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Still Scorchin' after all these weeks.


More on Usurious Bank Practices

Washington Post yesterday stated that Congress will pass legislation that will halt the practice of automatic overdrafts from debit cards. Consumers will no longer be clobbered with huge "fees" (read penalties) for being a penny overdrawn. People should not let this fall by the wayside and let the Congress know that consumers need to be protected.


Begging Forgiveness: Do It For Yourself

Too often the perfunctory request for forgiveness is only offered to those of whom we are guaranteed a positive outcome, but, in fact, have not seriously wronged at all.

I offer the following story. A close friend whom I wished to visit because my family was away had told me not to come because a mutual friend was visiting and basically two was company and three was a crowd. It seems my observant lifestyle would have cramped whatever style he had envisioned for the weekend. I immediately wrote a letter saying how upset, hurt I was that somehow our being together was less important than how we might have spent the time. If this was an indication of our friendship, then there really wasn't much friendship at all.

What did I want from that letter? I wanted a response, and as each year, each birthday went by and no response was forthcoming, I came to the realization that what I had written seemed to be true. He didn't really care, and that hurt worse that the previous rejection.

One day, five years later, a letter arrived in the mail (this was a long time ago!) from my friend who apologized not only for what had happened, but for why it had taken him so long to respond. He had had a dream recently that included me, both of us looking for someone's house that we couldn't find. The following day he picked up a random book at a new age book store and it happened to be my translation of Sharre Orah that had recently been published. When he saw my name on the cover, the signs could not be ignored and, finally, he felt impelled to write a letter.

It was clear that I, too, had been waiting lo these many years for that letter. I wrote him back immediately, and he came to visit me for a few days soon after. This is not the end of the story. The visit was not a great one. The memories of our friendship were not rekindled in the present. After the visit, we didn't manage to keep in touch, and years have since gone by without us being in contact.

Once, I got a call from a mutual friend that David was having a special birthday and his girlfriend was organizing a special party and she had requested messages from people who were important to his past. Without hesitation, I sent a message, happy to modestly contribute to this celebration. I received a response, but there was no subsequent correspondence.

David's visit had filled a hole that was in my heart. His acknowledgement that he had been bothered by the way we left things allowed us to discover whether we should be friends based on who we were now and not on what we had done to each other. The hurt went away and I can fondly remember the times we had together.

The point is that fixing what we have done wrong does not have to end in some kind of grand epiphany, but your last memory of someone who once mattered to you, should not be one of disappointment and hurt. People should be able to reclaim the moments when they mattered to each other. It is worth the risk of rejection to try and do this.

It was true that because I had already approached him and been open about how offended and disturbed I was that it was up to him to respond. We don't always get a nudge from a dream and a chance encounter with a book, and we shouldn't need it.

How many Yom Kippurs need to elapse, before we free ourselves from the shackles of our own design. The Mishnah says: Transgressions between people cannot be atoned until one has mollified the injured party. These pains last for years. They don't go away until they are addressed, and even if the outcome isn't dramatic, or even positive, knowing that an effort was put forth, takes the burden off you and places it on the injured party.

The Mishnah says once one has apologized three times, the injured party carries the sin--and carry it, he will.

Please, don't let another Yom Kippur go by. Do yourself a favor.


Haredi woman dies leaving behind over 1400 descendants

Rachel Krishevsky died at the age of 99 leaving over 1400 direct descendants behind. It is stunning to realize that having lived a long life one could leave an auditorium full of family behind. This is the idealism of a community who consider children a joy and a mitzvah. She lived near the shuk in Machaneh Yehuda, and I am certain her loving home didn't have much space, but her children didn't seem to mind. They opted to continue the tradition and had large families of their own.

There were many positive responses to the Shoah. A Jewish army is one, but this too, is an answer that is worth contemplating and appreciating.


Joe Wilson the New Abbie Hoffman, Irony and the Enigmas of Derech Eretz

In the Ordeal of Civility, John Murray Cuddihy's book on the reasons for the Jewish disproportionate intellectual impact on the twentieth century, he recalls the antics of Abbie Hoffman in Judge Julius Hoffman's court. Abbie was repeatedly held in contempt for calling the judge "Julie". Cuddihy noted that to be held in contempt was to be held in contempt of the civility of the court. He wryly pointed out that the Judge was a yekke, a German Jew, while Abbie came from the ostjuden, the prost (vulgar, common) Galician Jews, and that was the subtext of their conflict.

Now, the hippies of congress are the southern republicans, challenging the legitimacy of these hallowed halls by disruptive uncivil behavior that makes light of protocol and house rules. The yekkes are the democrats who decry the feisty ridicule of their President and their party. It is a bit ironic, isn't it? Look who is challenging the foundations of this country now? Except the issue is not the war in Vietnam, but...health care, and guns.

There is no simple term for civility in the Talmud, although the one often used is Derech Eretz which literally means "The Way of the Land". In its earliest usage the phrase meant an occupation. "The study of Torah goes well with Derech Eretz, (an occupation)" In other contexts, it is broadened to include ways to behave while one is out in the world. When God visits Abraham after his circumcision, the Torah is letting us know that visiting the sick is a nice thing to do.

Civility is not mandated, but suggested by God's example. The Midrash Tanchuma notices that the daily Succot sacrifices decrease in number, unlike the daily Passover sacrifices that stay the same throughout the seven day festival. The Midrash explains: Ths teaches derech eretz. It's like when you have a guest, the first day you feed him chicken, the next day fish, the next day vegetables until finally, you feed him beans.

In other words, the Torah is giving a tip on how to gently unload a freeloading guest, letting him know that he has overstayed his welcome. Derech Eretz does literally mean, "the way of the land", the way one gets along in the world. One is required to work, to get along with others, and to either understand or provide social cues. Civility is not singled out because it is intertwined with the whole business of living. All of these components are equal partners in how to get along in a balanced way.

Derech Eretz means how your time should be occupied when engaged in society. The uncivil upset the tenuous rules, the code that allows us to not only get along, but to go along. They challenge these restrictions and upset our foundations because they hold them in contempt. They either wish to make the land go a new way, or they simply love the attention they get from being naughty. Those impervious to Derech Eretz are always upsetting to those who are happy with the status quo.

Abbie Hoffman wouldn't have been entirely displeased with the redneck Woodstock in Washington last weekend. Sometimes this is really a whacky place!


The Parchments are Burning: A memorial service for the victims of September 11th

On the first anniversary of the fall of the towers, I, along with my intern (now, Rabbi) Elliot Kaplowitz created a memorial service that was used by Hillels and synagogues throughout the country. The graphic design was created by the incomparable Maria Radacsi. Nowadays, our students have no memory of that chaotic, horrific day. It's worth a look, so if you are so inclined, Parchments are Burning: A September 11th Memorial Service ">

Why Don't We let the Banker Beware Instead of the Buyer

Yesterday, I read an article in The New York Times that made my blood boil. It is well known that Jewish Law and American business practice do not see eye to eye on whose responsible for making sure that merchants charge a fair price for their wares. The Mishnah in Bava Metziya makes it clear that the responsibility falls on the merchant to be within one sixth of the market value of a particular item, while American business invokes caveat emptor "let the buyer beware". This, however, is what happens when you rely on the foxes to guard the chicken coop.

When Peter Means returned to graduate school after a career as a civil servant, he turned to a debit card to help him spend his money more carefully.

So he was stunned when his bank charged him seven $34 fees to cover seven purchases when there was not enough cash in his account, notifying him only afterward. He paid $4.14 for a coffee at Starbucks — and a $34 fee. He got the $6.50 student discount at the movie theater — but no discount on the $34 fee. He paid $6.76 at Lowe’s for screws — and yet another $34 fee. All told, he owed $238 in extra charges for just a day’s worth of activity.

Mr. Means, who is 59 and lives in Colorado, figured employees at his bank, Wells Fargo, would show some mercy since each purchase was less than $12. In addition, a deposit from a few days earlier would have covered everything had it not taken days to clear. But they would not budge.

Wells Fargo Bank is sleazier than those check cashing store fronts that charge high fees for getting your own money. At least they tell the customer what their charging up front. In this case Mr. Means finds out only after the fact that his "overdraft protection" was costing him five times as much as his purchase. Also, his sin is in not realizing that a deposit had yet to clear--not that he had insufficient funds.

Worse yet, is the exploitation of those who use debit cards in favor of credit cards. These are people who are trying to be fiscally responsible by paying as they go, instead of accruing heaps of credit card debt. Their reward is to be clobbered by usurious stealth interest under the guise of penalties--or overdraft "protection".

How do banks defend this practice?

Some experts warn that a sharp reduction in overdraft fees could put weakened financial institutions out of business.

Michael Moebs, an economist who advises banks and credit unions, said Ms. Maloney’s legislation would effectively kill overdraft services, causing an estimated 1,000 banks and 2,000 credit unions to fold within two years. That is because 45 percent of the nation’s banks and credit unions collect more from overdraft services than they make in profits, he said.

Oh, poor baby! Now, we know the truth. Your local neighborhood bank is nothing more than a check cashing storefront masquerading as a respectable institution. They now rely on fees from the more vulnerable in society in order to stay in business. Charging exorbitant fees is a no-risk proposition that allows banks to fund adventurous mortgages that also exploit the poor.

The Torah understood loaning as a means for helping people out of difficult circumstances and therefore eschewed the practice of charging interest. The world could not tolerate this level of idealism, so that the practice of charging interest is reluctantly allowed under Jewish law, but now one can see the perversity of putting a price on money, and the consequences for those who play by the rules. It seems a no brainer that charging these fees would be halachically prohibited. I don't know if I'm more upset by the practice, or by the sneakiness of so called respectable institutions.

I once heard a lawyer joke, but it seems more appropriate for bankers these days. "What's the difference between a banker and a rooster? A rooster clucks defiant..."

There's a special place in hell for these people.