Saturday, September 27, 2014

Two Torah Thoughts

This was a really good Rosh Hashanah. It had a slow start but I really hit my stride and feel like I connected with the day and its various messages, so I'm feeling pretty good about that. During the last few days, I developed a couple of ideas that I wanted to commit to virtual paper.

The first was inspired by the speech the rabbi gave in shul yesterday. He started off with a story and as I listened to it, I thought to myself, "that's nice but it could be so much more powerful if only it went like this..." So I am writing this up as "Inspired by a true speech which included a probably apocryphal story which I will make more apocryphal by inventing half of it."

There was a tradition that, after the end of the sabbath, people in the small community of New Square would line up to wish the Rebbe a good week and receive a blessing from him. The practice was so popular that the lines grew and grew. Even past 2 AM the line still snaked outside of the Rebbe's office as people waited nervously to shake the great sage's hand. On the line was a young man, new to the community who was looking forward to his first meeting with the Rebbe. He was scared. He had run home after services and cleaned himself up. He put on a freshly laundered shirt, straightened his hat and sharpened the crease on his spotless, black pants. And he waited. As he waited, he heard stories of the piety of the Rebbe and his works. He heard about the miracles which seemed to have been inspired by the Rebbe's wishes and the intuition and intellect which the man exhibited, presenting insight into character and understanding into text which amazed Jews everywhere.

As his turn approached he began to sweat. The sweat was not so much that there would be any stains, but enough to make the young man self conscious. He wanted to present himself as a paradigm of youthful idealism and religiosity. He had studied and was prepared to discuss topics if asked by the Rebbe. He had learned in yeshiva for many years and had also secured himself a job which would make him a good shidduch possibility and a provider, willing to give charity back to the community. But he was scared. He had prepared what he would say, down to the comma, practicing for hours at home. He wanted it to be perfect.

Slowly, each person in front of him entered the Rebbe's presence and the young man moved forward. Finally, at 3:30 AM, it was his turn. He was tired and scared, visibly shaking as the door opened. The Rebbe sat across the room, radiant and full of life. He beckoned for the young man to come forward. As he did, the man saw himself in the mirror.

He stopped and stared at himself. Slowly, he began to cry. Small tears, leading to uncontrolled sobs as he broke down in front of that mirror. The Rebbe was (and this does not happen often) speechless. He rose, and crossed over to the young man who was sitting on the floor, weeping. He held the man for a few moments and calmed him. He joined the man on the floor and stayed with him while the tears passed and he said, "My son -- please, don't be frightened. I want you to feel welcome and comfortable asking of me. What can I do for you and how can I help ease whatever pain you are in?" The young man, on the verge of tears at the magnanimity of the Rebbe finally caught his breath and said, "Rebbe, I came in here to ask your blessing, I wanted to ask you for success, a wife, health; I wanted you to be happy with who I am and who I can become. I wanted to ask your for your support so that I can be somebody." The Rebbe paused (a bit humbled maybe by the faith the young man had in him), and slowly said, "OK, so nu? Why all the crying?"

The Young man said, "Rebbe, I saw myself in the mirror -- I recognized all the effort I made just for this one meeting and I feel ashamed! I realize that there is only one thing I should be asking you blessing which is the only one that matters because it is the only one I now understand I really need. And I feel like a fool for wanting any other!"

There was a silence as the young man worked up the strength to ask.

"Rebbe, please give me the ability to care as much and to work as hard to perfect my look, my manner, and my speech before I approach the King of Kings, God himself, during my daily prayers, as I have before meeting another human being to ask for a favor!"

And now it was the Rebbe's turn to cry.

The second one is a more traditional Torah thought but with a similar theme:

We spend much of our time looking for a way to connect with Hashem. Back in the olden days, the path was laid out for us. Grab an animal, deliver it to the temple authority, and you can please God, find some absolution, feed the poor, celebrate a holiday...what have you. Agricultural tithes or animal sacrifice (or a meal offering, depending on your net worth) was the prescribed method of fulfilling the obligation to serve Hashem. It wasn't easy, but hey, it was sacrifice. You took the best of what you had, what you had paid for, worked for and striven to achieve, and you gave it over to show that what is yours really isn't yours. The message was good and the means was relevant and powerful.

But all that changed when the temple was destroyed. Since the beit hamikdash's destruction almost 2000 years ago, this avenue for religious fulfillment has been closed to us. So how can we now achieve the kind of connection? The prophet Hoshea says (14:3) Uneshalma parim sefateinu -- the bulls (sacrifices) will be completed by our lips. The avodah, the sacrificial service, is to be replaced by the avodah shebalev, the "work of the heart" which is prayer.

Huh? How is this supposed to work? Do I have to read the portions related to sacrifice so my relating them is as if I completed them? Some say yes, which is why we have the section of korbanot in our daily morning and musaf prayers. But I don't think that this is what it means (at least not exclusively).

The word "korban" (sacrifice) actually has 2 identities. As it is usually translated, it means "sacrifice," the loss of something of value for a greater purpose. Its other meaning though, stems from its root k-r-v, coming closer. The sacrifice is designed to foster an approaching to God, a nearness with the divine. Does just saying the words of the sacrificial service do that?

I teach in a high school. Watching most high school students daven is maddening. They don't always seem to value to opportunity to petition, recognize, and thank Hashem for what is all around us. We speak of daily miracles but they simply don;t see things that are miraculous. And most of all, they would rather be doing something else. We live in an amazing time -- we have technology, we have cuisine, we have entertainment. We have all sorts of things that vie for our attention and reward us.

What do we have of value that we can sacrifice in order to bring about closeness? Money? We give charity and this does help to some degree. But when we throw our pocket change into a box, what are we sacrificing? If I really wanted that slice of pizza, would I be dropping the quarters in the pushke? Probably not. But I have one thing that I can never get back and that I value incredibly highly: time.

This is the commodity of daily life. This is what I value and I demand others value: my time. I live by the school bell and the schedule. My TV shows are scheduled. My football team races the clock to get down field. My microwave has me stare at it while the timer counts down to zero because the three minutes and 32 seconds that it takes to reheat that potato must be abided by to the second. Time.

Davening requires that I stop what I am doing and give up my time. It requires that I put other things on hold and take the one precious commodity that I can't bank and simply hand it over to God. It isn't a cow, or a bird, or corn, or money. It isn't replenishable. And in the middle of a busy day, it isn't convenient. On Rosh Hashanah, it isn't easy to sit around for hours in shul. On Yom Kippur, this means sacrificing an entire day -- I can go to work and not eat, but that's not what this is about. Hashem wants me to lose the only thing that I have a finite amount of with no hope of extending.

And when I realize that this is the sacrifice that I have to be willing to make -- that my tefillah is SUPPOSED to take time because it isn't just the words I say, but the fact that I am willing to make the gesture of losing my place in the rat race that is the world to set aside minutes to say those words, any words, which allows me to become closer to the divine. The avodah shebalev is SUPPOSED to be work, not easy and not simple. The heart has to be in it and has to ache at the missing minutes which could be spent elsewhere. The loss should lead to a gain, but if I avoid the loss by zooming through the prayers or not spending the time it should take to say them with thought, then how can I expect to earn the gain of connection with Hashem?

I hope that as we enter any prayer situation, we take an extra moment or two to realize that we are making an important sacrifice, and that we should value our decision to give of ourselves so that our prayers can be that same sacrificial loss as those bulls were in the temple, and they can lead to the same resting of the shechina in our mikdash me'at.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

What in God's Name

A Torah thought inspired by the upcoming high holiday season.

Throughout the text of the Torah, we are confronted with two major aspects of God's "personality" -- the trait of justice and the trait of mercy. The former is signaled by the use of the Hebrew word often transliterated 'elohim.' Mercy is brought out through the 4 letter name, the tetragrammaton. I see the "attributes" as more significant than this divide, and the names' uses as pointing to an additional dimension to our interaction with the divine.

During the account of the creation, the name "elohim" is used (I am writing the complete name, and not substituting the K for the H for a couple of reasons -- one will be apparent soon and the other is that I see the discussion of Torah a valid place in which to use a name of God). Creation, the rabbis say, was done under the aegis of justice and the intent was for all of creation to be judged according to its deservings. Only in chapter 2, when man becomes a vocal part of the world does the notion of mercy become introduced through the use of the 4 letter name. Man, it seems, needs a merciful God for if man is judged strictly according to his actions, he will always be found wanting. And the name "needs" (if we can say such a thing about God or a name) man's proper intentions and study for it to become fully part of this world. God's mercy only has a place because man needs it (in the same way that it wasn't called for until man was created), and the mercy-name only has power if man says it properly at the proper time.

The word "elohim," as described by the Ramban, does much more than just point to justice. It denotes power. The word means "Master of all forces." Using the word then is a recognition of God's might, and creation is an exercise of power. God wills the world into existence and it comes into existence. God the all-powerful can make anything so we use a word which points to that strength. In fact, the text often uses the word to call forth other claimants to power. It is used to refer to a judge when applied to Moses, the one who has power over all of Egypt, including Pharaoh. It is used to refer to idols and other things placed as gods which man confuses for the one God because he misattributes the power to a pawn. Man might worship the sun because the sun brings the heat and light and life to plants in the day -- but Abraham sees past that and understands that the sun is not the source of that power, God is. So the word often is used when people misunderstand how power operates and label something as the divine because they are stuck on one level of perception, that of simple strength.

But man must move beyond that one characteristic of God if wants to know the one God. So God gives us a name to use which adds not power but God's relationship to man, something which a false God like the sun cannot have, into the mix. The 4 letter name only has value when it is pronounced properly. Pronunciation is an area unique to mankind. Man can call the idea into existence through recognizing the divine correctly! Anyone can say the word "elohim" and mean any number of different things by it, but the 4 letter name is special in that it is only and can only be a name of God. It points to mercy because it points to the possibility of a connection between man and God, if man is able to "read God's name properly" (which would include our use of the replacement word "ado-shem" which shows that we are appealing to the merciful one but don't want to pronounce the special name either incorrectly or when we are not empowered to appeal on that level). We have to call to him in his name, which we cannot do unless we study and connect and learn about this name.

The name is given to man so that he has access not to a nebulous notion of power, but to a God who listens and cares. In our blessing we say "blessed are you, 4 letter name" at the start -- our prayer has to recognize that a powerful and just God would not be swayed by human prayer -- if the person deserves punishment, then so be it. We appeal to the mercy-name and say "you gave me this name to use and I'm trying to use it properly." Only then do we, in some blessings, say that the same merciful God figure is also the powerful one who rules the whole world. And on Yom Kippur, back in temple days, the high priest would say the 4 letter word explicitly when asking for forgiveness. He would invoke the precise name to make that connection to God even more explicit.

The 4 letter name is therefore a representative of the facet, a sign of God's mercy and the method that the mercy works through. It is both the signifier and the signified, calling the merciful one and being the medium through which mercy can be delivered.

When we pray during this high holiday season, we should pay careful attention to the names of God we invoke and recognize the amount of mercy being afforded us simply by our having access to this particular name. I wish for everyone to see the presence of mercy which leads to availability for repentance and the hope for atonement.

Happy new year!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Don't change

I have never been good at physics. No physician nor physicist, I. I trust that if I drop something, it will hit the floor. If I pull something, it might move. If I change the batteries, the remote will do some magic and allow me to stop watching Dance Moms.

But I do know inertia. Inertia is the single most powerful force in the universe. I find it in all areas of my life and I know that there is a temptation to criticize it. Inertia prevents change, people complain. And you know what? I think that that is often true. But here's the kicker -- change isn't always good. Sometimes inertia protects us from the kinds of changes that we just don't need.

Change is useful when there is either a demonstrated problem with the way things are, or a demonstrated advantage to the newer way for things to be. Bottom line, if it isn't broken, one need not fix it unless it can be shown that the fix will improve an working system and make it more efficient or successful. It just rolls off the tongue.

However, I have found that in many contexts, there is a drive to change. We must, the pundits say, keep moving forward or else we die. Like the shark. (Based on movies and media coverage I think that maybe some dead sharks would be a good thing...) I disagree, sort of. We are always moving forward, but often doing so without changing. We are always growing and constantly have the opportunity to learn from mistakes and improve but we can usually keep the baby and even some of the bathwater.

I feel this way about technology. It is a fun toy most of the time. Occasionally, it fixes a problem and becomes a vital way of operating: the new status quo. But often it provides a new way of doing things which is not much better than the old way. If might be markedly different but that doesn't make it good, nor make the old way bad. Feel free to apply this philosophy to any institutional, professional or other context in which you think it works. It does.

I'm not advocating stagnancy, or even claiming that stagnancy is a word. I am a believer in caution and measured response, plus incremental change. I am usually risk averse (not Risk averse though) but not because I don't like to try something new. I just need to be shown why the old way is demonstrably wrong before I jump towards the devil I don't know. I am no Luddite, nor a Luddlite (more technology, fewer calories), just someone who thinks that we can, in many milieus become better, sharper and more efficient without abandoning anything or making foolhardy leaps simply as "change gratis change."

I embrace change. As long as it doesn't require that I get up to do so. There was nothing wrong with sitting.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

September Whath?

Thirteen years ago a horrible tragedy occurred and every year at this time, those of us who care to take a moment to remember, do so. In many of the years since, the schools in which I have worked have, institutionally, set time aside to discuss the events of that day. This year, my school did not set time aside and I was asked how I felt about this. I responded that I understood the decision. The students did not like my answer. But I think that the question needs to be addressed.

What is the value of discussing the events of 9/11 in a high school? The seniors were 4 years old at the time of the attack. To them, this is a topic from history. Do they get something more than someone would when talking about Pearl Harbor because they, at least, were alive in 2001 (when I mentioned Pearl in class, a student, a 12th grader, actually said "What's Pearl Harbor?" I don't raise this to mock anyone, simply to say that some events, no matter how cataclysmic, eventually become facts, names and dates, not shared experiences) ? Is there something about being in relative proximity which makes it more reasonable for students in NY and NJ to review the events of the day moreso than someone in Texas?

Stuff has happened in this country. lots of it. Much of it really bad. The Twin Towers were bombed years before 9/11. Two space shuttles exploded. The federal building in Oklahoma City was bombed as was a marathon. The White House was burned down. Innumerable school shootings have taken scores of young lives. Presidents were assassinated, wars were fought. But we don't take time out of the school day to commemorate most of these events. Should we? When does something become a relic or a vestige of a past we no longer culturally share? Is it about the number of deaths? Is it about the symbolism of the event or the choice of villain? As for me? I'm an old man. I remember 9/11 like it was yesterday. Sights, sounds, feelings. It is all recent to me, part of what has shaped me. But to a teenager who was barely on the cusp of memory? Is there really any point beyond teaching America's past in 2001 in the same way that one might take time to commemorate the Boston Massacre?

But on the other hand, don't we believe in some form of "Never forget"? Don't we think that certain events need to stay fresh because the lessons are too important to be allowed to grow stale? Aren't we still in a political era over which 9/11's shadow is still cast, fighting the same war (itself a subject of argument)? Shouldn't students see what established the context which demands that we police the world in a particular way? Isn't 9/11 just too central to today's culture to be shunted aside or turned into a chapter in a text book? Isn't there some point to holding on to the pain and ensuring that a new generation feels the pain as acutely as we who lived through the event? Isn't it just too soon to turn this into trivia or the distant recollections of the senior set? And if so, when will it become acceptable to file this away?

Honestly, I don't know. I invite comment and we have 364 days to make a decision for next year.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

A Random Torah Thought

This just struck me so I am putting it here for safe keeping.

I have, in other writing, commented on the bracha of "atah kadosh" in the shmoneh esrei -- how in one way of reading, calls all humans who daven "kedoshim" and this puts on on the same level as angels, and also, equates us, in this sense, with God and his holiness. But I just found another, similar idea.

In the Shabbat morning davening, we say "yismach moshe" (and Moshe will be happy). I looked up online to try and figure out what this is referring to. Why is it in the future tense and not the past -- the paragraph seems to be talking about events in the desert! I found a page which pointed out that future happiness is mashiach-era based. Moshe will be happy because he gets a portion in the messianic age and he earned it by being an eved ne'eman, a loyal servant to God. That seems like a tough level to reach. I can't be as great as Moses so I won't have the option to have that happiness. Unfair, I say.

But we fix that by adding musaf to our Shabbat prayer routine. In musaf, we say "yismechu b'malechutcha shomrei shabbat" (those who guard the sabbath will be happy in your kingship) - we will earn a place in the era when God is king over all simply by guarding the Sabbath! Maybe by placing that line in the musaf prayer, the extra prayer recited on the Sabbath and holidays, we are earning that place by praying (in some weird, recursive logic loop). The Sabbath was sanctified as special so that we could, through our adherence to Sabbath laws, earn something beyond this world.

Maybe we can't be as dedicated and loyal servants as Moses was but God gives us an avenue we CAN achieve in order to earn that divine happiness, guarding the Sabbath.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Textnology in the Classroom

I want to tell you about Ezi Burns. And if it ends up that my memory is faulty and this story isn't about Ezi Burns, but about another person, I apologize to all involved. So anyway, back to Ezi Burns. Or whoever.

It was about 17 years ago and I was teaching an eleventh grade honors English class. The class was about 30 students strong in a quaint old building in Washington Heights and we focused on European literature. One day, as I was walking around leading a discussion on something or other, I noticed that Ezi was busy writing something in his notebook. Now Ezi was not always the most active participant in class discussions but his grades were good, his writing was well structured and when he made comments, they reflected thought and an awareness of the topic at hand. He continued writing and occasionally said something to the point, and I worked my way over. I also noticed that a few other students were looking at his notebook and were less engaged by the conversation than they were by whatever was going on over there. Finally I sidled up close and looked over his shoulder.

Ezi had drawn a picture of me as Frankestein's creation (I refuse to call him a monster...that is a matter of interpretation and labeling). It was good -- you could clearly see the bolts coming out of my neck and the physical shape of the creation (at least as represented in popular culture) and still clearly recognize the face as mine. It was really, really good. Ezi looked up at me and said, "I bet you are going to tell me to stop doodling and pay attention in class." I said, "Nope, as long as you promise to make a copy for me." Later I told him, "I have no problem with your drawing -- you are really good and I know that it helps keep your mind focused so you can really understand the class material. But please be aware when your drawing becomes a distraction for other students who can't multi-task like that." After that, he was even more involved in class and gave me a copy of that Frankenstein picture and one of three students in the back of the class complaining about studying Hamlet while represented as Beavis and Butthead types. I don't think anyone else had ever validated either his drawing skill or his learning style before. I think I did right by not stopping what he needed to keep him focused. I only regret that since that time, I have lost the Frankenstein drawing.

Students learn in different ways and some need to keep their hands, or eyes, or even ears busy in order to keep their minds on task. Some students study with music on, others focus their learning while playing video games. The fact is, the notion of "focus" in not one that exists to the exclusion of any other sensory input. While we would like to think that everyone listens best when the teacher has the class's undivided attention in a room devoid of all distractions, sometimes, what is a distraction for one is a necessary aid for another. Now, please, do not think that I am advocating the anarchy which would result if we were to let every student create the individual learning environment in a communal setting. A student with headphones on, listening to Metallica, cannot hear a class discussion or lecture -- that mode of split focus works best when his eyes do the academic work through reading, so I won't let a student have headphones on during class discussion time (though I have let students listen to music while taking certain tests). A student who can respond best while he is moving around still cannot be allowed to roam during class time. But what is clear is that we cannot remove every potential "distraction" and not every other sensory input is a bad thing.

Now, before I make my next statement, please understand I am not here to undermine, question or otherwise imply a vote of no confidence for the policy in place in my school and others. I simply want to raise a topic for discussion.

In my school, we have a policy -- no cell phones allowed in class. I am just wondering "why not?"

The cell phone signals a huge scientific and cultural change in our social interactions -- we can now be reached at any time and we also expect response more quickly. Gone are the days of "you just wait til your father gets home and he hears about this!" Now, we call dad up and tell him right now. And with smartphones, we can check facts, access information and respond to others on the go. We no longer have to load ourselves up with data (address, directions, money, names) and hope that we don;t require something for which we are not prepared. We, as long as we know how to get the information, can have anything we want, anywhere we end up. So on one level I could be making the argument that a class should stop teaching academic skills and should be focused on "how to use your phone more gooder." But I'm not saying that. I'm wondering about the nature of "distraction" that a phone might present and how different that is from any other potential distraction.

What can a student do on a phone which would be destructive to a classroom? A student might make or receive a phone call. Yes. That's a problem. But it is easily proscribed in the same way that chatting with your neighbor or deskmate is forbidden. One could text other people (the equivalent of passing notes, I guess). And why is passing notes bad? Because it takes attention away from the class material -- well, if a student's attention is diverted by anything, then that ANYTHING becomes a problem, but when a student passes notes, do we confiscate his pen and paper? We read the note out loud (at least they do on television) in the hopes that the public shaming will discourage further infractions. Video chatting? Well, a student can make faces at another student IN the classroom, no technology needed [side note -- we used to try and make Zev Itzkowitz laugh in class by poking him while Mr. Grossman was facing the board. Zev didn't laugh, my fingers weren't confiscated, I was kicked out of class and I did poorly in math while Zev aced the class. Just saying]. If a teacher catches a student clowning around, the teacher uses whatever disciplinary method addresses the behavior, not the technology used. And the same is true with drawing -- if the student is drawing and not paying attention, the teacher doesn't take away the pencil. So why, if the student can remain focused on the class content while playing a game on his phone (sans sound) should the phone be discouraged any more than Ezi Burns' pencil and notebook.

All of this is compounded by two aspects of modern life. The first, as mentioned, is the shift in the expectations of availability. Carrying a phone means that whoever has to contact you will, without looking at the clock. For good or for bad, parents will text students during class and expect responses. As a responsible parent, I would never do such a thing. Fortunately, I am not a responsible parent. I should be able to tell a student, "If someone feels it is so important to contact you during school, then please respond quietly, or else you will be more distracted by the unknown message and that person will be more worried by your lack of response." I don't like having my students' attention split but life intervenes sometimes. Trust me -- A student will be more distracted by trying to hide a cell phone and text than by quickly texting while the phone is in full view. I recall participating in The Principals' Center through teh Harvard University School of Education. During this summer program, we were hit with hours of frontal lecturing reminding us that frontal lecturing is an outmoded form of instruction. The first rule was "Be Here" and to that end, cell phones were forbidden. It was fun watching grown men and women, teachers, principals and superintendents, sneak looks at their phones in order to combat the boredom of listening to a lecture about how to be more professional.

The second major shift is the ubiquitous presence of other technology in the classroom. isn't it the slightest bit comical that we make a rule outlawing phones while we establish a classroom with a one-to-one student to iPad ratio? And if not iPads, we allow laptops for note taking and often require them for collaborative projects or research during class time? What stops the tablet or laptop from being as much of a distraction if not more? There are even classes which require the use of a phone to take a quiz or respond to a poll or a prompt. If we see the value of the phone will we start drawing lines and saying "use your phone NOW but then put it away because it isn't useful"? The student will see through that, especially one for whom the use is a focusing aid, not hindrance.

The fact is, anything can distract a particular student -- the noise from the air conditioner, the perfume another student is wearing, the cars outside (I mean, why are students so excited by a police car driving by, or snow? they have never seen snow before...but the second a flake falls, I have lost them), a game of tic-tac-toe and, yes a phone. But some of these same things could be the best thing for that student's learning style and environment and some we simply can't get rid of.

I advocate a different approach which requires that a teacher be more aware of the particular needs and habits of each student. Simply watch them. Let them choose their behavior knowing that the consequence of being distracted is not knowing what is going on which the teacher is sharp enough to notice. See what behaviors really pull their minds, not just eyes away and call them out on those while letting them use whatever other means keep them invested mentally. It won't seem fair to an outsider and it takes much more work for the teacher, having to monitor involvement every day instead of simply assuming it, but the results should be a class which feels respected and empowered and which knows the natural consequences of not living up to a reasonable expectation. This might just lead to real learning.

So in summary, if anyone knows Ezi Burns, ask him if he still has that picture so I can get another copy.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Punting the Pail

Let me come right out and say it: I am not going to pour ice water on myself.

These days, the "hottest" thing is to take the ALS Ice Water Bucket Head Challenge Thing. In case you are reading this in some far flung galaxy after having inadvertently snagging a stray terran transmission, or are seeing this far in the future after stumbling on a memory module while you are excavating the ancient ruins of one of our "cities" destroyed in the Fourth Mutonium Conflict, or if you just don't know what it is, I will explain. A person is challenged either to pour a bucket of ice water on his head or donate money to the charity raising funds to help subsidize research into trying to find a cure for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis(Lou Gehrig's disease). I think that there is some subset of rules that says that if you accept the challenge you still donate, but less, so that no one thinks he can shirk his civic duty by giving himself hypothermia.

I won't make jokes about Lou Gehrig's disease. ALS is a pretty bad thing. I don't want my refusal to participate in this ridiculous ritual to appear insensitive to those who have suffered or who have had relatives or friends who suffered from ALS. It is bad. I understand that.

But here's the thing -- people can't wait for some stupid and childish (and possibly dangerous) stunt of a gauntlet to be laid down before they act. We can't support that way of thinking. "Honey," he said to his beloved, "I was planning on donating money to ALS research but I feel like I have to wait until someone challenges me to do something I would tell my kids not to do any other day of the week!" Why have we descended to the point that our celebrities, politicians and friends think it is a good thing to waste water and publicize their willingness to avoid a larger donation by abasing themselves? Surely, you will say, this helps increase ALS awareness by having all of our worthy and heroic Hollywood types speak up about ALS. Yes, wonderful. It is nice to know that we, the commoners, need to be prodded and shamed by those people who have enough money to pay someone to dry them off and who have enough time in the day to support many good causes. We should be ashamed, then, of our own ignorance, or our hypocritical sense of self-righteousness when we finally do choose to get involved. Look at us! We are so interested in ALS research that we will participate in this charade instead of quietly mailing a check. And we'll emotionally blackmail others to do the same! What fun! I hope the famous people lead us in discovering another charity worth my money, next week, when this fad has run its course.

Sadly, there are many diseases out there. There are many causes, social, religious, political, economic and medical which cry out for our attention. Will each one have to use some its donation dollars to hire a PR firm to think of the new viral dare which will encourage people to give them money? Will those without a good spokesperson and a funny hook lose out? The pool of donation dollars is relatively fixed and finite. Money given to one is taken from another and what should determine a person's choice of causes to support should be something more than a bucket of ice water and the pearly whites of a movie star. Will I be asked to pierce my tongue to help cure cancer? And if I am, am I bad person because my donation dollars have already been spent trying to cure Tay Sachs? Or help support a soup kitchen? And if I choose to give to the ASPCA instead of Salvation Army, will I have to wrap my head in a flaming towel for 15 seconds and make sure I make a video so people know that my heart is in the right place? Will I then have to challenge my grandchildren to ride a stray dog like a pony or coat their noses in nail polish within 24 hours in order to increase worldwide awareness of Disabled American Veterans?

The cinnamon challenge. The pass-out game. Lying down in the middle of the street as in the movie The Program. Lighting our flatulence. Extreme wrestling. Coating ourselves in rubbing alcohol and letting it burn off. Internet videos show people doing stupid things all the time. Do we slavishly copy them in order to gain some communal acceptance or notoriety? I would like to think that most of us fight against it. We tell our kids not to succumb to peer pressure. Unless, it seems, it is to support a cause that other people are loudly supporting.

If, after I receive the myriad phone and mail and email solicitations for donations, my family and I decide that some of our money can be allocated towards ALS research, we will do so, because we feel it is important and within our means right now. And if we feel that the limited pool of ready cash should be used towards other causes, even ones that haven't asked us to do something dumb, then we will do that. It isn't glamorous. It isn't funny. And there won't be a video of it either. No celebrity will speak out about making reasonable and measured decisions. No politician will garner votes by throwing away envelopes from causes that just aren't practical choices this year. But if I wait to be challenged in order to spur my donations and make my recipient choice for me then I am already lost.