Friday, July 29, 2016

It's a Long Road Ahead-- Don't Lose Your Waze: Part 1

Dear Henry,
      This past week I had the distinct pleasure of attending a conference for rabbis such as myself-- 300 strong were in attendance from all over the planet. One rabbi in particular, a man named Rabbi Mindell mentioned something so brilliant it literally blew my mind.
       But before I spill the beans and explain to you what he said, and how it was so profoundly ingenious, let me preface by telling you one of my biggest pet-peaves. More then when someone sneezes on his hand prior to shaking mine; heck, more than when someone coughs out loud seconds before my golf swing, it annoys me tremendously when ones' Waze GPS system suggests the person proceed one way, when the person decides he/she knows better than the GPS and proceeds to deliberately ignore it altogether, and opt for a different way. I never knew why this phenomenon so greatly troubled me, but it truly did. And the truth is I am not the easily-annoyed type. I like to think of my self as rather laid back and chilled out--more chilled, in fact, to quote the late, great, Stuart Scott, than the other side of the pillow. This however gets to me--and I never knew why...that is, until this past Tuesday when Rabbi Mindell explained it in a manner clearer than the pristine Hudson River.
       When people choose to ignore their GPS, they do so for one of two reasons. The first reason is that people of the older generation tend to ignore the GPS, because, as we say in Yiddish, they don't really "chap" (ie understand) how to use it, and why it's so helpful, when they have been going the same way for over sixty years. These folks I don't blame, and I have no problem with their neglecting the GPS. However, for the younger generations among us, who know darn well about the GPS; who used Waze for Morgan Freeman's comforting voice to guide us to far remote destinations; for those of us Waze users who harmonized along with T-Pain as he soulfully sang us how to get around a roundabout, we have no excuse to ignore our GPS. And when we do, articulately explains Rabbi Mindell, we are basically, perhaps unknowingly, proclaiming one undeniable fact: Forget the help of the scientifically brilliant technology which uses global positioning satellite-- I know better. I don't need no help in getting to where I need to go-- I know precisely where I need to go, and I know precisely how to get there. Please don't help me, because I know how to do it all by myself. But says Rabbi Mindell, and I now quote, "it takes anavah (humility) to follow Waze." Following Waze means that I understand that as skillful as I am, and as knowledgeable as I am about these roads I have been maneuvering for the last 15 years, perhaps there is another way to go that would be more effective. According to Alan Morinis, who has written books on mussar, or the act of acquiring positive character traits, based on the Talmud, a Jewish definition of humility is, "limiting oneself to an appropriate amount of space while leaving room for others." Yes, As a fourth generation Denverite I know darn well how to get from point A to point B. But perhaps there are other approaches as well, and perhaps I can even learn from them to get around more efficiently.
        And this, dear Henry, explains my epiphany from this past Tuesday. Namely, the reason why I get so annoyed when people don't listen to their GPS-- because more than any character flaw, the one that bothers me the absolute most, is when I perceive arrogance in other people. That annoys me to no end. It makes sense, therefore, why folks not listening to their GPS-- a seemingly innocuous crime troubles me as much as it does. We need to learn from others. We need to understand that we do not have all the answers. As the Talmud says, "Who is wise? The one who learns from all people." Who is wise? The one who has the humility to listen to his or her Waze.

Forever Yours,
Danny Wolfe

PS. We are only scratching the surface on the brilliance of WAZE. Stay Tuned for Part Two, in where we take Waze's profound life lessons to a whole new level...

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

I will not Forget

Dear Henry,
     With the advent of apps like "Time Hop", and with Facebook's copy cat, "On This Day," we are now able to easily recall what we were doing at this time last year, and beyond. This morning, Facebook brought to my attention that one year ago today, we were in Bloomington Illinois, on our way to move to our new home in Denver. The picture shows my older children splashing away in a park that featured a water playground intended to provide its users much needed relief from the brutal heat and humidity. I was reminded of an unpleasant phone conversation I had with our moving company, where I was trying to understand how our actual costs were more than $5000 than what they estimated they would be. And then, I remembered what the next two days had in store for us.
       Unbeknownst to us, at that time, my baby daughter was suffering from meningitis, as the terrible disease was making its way to her brain. (For more on this, I wrote about it at the time here.) I am reminded how she only wanted to lay in her car seat, being tremendous irritated anytime we attempted to move her. I remember my 30th birthday, suffering through the gut-wrenching unknown of what would be, as my wife took her to the hospital in Kansas City. I remember tossing and turning the entire night, simply unable to fall asleep. I remember being paralyzed with fear of what could be wrong with her. I recall greeting the day with the confirmation of our worst fears-- that instead of finishing the last leg of our trip, we would be spending the foreseeable future in a hospital room in downtown Kansas City. I remember driving downtown to spend the day with my older children as my parents came as fast as they could on a 9 hour drive to pick them up. I will never forget getting on the highway at 9:00 AM with tears in my eyes, observing the darkest rain clouds I have ever seen in my entire life. I cannot forget spending what seems like an eternity putting on a happy front for my older three children as we played for hours at the Lego Museum and the Aquarium. I recall the last hour before my parents arrived, as we waited for them in the blistering heat at the hospital playground, which was equipped with a piano in the cement floor that played music when you stepped on the notes, and I recall the traffic light on the playground that turned colors, complete with a pretend cross-walk. It's funny, the little things you can remember. And I will not forget the 5 minutes I sat crying my eyes out in the parking garage of the hospital, before being reunited with my wife and precious baby. I will not soon forget the fearful days I spent in the hospital, the feeling of dread that accompanied my every breath, and the terrifying MRI's my child had under general anesthesia.
     Nor will I every forget the absolute closeness that I felt to the Almighty, as I pored over the Book of Psalms all day, every day. I will not forget the feeling that King David wrote those beautiful poetic psalms specifically for me, at this very moment. I will never forget the heroic doctors who worked tirelessly to treat my daughter with brilliant care. I will not forgot their sensitivity and their burning desire to help her recover. I will not forget our dear family friends who are doctors who with super-human sensitivity, helped us understand what we were dealing with. I will never forget the feeling that these people are the real heroes of our country. Nor will I forget the Jewish community of Kansas City, who despite not knowing us or having any connection to us, saw to it that our every need was taken care of, driving twenty minutes to the hospital to deliver us enough food for three meals a day, a crock pot, and a microwave. I will not forget the tremendous desire to pay them back for their kindness, and the tremendous frustration for not quite knowing how I ever can. I will not forget the emails, calls, and text messages from close friends, and from people I never met in my life. I will never forget the feeling that our distress, was the distress of the entire Jewish people. I will not soon forget the feeling that despite the fact that we were theoretically alone in a foreign city, I never felt so un-alone in my entire life. I will not forget feeling the loving embrace of the entire Jewish People. I will not forget my daughter's miraculous recovery. I will not forget her first smile in two weeks, as I was about to go back to Denver. I will not forget how the Kansas City Royals visited her, and my prediction that they would win the World Series. I will not forget the first time she said "Daddy," nor will I forget her first steps. As she continually thrives, spending her days showing off her gorgeous dimples, dancing, running around and playing, I will NEVER forget how fortunate and blessed we truly are.

Danny Wolfe

Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Rose & The Garbage Bin

Dear Henry,
     This past Friday afternoon proceeded as most Friday's do. The unreal divine aroma of Shabbos wafting in the kitchen. Sampling in excess the gourmet, extremely delicious foods that would be served on Friday night for Shabbos dinner. And of course, the typical trip to the garbage dumpster on the side of the house where I fulfill one of my essential husbandly duties by taking out the trash. But this particular trip to this particular garbage bin on this particular Friday, dear Henry, was different. As I lifted the lid to the garbage bin with my tan right hand, I held my nose with my stubby left fingers, trying to avoid the inevitable stench of week old diapers filled with fecal matter from my 18 month old princess. I understand, dear Henry, that this was probably too much information, and for that I apologize; I'm just trying to convey an accurate picture of the day's events for the sake of my thousands upon thousands of reader across the expansive universe.
          As I put the lid back down, out of the corner of my eye I saw something that made my mouth drop. I saw a glistening shining rose that was as gold as the metals that the United States Olympics teams are going to be bringing home to this magnificent glorious country. And unlike the roses that I was accustomed to purchase for my wife when we lived in Washington Heights, Manhattan, this rose was not dyed fluorescent colors. It's beauty was breathtakingly natural. And it stood at about 5 feet tall, weighing in at 1.5 Ibs. I had quite frankly never seen anything quite like it. So I did a double take: right in front of me was my large smelly garbage bin- and behind it was one single magnificent golden rose. 
       Over the course of the Shabbos which immediately followed this discovery, I did some self reflection and came out with not one, not two, not even three, but four profound life lessons that this rose taught me about the most deep secrets of life.

1) Sometimes in life, if you look a little harder, you will uncover tremendous beauty, meaning and depth. If one of the tens of thousands of cars who drive on my street every day looked toward my house, they would observe an ugly garbage bin. But if only they looked a little deeper, if they gazed a little more carefully they would have discovered the beautiful rose nestled behind it. So too in life, many times we are quick to make negative judgments about other people or about situations-- but if we held off on judgment, and dug a little more, we would see the beauty behind what is really going on. We know that G-d not only created the world, but He continues to sustain it and run it every single day. Everything that happens in our world around us is latent with meaning and purpose. Sometimes it appears very smelly and ugly-- but we need to remember that He has a plan and behind the mess and the smell lies tremendous depth and purpose.

1a) Additionally, in our superficial world, people are very quick to dismiss potential life partners because of what they see with one quick look on the outside. But perhaps if they would dig in a little bit deeper, they would uncover a perfect rose beneath the surface.

2) Our happiness is up to us. Life can be a matter of perspective. And unfortunately, there is a lot of garbage going on in the world at large, and also in our own individual lives. However, there is also tremendous amounts of good that is happening-- again, both in the larger world, and in our own individual domains. The choice of what we will focus on remains up to us: We can either by Debbie Downers and Negative Nancy's and focus on the smelly garbage. Or, we can choose to focus on the remarkable flowers in our lives. The choice remains up to us.

3) G-d, in His infinite kindness, showers us with blessings we don't even deserve. I moved into my house a year ago. I like to think that as a new home owner, I am becoming more handy, and I have learned a lot of new sweet skills: like nunchuck skills, bow-hunting skills, computer hacking skills. And, I can now rake some leaves. I can hire a lawn-mowing service, and I can even kill some weeds and dandelions. One thing I cannot yet do, since I have never done it, is plant flowers. My golden rose did not blossom because of the toil and effort I put into my garden. It blossomed because someone before me planted it, leaving it for me to enjoy its beauty. I did nothing whatsoever to earn it, or deserve it. So too, In G-d's immense kindness He grants us enormous blessings in our daily lives, even if as a result of our own actions and individual merit, we don't deserve it. It is our duty to acknowledge these gifts, and to be grateful to the Almighty for them.

3a) On a similar note- we also must acknowledge, as the Talmud does in a similar vein, that our actions have massive ramifications for the future generations. The Talmud relays the famous story of a man who asks an elderly farmer why he is planting a tree when he for sure will not be able to enjoy its fruits. The man wisely responds, perhaps I will not be able to enjoy its fruits, but my children undoubtedly will. We must choose our actions carefully and deliberately, as they will have a tremendous impact on future generations.

4) Out of the garbage sprouts beauty and life; out of the ashes brings forth hope. I believe that the rose appearing specifically alongside the garbage bin conveys a lesson embodied uniquely by the Jewish people for thousands of years. Generation after generations nations rise up to destroy us. And tragically, they cripple us in immensely painful ways. But time, after time, after time, we rise up again anew, and we continue to spring forth life. 

Forever Yours,
Danny Wolfe

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Let's not Fight: Life Lesson's from Parsha's Korach

Dear Henry,

In this week’s Torah portion we read about the disconcerting efforts of Korach and his followers to challenge Moshe’s authority, accusing him and his brother Aaron of monopolizing all of the power over the Jewish People. Why, wonders Korach, are Moshe and Aaron better than anyone else, and more fit to lead? He therefore rallies a group of people against them and rebells, which ultimately leads to he and his followers downfall in which they are literally swallowed alive by the earth. Interestingly, in the immediate aftermath of their demise, the Torah records how Elazar, Aaron’s son, is given the charge of taking the copper fire pans that Korach and his people had used, and to hammer them into a covering that would be used for the alter. At first glance it seems strange that we would use such an item for the cover of the alter—an item that symbolizes a failed, inappropriate rebellion against Moshe and Aaron. The Torah itself tells us the reason these copper fire pans should be used as a cover for the alter is because it will serve as a reminder “that no alien who is not of the offspring of Aaron should draw near to bring up the smoke of incense before Hashem… that he not be like Korach and his assembly…”  The Talmud, and the Mishnah Berura, the decisive halachic volume for Ashkenazic Jewry worldwide, rule that based on this verse, we are not allowed to engage in machlokes, in quarreling or fighting. It appears that avoiding fights is not just a piece of good advice—it seems like it is brought as an actual Torah Prohibition. While it is true that there exists the concept of a machlokes l’sheim Shomayim, arguments for the sake of Heaven, like the arguments that Hillel and Shammai had where their motives were simply to seek the truth in clarifying the Torah’s laws, arguments for other purposes, not for the sake of achieving truth, are forbidden.
While it is true that sometimes we have every right to maintain a dispute with someone when we are doing it for the sake of Heaven, the reality is that when we are involved in any type of argument, we are playing with fire. Rabbi Chaim Morgenstern quotes the Chofetz Chaim who writes that a person involved in a quarrel is at risk of violating a plethora of Torah commandments: The prohibitions against slanderous speech, baseless hatred, anger, hurting the feelings of others, revenge, bearing a grudge, and, G-d forbid, desecrating G-d’s name. When faced with the scary consequences of what can come out of maintaining a dispute, one comes to an undeniable conclusion: It’s just not worth it.
The Chofetz Chaim comments further that just as Jews often spend large amounts of money on ritual items such as mezuzahs, lulav and esrogs for Sukkos, homemade shmura matzahs, so too we should be willing to spend money for the sake of peace. The Mishna in Pirkei Avos teaches us to, “Be like students of Aaron: Love peace, pursue peace, love mankind and draw them close to Torah.” Peace is something to be pursued, even at a financial cost. The Chofetz Chaim suggests putting money aside into a “Shalom/peace Fund” every year, to be used to compensate for monetary loss, or to spend to avoid fights and to maintain peace among family and community members. A few weeks ago my oldest child was running down the stairs at Coors Field to try to catch a baseball (Baruch Hashem, a successful endeavor). The problem was, in the process he knocked over another dude's beer. Needless to say, the poor guy was not so happy. Understanding the necessity to avoid conflict, my father on the spot diffused the situation, by simply buying the guy a new beer, and they became fast friends. On another occasion, I once observed on a long bus ride in Israel, a poor American tourist get on the bus at an isolated bus stop in the middle of the Jordan Valley without his transfer slip. He told the impatient bus driver that his previous driver whom he paid 50 shekels, told him on these buses, transfer slips were unnecessary; you just pay the first bus you are going on. The bus driver was unmoved, demanded payment, and a passionate argument ensued. Sitting toward the front of the bus was a young man who understood that avoiding fights is worth spending money on, and he offered to pay the tourist’s fare. Touched by the gesture, the bus driver refused the payment, was cheered up, and continued on his merry way.

This week begins the month of Tammuz, during which we commence the Three Weeks, leading up to the destruction of the Temple. Our rabbis famously teach us that the Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred. They also teach that every year it is not rebuilt, it is as if that generation destroyed it. Let us take heed from the lesson of Korach, and avoid machlokes, literally at any cost.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Ignorance is NOT Bliss

Dear Henry,
     This past Thursday, June 30, I was in very high spirits. I found myself sitting on an outdoor patio meeting a friend, on an uncommonly cool day in Boulder, Colorado, nursing an ice cold half liter of beer at 11:30 AM. There was a slight breeze that I was savoring, and the excitement of July 4th weekend was tangible. After my meeting, I felt a buzz in my pocket, and saw that an old friend had sent me a Facebook message, asking me to read an article she should just written for The Times of Israel. In that article I was shocked to read about the previous night's events-- namely that a Palestinian Terrorist savagely, cowardly, stabbed to death a precious, pristine thirteen year old Israeli girl in her sleep. Reading this left me in a state of denial-- How could this happen when everything is so hunky-dory here? How could this have happened, and only now I am finding about it? Usually, I see disturbing news as it happens on Twitter. But then I remembered, as I wrote about a few months ago, that I removed Twitter, Facebook, and Safari from my smartphone. And I reflected that in general that has been an excellent move. No longer am I reading about mindless political tweets from the candidates, useless sports information, or other downright slanderous speech.
        However, at that moment, when I heard about this vicious attack hours after it happened, I realized getting rid of my Twitter had a downside as well. Because when tragedy happens to my dear brothers and sisters in our precious Holy Land, I want to know about it. I want to mourn with them, to feel their pain. I want to cry with them, to grieve with them. I don't want to be far away, oblivious to the unbearable pain they are going through. And the truth is, this is one of the things I miss most about Israel. Yes, of course I miss feeling the holiness every breath I take. And yes, I miss the food, and interacting with the colorful Israeli personalities. But I also miss crying with my nation during times of crisis. I miss the feeling that I am grieving alongside all of Am Yisroel, not in isolation in America, as everyone else is shooting off fireworks, celebrating this amazing country's independence. It is almost cruel how in America life just marches on, totally unfazed by the horrific tragedy in Israel. But I am shaken. Because the Jewish People are like one body. When the left foot is wounded, that affects the entire being. When part of the body is in pain, the whole body feels it as well.
        When a person is injured, he can take medication to numb the pain, to enable him to forget his misery. When it comes to the Jewish People, I don't want any medication to deceitfully hide the pain. I want to feel it.
        May G-d end our pain for good, and bring us all back to the Holy Land, speedily in our days.

Danny Wolfe