesses of somebody else’s heart and mind to determine how much he has grown or what he has overcome, we cannot possibly determine that person’s worth.

In our story it turns out John’s now dead “lowlife vagrant” was once a successful businessman who lost everything because he didn’t want to get involved in certain scandalous business affairs he accidentally discovered.

The Talmud teaches that there is no way possible to judge another person, to know the real value of another human being. It is not possible to know what hurdles someone has overcome, or the nature and magnitude of the tests that confront someone. Yet this is the true measure of a person.

* * * * *


Hopefully you won’t have to encounter such a test in Central Park. But what about people you engage with in the street, in the mall, at work, or even at home? You thought you knew who they were, but do you really know their worth according to the measures we’ve been discussing?

Do you know the magnitude of the tests they have faced and passed? Perhaps you will now view them in a different light. If other human beings start becoming greater in your eyes, it means that you’ve conquered a challenge, and you yourself have become a greater human being.

In Hebrew, the word for human being is made up of the same letters as the Hebrew word for “very,” meod. This is because the essence of being human is to achieve superlative status. A human being must never stagnate or become complacent. A human being must be a “very,” constantly striving to become better and greater. Being a human being means going beyond innate limitations. As the Victorian poet Robert Browning wrote, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for.”

One of my favorite writers, the late Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, wrote:

We are living now in a time of breaking barriers. Everything that people always assumed to be impossible is becoming possible in our time. God may be teaching us a very important lesson with this: we are capable of doing things that we never thought possible. The paradigm of this is running a marathon race. If you ask anybody, “Can you run twenty-six miles?” most people will give you an emphatic “No!” The truth is, however, that if we would spend enough time and really take it seriously, we could do it.

The point is that the average person is capable of training himself to do something that is presently completely beyond his capacity. Furthermore, this is not limited to physical accomplishments. It is also true on an intellectual and spiritual level. Many people say, “I can’t understand this; I will never be able to master this subject. This is too hard for me.” If a person would really work at it, however, he or she could do anything… By becoming a spiritual marathoner, a person could accomplish things that he would not dream possible. [Inner Space, Moznaim Publishing, 1990]

If you are not in tip-top physical shape, the prospect of running a marathon can be daunting. All the effort, time, and sweat required to build up your endurance may not seem worth it. Similarly, although you may endorse the concept of a moral society, the prospect of adopting a higher moral standard for yourself may be daunting. “Let others actualize the ideal,” you may say. “Society will not suffer from my one little indulgence.”

A college fraternity once embarked on a fund-raising scheme. All 200 members of the fraternity were asked to contribute a cup of whiskey. The cups of whiskey would be poured into a vat. The full vat of whiskey would then be raffled off for five dollars a ticket. The lucky winner would be awarded the entire vat.

One member of the fraternity calculated that it really would not make a difference if he filled his cup with water and poured it into the vat. “After all,” he rationalized, “there will be 199 other guys filling it with whiskey. No one will be able to detect my cupful of water.” So this fraternity member poured a cup of water instead of whiskey into the vat.

The raffle took place with great fanfare. The winner was overjoyed. With the entire fraternity assembled, the president of the fraternity filled a shot glass from the vat and handed it to the winner, who downed it in one gulp. Everyone stood by, expecting him to grin with pleasure. Instead, he looked first surprised, then irate. “This is nothing but a vat of water!” he exclaimed angrily. All 199 other fraternity members had had the same idea of contributing water instead of whiskey, sure that it wouldn’t make a difference.

What each individual in a society does makes a difference. “In the grand scheme of things,” you may think, “my actions don’t really count. I will leave it up to the rest of the citizens to maintain a high moral standard.” The result is that too many people fill the vat of life with baseness instead of value. It is up to you to save the world.

It is an axiom of Judaism that the entire universe was created for the sake of man. All stars, angels, animals, and protozoa exist for the sake of man. Judaism charges every person to say to himself: “For me the world was created.” This empowers, but also obligates.

It is your world. It is yours to keep sane. It is yours to keep safe. It is yours to keep clean. It is yours to keep holy. Don’t leave this task up to others. Just as everyone’s contribution builds the whole, so everyone’s dereliction of duty destroys the whole.

A passenger on board a world-class cruise ship had a cabin on the bottom level. One day, he took out a drill from his valise and started drilling away at the wall of his cabin. His neighbor heard the noise and immediately reported it to the crew. In moments, the security officials charged into the cabin and demanded that he stop endangering the ship. The passenger responded that it was nobody’s business but his own. It was his cabin, which he paid for, and he was entitled to do with it whatever he wished.

In reality, each and every one of us is a passenger on the great ship called this world. Like the above passenger, we settle into our own cabins – our own independent existences. We too make decisions, which satisfy our own desires and drives, heedless of the effect of our actions on society as a whole.

We know that ecologically one miscreant can ruin an entire environment. One manufacturer who does not properly dispose of his toxic waste or one magnate in the Amazon region who decides to clear a few thousand acres of forest will negatively impact thousands of other people – for generations. The same is true morally. One person who acts in a debased manner negatively impacts the whole of society. Decide right now that that person won’t be you.

Rabbi Yitzchok Fingerer, a popular educator and lecturer, was a student of the legendary rosh yeshiva Rabbi Avraham Pam, zt”l, and served as rav at Aish HaTorah on the Upper West Side. This essay is excerpted from “Search Judaism: Judaism’s Answers to a Changing World” (Targum, 2009), available at www.SearchJudaism.com.

Rabbi Yitzchok Fingerer

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/front-page/measuring-your-net-worth/2010/10/20/

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