Isaac Kaplan

"Is it any wonder I've got too much time on my hands?"

Monday, October 30, 2006

Thoughts on the Death Penalty

Recently, I've seen ads for rallies and protests against the "racist" death penalty. Usually it's the far-lefties, the "free Mumia abu-Jamal" crowd. So I brushed off the protests as typical radical-left nonsense. After all, one of my rabbeim ripped Mario Cuomo ten new ones for being anti-death penalty. (This was the pre-Giuliani era; crime was a hot-button issue.) And of course, a quick peek at parshas mishpatim tells us simply that if one person kills another, we've gotta kill the murderer.

But later on, I started thinking about those gemaras in Makkos, where there's a machlokes whether anyone ever received the death penalty from Beis Din. And how according to R' Elazar ben Azaria, if Beis Din killed once every seventy years, that Beis Din was referred to as a "bloody beis din."

Clearly, life is precious. And that's a big part of the reason why, at one point, I was thinking that maybe the Bill O'Reilly approach to the death penalty makes the most sense.

In a nutshell, O'Reilly proposes as follows:

Killers, rapists, drug kingpins and terrorists should all be subjected to life in prison without parole in a federal work camp. This special prison system would be run military style and be located on federal land in Alaska. It would be in effect a gulag.

Here the worst criminals in the country would be banished and forced to labor eight hours a day, six days a week in the harsh climate. They would be denied television, computers, exercise equipment (as if they'd need it) and most other "comfort" items. Their mail would be screened, and they would only be allowed a few visitors per year.

If the criminal did not cooperate with the work detail, his food rations would be cut, and he would be placed in solitary confinement.

Ideally, I think O'Reilly's proposal is a great one. The problem is, practically, the liberal judges and special-interest groups will have none of this. If they went all crazy over Gitmo, how do you think they'd respond to this? And even if, at some point, Congress had the guts to pass such a law, as soon as the Dems would take over Congress or the presidency, they would close up shop. Or just leave it to the lefties on the courts. Maybe they would even grant these rodents parole, and have them walk the streets.

Besides, there are two factors that have to be considered from a frum standpoint.

The halachos of murder by a Ben Noach differ from Jews. They don't require hasra'ah, for example. And according to some, abortion by a Ben Noach would be tantamount to murder, which is not the case for Jews (except perhaps by partial-birth abortions). So perhaps one can derive from here that the standards for the death penalty are much different in their cases. The chareidim would probably say that it's because goyim are evil, but I'm not gonna go there right now.

Also, the gemara says that where murder is rampant, the death penalty was to be given out more often in order to scare off potential murderers, and to let them know that Beis Din means business. Here too, though, what does that mean, that murder is rampant? In the Dinkins era, certainly murder was rampant. Thank God, things have quieted down since then. In which case, perhaps the standard has to change. But how quiet does it have to be to go back to a "higher-standard" death penalty? Where does one draw the line?

Besides, the whole concept of giving the death penalty more often as a deterring measure is also a bit troublesome. What if it turns out someone incorrectly received the penalty, and wouldn't have been killed under the "higher-standard" regime? Do we say he has to "take one for the team," so to speak, and be killed as a lesson for potential murderers? How do you explain that to his family? Hard to understand that one.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Bring on the Dark and Cold

To me, there have always been three signs that it's really winter. Three signals that summer is gone, the holidays are over, and we're in for a long, dark, cold winter and too few days off from school.

The first, and most obvious sign, is the end of the yomim tovim. To me, the day after simchas torah is one of the most depressing days of the year. Heck, taking the sukkah down after yom tov is full of negative associations. Growing up, taking the sukkah down represented all the fun of the yomim tovim and the days off being over; now, it would be school, school, and more school, all the way till Pesach. And going to shul and seeing the navy blue p'roches for the first time in weeks made me feel the same way.

That's come and passed. Besides, now that I'm done with yeshiva, I still have to work on chol hamoed, so I don't really have that feeling when the yomim tovim end.

But my two other signs of winter have both occurred over the past 48 hours:
the end of the World Series, and the changing of the clock.

I think one of the reasons I never really got into football was my associating it with those dark and cold winter Sundays. I also hated Sundays growing up, so that certainly didn't help the cause.

To me, baseball is all about summer, nice weather, and the approaching end of the school year. I think of Bob Murphy talking about the beautiful weather, and watching the clear sky over Shea or Fenway. Positive associations. And those positive feelings last till the depths of October. As long as baseball is being played, even if Placido Polanco is wearing a hooded t-shirt underneath his jersey, to me, it's still summer.

And then, baseball is over. Time to focus on something else, like schoolwork. And the offseason still feels like forever, even though time moves so much faster as you get older.

And then you change the clock, and the sun sets at 4:30 in the afternoon. Then you have those frantic Fridays. And as a kid, we used to get dismissed from school at 4:30. I hated walking out of yeshiva, on to the school bus, and seeing the sky darken as we headed to my stop.

So here we are, in for the annual long haul. It better be good.

Friday, October 27, 2006

"Worse Than The Dor HaMabul"

Parshas Noach seems like the perfect time to write about a statement I heard from a prominent Hasidic rabbi in my community. He claimed that these days are "worse than the Dor HaMabul."

Interestingly, he used this negative line to give chizuk by saying that in a way, our commitment to mitzvos and to steering clear of aveiros is more meaningful as a result.

But I didn't find his idea to be inspiring. If anything, it's depressing. Yay, we're living in a crappy time!

Besides, were there thousands of people sitting and learning during the dor hamabul? Were there g'machs of all sorts during the dor hamabul? How bad can we be already?

And even if you want to say, "oh, he was just referring to the pritzus out there." Then say so! I believe that if someone makes such an outrageous statement, they've got to be very clear as to what they're saying. Don't just make blanket, extreme statements that are subject to misinterpretation.

- And my ultimate beef with the statement: how does he know? Was this rabbi around during that time? Rashi says that the world than was so corrupt and full of z'nus that even the animals began interbreeding. Now I know that, unlike today, one couldn't get instant access to porn in their living room or office. But I have yet to see a bird mate with an elephant. And who even knows what exactly went out back then? The Torah is full of vague words like "shachas" and "chomos," which are subject to various interpretations by rishonim. Okay, there was a lot of sex and crime, but just how much? Was every person guilty, only a majority, who knows?

This brings to mind the people that say, "it's a crazy world out there today." I think it's a terrible thing to say, and reeks of ingratitude to God. It's like saying, "why did You bring us into this crazy world, God?" I'm more of a fan of the Rav Miller approach, of looking at the beauty of the world, and standing in awe of the tzelem elokim. At the same time, we don't need to igonre the daily challenges and opportunities that life provides. It's a lot less depressing than thinking of the dor hamabul all the time.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Why Monsey?

Who remembers when it all began
Out here in no man's land
Before they passed the master plan
Out here in no man's land

- Billy Joel

I hate Monsey. I can't stand the place. I have nothing against the people. Fine, wonderful people live there.

But why did people have to start a large frum community in middle of nowhere? Why do all the people from Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island have to spend at least an hour plus to get there? Why does every trip to The Atrium or Ateres Charna take forever?

I have no problem with Englewood, Teaneck, or Bergenfield. Right off the GWB? I can live with that. Passaic and Edison aren't too bad, either. And Long Island is pretty close to everywhere, although the Van Wyck and the LIE are bad news. But to Monsey, it's the West Side Highway or Grand Central to the GWB, the whole Palisades, then the Thruway, then Route 59... it's crazy!

And good luck finding your destination with those one-inch street signs. Which idiot decided that a town can only be considered suburban if the street signs are impossible to read?

Let's face it. Route 59 is a disaster. There's always traffic on there. Always. Why the heck is it one lane wide? And all those hills don't help the cause, either. I hate it when you get off the Thruway, think you're finally there, and then have to sit through 20 minutes of traffic on 59!

Why couldn't people just settle in Yonkers? Or someplace closer to NYC? Why Monsey? Why in middle of nowhere, yet still close enough that we're all obligated to go to simchas and to pick up girls there for dates?

That's the worst, dating in Monsey. You can't take the girl anywhere in Monsey, because everyone's gonna see her. So you have to go elsewhere. Okay, for the first date you go to a hotel lounge, whatever. But after that, what do you do? Spend an hour going back to Manhattan for a decent restaurant? Gimme a break.

And it doesn't get much worse than driving down the pitch-black Palisades Parkway after dropping off a girl, still fuming over a date from hell. And still miles away from home.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Others

I was watching Scorsese's documentary on Bob Dylan last night, "No Direction Home." When he got to the part where Dylan goes to New York and the Village the first time, there was a discussion of how happening the music scene was there at the time. There were tons of people playing in clubs and in Washington Square Park, hoping to get noticed and make it big. In Dylan's case, of course, we know what happened. The guy ended up doing okay for himself.

But what about the others? Almost every time I read a biography of someone wildly successful, I always end up thinking about the ones who never made it big. The ones who, like most of us, just had ordinary lives.

A buddy of mine read a book of a business luminary, and found it to be very inspiring. He said, "the lesson from this book is to think big and dream big. That's how the guy got so successful." But to me, the question is, for every entrepeneur who makes billions, there are many other businessmen who fail. Are you telling me that the others didn't dream big?

One thing I've noticed in almost every biography I've read, whether it's about a president, a baseball HOFer, or a CEO - at some critical point in their life, they caught a break. Someone noticed them at a certain time, they got some random piece of advice, whatever.

When it comes down to it, it's probably not a bad thing to dream big. It's a great motivator. But you still need the breaks, the hashgacha pratis. And things like that, not so much the dreams, the abilties, and the efforts, are often what separate the famous ones from the footnotes.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Sell High

Haven't had a chance to think about the usual hashkafic issues. My mind's been on the Yankees and their unexpected early playoff exit. I've had most of the same thoughts that have been bandied about by the pundits and talk-show hosts (chemistry, Joe Torre, A-Rod, etc.) so I've decided to do what I always try to do, and post something original for the blog.

People have discussed trading A-Rod, and's Jim Caple even suggested, tongue-in-cheek, that the Yanks trade Jeter.

Two guys I would trade? Matsui and Cano. Matsui has a track record for being a very solid hitter, and the Japan PR would give a team a few millions. That increases Matsui's value. Keep in mind that with the wrist thing, he's not a sure deal to be at top form, anyway.

Besides, it's time for the Yanks to give Melky Cabrera an everyday position. And who else can you move in that outfield? The Yanks aren't gonna trade Damon. And Abreu's not going anywhere unless the Yanks eat some of the $16 million he's due next year. So that leaves Matsui as the odd man out.

As for Cano, I know Yankee fans will go crazy, but the guy's value may be at its highest point. He might get injured, and pitchers might figure him out. Besides, his free-swinging ways don't fil with the Yankees mentality. The Yanks can get lots of good young pitching for Cano. With his age and potentially huge ceiling, Cano is one of the most valuable Yankees on the trade market.

And who will play second? Bring back Soriano. The guy proved he could play in New York. He was clutch in the 2001 postseason. And of course, the guy can flat-out run. After the A-Rod and Pavano debacles, and seeing Renteria and Clement fall apart in Boston, it's clear that any player going to New York or Boston must be mentally fit for the occasion. Otherwise, forget it. And based on what he did when he was here, Soriano can handle New York.

Forget A-Rod. He's the kind of guy the Yanks should build around, especially considering how his stock has fallen the past few years. (If they had a manager that could motivate A-Rod.... that's a different story. I think Torre gets too much credit as a motivator. Come on. In '96, he had guys like O'Neill, Tino, Cone, and Duncan. These guys wanted to win, no matter who the manager was.)

One big lesson from the Detroit debacle: The Yanks could use some young pitching. And selling high will get them plenty of it.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Welcome To The Show?

One minhag I'm not sure if I understand is the minhag to start shacharis the morning after Yom Kippur a few minutess early. I know of a few shuls that do this, and one yeshiva I attended had a similar minhag. In yeshivos, of course, bein hazmanim begins after Yom Kippur, so there was a small crowd for the "early" yeshiva shacharis; everyone went to the local shuls for the later minyanim!

But what's the idea here? Is it to show God that we still have the Yom Kippur spirit within us? If that's the case, I really don't get it. If anything, it's kind of insulting God's intelligence. Are we trying to fool him into thinking that we're carrying over inspiration from the day before? And let's say after that shacharis, we go back to our daily routines - did that early shacharis make a difference? God knows all too well whether we'll carry over the inspiration from Yom Kippur to the coming year, or if we'll simply revert back to "normal" after the Day of Atonement.

I'm not sure what the mekor of the minhag is, or if there even is a mekor for this (looked through a few halacha and minhag seforim to no avail). But the idea of "showing God" something makes no sense to me. At best, it's silly and at worst it's quasi-heretical (in implying that God is naive).