Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Kotzker Rebbe in Omaha

This past Shabbat we had the privilege of hosting my cousin from Chicago Mitch Morgenstern.

His day job is banking, but Mitch's real passion is the history and philosophy of Polish Chasidism.  

Mitch is a direct descendant of the Kotzker Rebbe, the kotzker was his father's father's father's father's father's father.  Unfortunately, most of the family, including Mitch's grandfather, were murdered by the Nazis.  Mitch's father was one of the few survivors.  
Admor Tzvi Hersh Morgenstern of Lukav - the great grandson of the Kotzker.  The Kotzker Reba was his Sandek.
In recent years Mitch has sought out every book every written on the topic of Polish Chasidism, including personal memoirs, philosophical works, and Torah commentaries and he has become quite an expert on the subject.  

Mitch spoke at Beth Israel and gave us some of the basics of the Polish Chasidic dynasties, who the major players were, and what made their brands of chasidism unique.  

He mostly focused on the Kotzker Rebbe, his teacher - the Rebbe Rav Bunim, the Yid Hakadosh and the chidushei HaRim.  We traveled back in time over 200 years and learned a greet deal about Polish and Russian history.  The Rebbe's of the early 19th century carefully watched the current events of their day and took stances and positions that sometimes would get them in trouble with the reigning government.

There was also a great deal of internal politics.  That time in history was a time of great transition for the Jewish community in Poland and there was fear that the consequences of certain philosophies could jeopardize the future of Judaism.  The followers of the Rebbe Rav Bunim were considered controversial in the Chasidic world and in a biography of the Chidushei HaRim we learned about some of the politics in the Jewish community and how these Jewish leaders handled them.

We also learned some of the Torah of the Kotzker.  Although he left us no writings there are many books written on his teachings and his sayings are very famous.  

One that sums up the Kotzker is as follows:

There is a well known custom on Rosh Hashannah that we do not eat nuts at the meals.  The reason given in the SHulchan Aruch is that the Hebrew word for nuts, egoz, has the same numerical value as the word for sin, cheit.  The Kotzker said about this, "more importantly, people need to remember that the numerical value of cheit is also cheit!"  

In other words, people often get caught up in all of the symbols and customs and they tend to forget the actual meaning behind them.  So they will be careful to avoid having nuts on Rosh Hashannah, but will be lax in making sure that sin is also absent from their lives.

It was a really great Shabbat.  I hope to bring Mitch back for another Shabbat in the future so we can learn more about this area of Judaism that many Jews are not familiar with.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Yom Yerushalaim: The Alternate Ending

Today was Yom Yerushalaim - the anniversary of the day in 1967 when the Jewish people liberated the city of Jerusalem, the Western Wall, and the Temple Mount.  

In those six days in 1967 the Jewish people went from fearing another Holocaust to achieving an unprecedented military victory and reclaiming the historic cities of Hevron, Schem, Shiloh, Beit El, and the heartland of the state of ancient Israel.

The Six Day War had a profound impact on Jews around the world.  Being a Jew in May of 1967 was different than being a Jew in July of the same year.

Jews around the world who were ashamed to be Jewish suddenly felt a surge of Jewish pride.  The Jewish chest stuck out a bit more.  A star of David necklace could be worn above the shirt.

Many Jews were inspired to move to Israel.  Some say it was the beginning of a wave of Jews returning to their Jewish roots.

Natan Sharansky has said many times that he remembers huddling around a radio in secret in Communist Russia and hearing the famous words "The Temple Mount is in Our Hands"  He said that they didn't know what the words meant, but they all knew that they were proud to be Jewish.  And it filled them with hope.  If Israel could overcome their struggles, they could too.

Yom Yerushalaim is celebrated by Jews around the world as a day of joy and thanksgiving.

As we said Hallel this morning I had a chilling thought.  I imagined a parallel universe where the Arabs won the war in 1967.  In this alternate world the 28th of Iyar is a day of mourning and lamentations to commemorate the tragic destruction of Israel and the death of millions of Jews.  

There are museums and monuments set up to remember the short lived Jewish State, and at a special ceremony held on this day the US president and world leaders gather together to give speeches and to say "Never Again!"

The trauma of a second Holocaust so soon after the first was too much for the Jewish people to take.  Jews abandoned their Judaism en mass.  Around the world synagogues lay empty.  Assimilation increaased dramatically.  Without Israel as a focal point there was nothing left to unite the Jewish people.  The JEwish nation fell apart.

Without Israel the Middle East had no democratic presence.

There was still no Palestinian state.  The Arabs who lived there continued to suffer as Egypt, Jordan, and Syria fought for control over the land.  Without Israel the world was not interested in helping them form a state of their own.

Islamic fundamentalism continued to grow in the region, and without Israel as a scape goat all of the ire was focused on America.

Iraq was the first to develop nuclear weapons as their was no country to prevent them from doing so.  The other Islamic countries soon followed.  Life in that world is bleak.

Thank God Israel won and the Jewish people live on!  And while I doubt that the president and other world leaders will flock to Jerusalem or Hevron to celebrate their liberation any time soon, we know that the world is a better place because of Israel's victory on that day.  

Yom Yerushalaim is a pivotal day in the history of the world.  

May Hashem continue to bless His people and His land.  May Israel and its people dwell in security.  And may Jerusalem, the land of Israel, and the entire world soon see a day of peace, prosperity and happiness for everyone.

Happy Yom Yerushalaim!

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

How the Credit Card Companies Get You!

Yesterday I posted an ethical question that was posed at my Shabbat table last week.  "Is it ethical to work the system and cash in on credit card rewards with no intention to be a customer?"  There was a great deal of off line discussion on the matter.  My uncle Mark Honigsfeld (yes the same famous Uncle Mark who had the idea to sell Warren our chametz!) sent the following response which I found informative and compelling:

Credit card companies (CCC) are managed by some of the savviest known business minds in the financial world. They are also experts in marketing strategies (often referred to as gimmicks) to lure consumers using legitimate legal methods of what many consumer advocates would call "bait and switch". 

Credit card companies, as you noted in your blog, earn their fees in different ways. It would be totally naive to believe that CCC don't expect a certain percentage of consumers to take full advantage of the offer and subsequently canceling or not renewing their subscription. 

As by your example, I don't equate this to shoplifting but would offer a different example: 
If a store were to run a sale and promote the sale as follows "selling the 1st 100 customers a certain item at below cost" I assume there would be no question of ethics regarding anyone who arrives 1st, intending only to purchase the item on sale. Although the full intent was for the store to lure you in and expect you to purchase something else while in their store. Does this pose any moral or ethical question?

Is intent not to respond to a promotion in a way the merchant "may" have hoped for considered unethical or rather is it merely a consumer's inherent rights in fair dealing practices?  

So too as my example above, with these offers from the CCC, they lure you in, hoping to get a long term customer and with that "bait" they offer you a promotion. The majority of subscribers do in fact keep the card, and those who don't have given the CCC other fair consideration and financial returns. 

  • Fees for the sales that the consumer must purchase with the card for the consumer to earn the rewards, also get paid fees from the merchant. 
  • In some cases consumers who intentionally think they will beat the system, pay exorbitant interest charges when they are not able to pay off the CC balance at end of billing cycle. CCC know this fact and factor it in to the cost of the promotion. 
  • Awards often expire and also become worthless. This is known as breakage and is also used in calculating the cos of any promotion. 
  • CCC also use the data the consumer provided when applying for the credit card for marketing purposes and often sell this information to mailing list houses for significant fees.  

When one understands the profiteering that results when such offers are made by CCC then one should be comfortable in taking full advantage of the offer. 

If canceling the card after awards are realized are of concern, then I would think the CCC would charge a penalty for doing so but they don't because they understand the business advantages not to do so. 

This is one man's opinion which is not based on Halacha but rather an understanding of business and as a credit card merchant.

Monday, May 6, 2013

The Ethics of Credit Card Rewards

I was asked an interesting ethical question at my Shabbat table and I am not sure of the answer.

Credit cards offer certain deals to potential customers.  They offer airline miles, points, or cash for people who sign up and spend a certain amount.

There is a whole genre of blogs that search for these deals and share them with their subscribers.  They instruct their subscribers on how to game the system: sign up for the deal, receive the reward, and then cancel the card.

Is it ethical to play the credit card rewards game?

On the one hand, I am certain that the credit card companies factor in the people who learn to work the system.  They are offering the deal and must realize that people can take advantage of it.  They must factor that into their costs.

But grocery stores factor shoplifters into their pricing too.

Or perhaps the credit card companies profit from the people who work the system.  Maybe the fees that they receive from the vendors offsets the rewards that they give the customers.

Or perhaps the credit card companies are counting on people signing up for the card thinking they will profit, while most people end up forgetting to cancel, or end up becoming a regular customer.

Does anyone have any insight into this question?

Friday, May 3, 2013

The Warren Buffett Shabbaton!!!

This Shabbat thousands of people are flocking to Omaha for the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting to attend the Warren Buffett Shabbaton.

Unfortunately the meeting is on Shabbat and Jewish people have a conflict as we have a weekly meeting with The One who has even more money and wisdom than Warren Buffett and to whom the entire world is His subsidiary.

Fortunately because of YouTube none of us has to miss out on the main event of the meeting..

The Talmud teaches that certain things are 1/60th of something else.  Meaning, if you want to know what some unattainable experience is like, there are available experiences that represent a small taste.

For instance, we can no longer taste the maan that the Jews ate in the desert for 40 years, however honey is 1/60th of the maan.  Taste some honey and whatever that tastes like, multiply it by 60 and that is what maan tasted like..

Not everyone has the capacity to experience prophecy, however, a dream is 1/60th of what that experience is like.

I sincerely believe that the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting is 1/60th of what is was like to be in the dessert with the ancient Israelites learning Torah from Moshe Rabbeinu.

Some might say it trivializes Moshe Rabbeinu to compare him to Waren Buffett. After all, you may say, Moshe gave us the Torah.  All Warren Buffett did was make a big pile of money.  How can they be compared? Even as 1/60th?

I would argue that Warren Buffett represents so much more than just a big pile of money.  His speeches - which constantly draw from stories, parables, and wisdom ancient and modern - are sometimes less about money and more about how a person should conduct himself honestly, ethically, and with integrity.

Never the less, it is true that ostensibly, he is mostly talking about money.

But I am not talking about the substance as much as the experience.

A few days ago those who learn Daf Yomi learned how Moshe and his brother Aharon sat side by side with the other leaders and taught the Torah to the nation.  The Jewish people gathered and sat at the edge of their seat reveling in every word that came from the mouth of Moshe.

When Moshe's father in law first Yitro visited the camp of Israel, he saw how the people waited day and night on long lines to have a chance to speak with Moshe, even if only for a minute.

Moshe was more than just a leader.  The historian Josephus says that Moshe's impact on the Jewish people was so profound that even thousands of years later the Jewish people obeyed his laws as if he were alive and standing before them.  This was not out of fear of Moshe, but out of love for a great leader who saved them, who cared for them, who fed them, and who lead them through the perilous dessert for 40 years. But mostly they loved Moshe for transmitting the Divine wisdom to our people.

Today in Omaha the excitement is palpable.  People are waiting with great excitement for their great leader, Warren Buffett, to speak.  They have traveled great distances to come to Omaha, Nebraska which many of them consider the wilderness.  Tomorrow they will push and shove and squeeze into the convention center to hear words of wisdom from the man that they so admire and wait with excitement and anticipation for every word that comes from his mouth.

Tomorrow Warren and Charlie Munger sitting side by side will be like Moses and Aharon teaching the Israelites.  They will share their wisdom and the people will learn and rejoice.

Tomorrow the speech will be about investing, but one day those crowds will gather once again to hear the words of the Torah.  The people will gather - "the men, the women, and the children ,and the stranger who is in your cities - so that they will hear and so that they will learn and they shall fear Hashem, your God, and be careful to perform the words of the Torah."  (Devarim 31:12)

Imagine a national convention where the world's smartest people will speak of justice and righteousness, and we will all rejoice in their wisdom.  The Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting gives us a taste as to what that will be like.

I, however, will have to miss the crowds tomorrow and catch the speeches after shabbat on youtube, which is fine with me.  I will be with my community in shul celebrating Shabbat - which as the Talmud says - is 1/60th of heaven.