Monday, July 21, 2014

Pirke Avot 5:26: I'd Rather Be a Mensch Than a Tzaddik

For most religions, it would seem to make sense that the most righteous individual (in Judaism, that individual is called a tzaddik; צדיק) who does the most good deeds that are "pleasing to G-d" would acquire the best reward. There might be something said for complete obedience or compliance to a given set of religious rules, but not so much in Judaism. Judaism says that life is more nuanced than that, and is thus reflected in how G-d perceives us. We actually see this in the Talmud (Berachot 34b), where it says that a צדיק cannot stand in front of a ba'al teshuvah (בעל תשובה), who is an individual who was not observant but becomes observant. How can it be that a penitent receives more merit than a righteous individual? Because that individual has truly experienced repentance. What does repentance have to do with one's merit before G-d? This is where Pirke Avot 5:26 comes in:

לפום צערא אגרה.
The reward is in proportion to the exertion.

Although the word לפום literally means "according to the suffering," it has been commonly interpreted as "the reward is in proportion to the effort and difficulty exerted" (Rashi, Rav). Some other interpretations extend it to those not intellectually endowed (Midrash Shmuel) or are not as young as they used to be (R. Yonah), but the point is that the predominant meaning of the passage is that G-d understands our circumstances, and thusly takes them into account when judging our deeds.

For someone who is a צדיק, they have to exert little to no effort to perform a mitzvah. For them, it practically is natural. They hardly, if at all, have the desire to perform a transgression. For such individuals, performing such behavior is automated, natural. That is not how the vast majority of those who want to do good in this world operate. For so many of us, there is the internal struggle to want to do right and do what feels good. While they are not inherently mutually exclusive, we see this dichotomy play out time and time again. Struggle is part of the typical human experience. A lot of us question if G-d exists or why G-d would allow for something bad to happen. We doubt, we question, we transgress. It's part of the human experience. Personally speaking, I'd rather have that struggle. Yes, it can be [more than] annoying at times, but it's what makes life worth living. To be able to do what G-d wants in spite of that struggle is what puts the biggest metaphorical smile on His face, and for that reason, I would rather be a mensch than a tzaddik. 

Friday, July 18, 2014

Should We Be Targeting Wal-Mart?

Wal-Mart is one of those topics that breed a special form of contempt in American politics. Wal-Mart is symbolic the kind of evil corporatism that only cares about the "bottom line" at the expense of its employees, as well as "Main Street America." Watch a documentary like "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price," and you'll get an idea of what I mean. An opinion piece in the New York Times a month ago that called for Wal-Mart to raise the wages of its low-skilled workers reignited the Wal-Mart debate. This brings us to the question du jour: Do Wal-Mart's low prices outweigh the costs or are we dealing with "unfettered capitalism" at its worst?

One of the fears is that Wal-Mart is going to use its economies of scale to destroy mom-and-pop business, and as a result, the world will be overrun by Wal-Marts. In spite of its large profits (although its profit margins are smaller in comparison) and its relative longevity, we have not been invaded by Wal-Mart. Even so, has Wal-Mart been a hindrance or a help?

Offhand, I can tell you there are some things I don't like about Wal-Mart. I don't like the fact that they receive about $7B in tax breaks or government subsidies per annum. I'm also not a fan that Wal-Mart doesn't oppose a federal minimum wage increase or is in favor of the employer mandate for Obamacare not because it's better for workers, but because minimum wage is an additional cost of labor that would screw over their competitors. I am also annoyed that Wal-Mart does not have transparency in the wages it pays its low-skilled workers because it would put an end to the question of whether the wages of the "typical Wal-Mart worker" is higher or lower than they should be. A study conducted by an economist, who is by no means Left-leaning, shows that Wal-Mart reduces county-level retail employment by 1.4 percent (Neumark et al., 2007). My counterargument to this study would be that the study does not take into consideration the employment effects on a macro level, but that's just me. Even so, I wonder about the net effects on employment, which when accounting for creative destruction, seem to be negligible (Dean and Sobel, 2008). There was also a study showing that Wal-Marts can dampen crime reduction (Wolfe and Pyrooz, 2013). And let's not forget that Wal-Mart has lower levels of customer satisfaction than other retail stores.

That being said, I can still recognize the benefits of Wal-Mart. One of the most concise studies ever done on Wal-Mart, a study that has been cited by the Chairman of President Obama's Council of Economic Advisors as a success, shows that consumers benefit from Wal-Mart's prices, especially on food prices (Hausman and Leibtag, 2005). Considering that food expenses make up 35 percent of pre-tax income for the lowest quintile, I hardly think that a Wal-Mart induced reduction in food costs of 20-25 percent is insignificant.

The wages of Wal-Mart workers is a point of contention because they are seen as exploitative, which is those on the Left ask whether Wal-Mart can raise its wages while still keeping it competitive edge. Part of the debate is determining whether having a low-wage job at Wal-Mart is better than having no job at all. We also have to realize that Wal-Marts tend to be in lower-income, lower-wage areas than other stores, which means that any comparison of wages has to be done with other individuals in the same geographical area and the comparable job skill sets (i.e., you need a valid comparison group).The Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis did so a few years back and found that when considering total compensation [that included benefits], Wal-Mart workers fared slightly better. Wal-Mart does not do anything atypically egregious in the retail industry. If Wal-Mart is really that terrible, then people shouldn't want to work there. As an example, the Wal-Mart that opened up in DC last year shows otherwise. 23,000 individuals applied for 800 positions, which is an acceptance rate of less than 4 percent. The Wal-Mart jobs must be appealing enough because apparently, it's harder to get a job at Wal-Mart than it is to get accepted to an Ivy League university.

Blocking Wal-Mart to enter the market is a different form of government favoritism, but still exists as a form of government intervention. What's more is that a Harvard economist recently found that these barriers of entry to the market also harm mom-and-pop shops (Sadun, 2014). Individuals should decide if they want the lower prices and greater economic efficiency of Wal-Mart or the convenience, specialty items, and the more personable customer service experience that comes with independent retailers. If Americans wanted to support Main Street America, they wouldn't shop at Wal-Marts. The truth is that we live in an age with discount stores and online shopping. Whether you agree with some or all of Wal-Mart's practices or not, it should be the individual that decides the medium through which they have the best customer experience possible.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Parsha Matot: Can Gratitude Supersede Obeying G-d?

In many world religions, submitting oneself to G-d in complete obeisance is an ideal. I'm glad to say that is not the case in Judaism. We do our best to follow the will of G-d (whatever that might mean), but there are moments where we question or simply do not obey. What Moses does in this week's Torah portion illustrates just that:

Moshe sent them, a thousand from each tribe and Pinchas the Elazar the Kohen with the holy vessels and the trumpets in his hand. -Numbers 31:6

A few verses beforehand in Number 31:2, G-d tells Moses to avenge the people Israel (נקם נקמת בני ישראל). How did Moses disobey G-d in this situation? The verb לנקום, which would more accurately be translated as "redress the past wrongs [in the form of fighting] (see Deuteronomy 32:35, Isaiah 1:24)" is an active verb. Moses should not have sent Pinchas to avenge the people Israel. Moses should have done it himself. Why did Moses stay behind, thereby disobeying G-d's directive?

The Midrash Rabba (Bamidbar, Matot 22:4) says "The verse states 'Moses sent them,' G-d told Moses 'go avenge,' meaning you personally, and he sent others? Rather because he was raised [as a young adult in the Land of Midyan, Moses said, 'it is not proper that I should cause suffering to those who were kind to me.'"

We see something very similar happen in the Exodus narrative. During the beginning of the Ten Plagues, Moses was not the one who turned the river into blood, but it was his brother Aaron. Why was this the case? Because when Moses was an infant, the river had carried him to safety, and Moses thus abstained from the first couple of plagues as a way to show הכרת הטוב (gratitude). If Moses showed gratitude for an inanimate object, all the more so for individuals who showed hospitality to Moses.

While Moses did not intervene in the ultimate result of G-d's directive [because the Midianites' sins were egregious enough for their comeuppance], Moses reinterpreted G-d's commandment in order to show gratitude towards the Midianites. The fact that G-d did not chide or punish Moses for disobeying a direct order is astounding. We see that obeying G-d is not an absolute. We also realize the importance of individuals exercising their own judgment about what is the will of G-d, what G-d wants from us, and when there are two conflicting Jewish values, which supersedes which. Much like Abraham did with sacrificing a ram in lieu of his own son, Moses made the correct decision in expressing gratitude instead of obeying a divine directive. In this case, Moses was living up to the namesake of יהודי (Jew): being grateful in every situation, even when that means disobeying G-d. Moses is an archetype of gratitude, and I can only hope that all Jews strive to live up to our namesake that makes us Jews.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Taking Interest in the Export-Import Bank and Whether Its Charter Should Expire

There has been a lot of hullabaloo lately, particularly in the think-tank world and the libertarian blogosphere, about the Export-Import Bank, also known as Ex-Im. What is the Export-Import Bank? It is the official export credit agency of the United States federal government. What this means is that Ex-Im finances corporations with government-backed loans to finance the foreign purchase of United States goods for customers incapable of taking on the risk. Think of it as the IMF's role "lender of last resort," except on a national level. Although the Ex-Im has been around since 1934, its charter is up for reauthorization this September. Unless Congress votes to reauthorize the charter, the Ex-Im will cease to exist. Proponents of Ex-Im believe that the Bank serves a vital role of stimulating the American economy. Opponents view Ex-Im as a form of corporate welfare with little to no benefit to anyone else. Who is right? Should we even care about the fate of Ex-Im? Let's take a closer look as to what Ex-Im actually does.

Ex-Im subsidizes American exports through government direct loans and loan guarantees to other countries. According to Ex-Im, not only do they "turn export opportunities into real sales," but the idea behind this intervention is to "level the playing field" because if other governments are doing it, why shouldn't we? Ex-Im naturally wants you to believe that they make a positive difference. It's called self-preservation. However, since it is a financial institution that deals with numbers, it should be relatively easy to measure the fiscal magnitude of such government interaction.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) recently published a report on Ex-Im and its costs. When assessing costs here, one has to be able to differentiate between the FCRA's (Federal Credit Reform Act) method of accounting, which the Ex-Im uses, versus fair-value accounting. The CBO describes this in further detail. What fair-value accounting accounts for [that the FCRA does not] is the idea of market risk. The Wharton School's Financial Economist Roundtable, Price Waterhouse Cooper, and the Harvard Business Review also found fair-value accounting is preferable because the accounting process Ex-Im uses understates the costs of Ex-Im's programming. What the CBO found in its study on Ex-Im is that when using fair-value accounting, Ex-Im actually costs $1.6B over the next decade (CBO, p. 2), which is different from the $14B gain that proponents tout.

Furthermore, we should not substitute political decision-making for market-based decision making. Why? Because when you do that, you heavily subsidize large companies that milk the system to further line their pockets. In spite of Ex-Im's claim that 90 percent of its transactions are with small businesses, the vast majority of the money that Ex-Im loans goes to large corporations. Take a look at the firms that receiving funds, and it reeks of corporate welfare: Boeing, Caterpillar, General Electric, Ford, Exelon.

What doesn't help is the recent charges of fraud. It doesn't exactly help that only a third of its portfolio goes towards offsetting foreign subsidies, which is its primary goal. Even the jobs numbers that it claims are most probably overstated (General Accountability Office, 2013). What annoys me about proponent claims is that the claim of jobs numbers and export numbers assumes a static model, i.e., if Ex-Im, nothing would replace it, which is decidedly not the case. It's hard to see the victims because we cannot simultaneously compare the net economic benefits of a hypothetical world without the Ex-Im. If we take a brief look at the economics of export subsidies, export subsidies reduce world consumption and consumer efficiency. Looking at the evidence I have already presented, theory seems to line up with practice.

The 98 percent of the $2.2T in annual exports America already have private loans and function just fine. In a $1.6B loss in ten years is small in an economy that has a GDP of $16T a year, yes, this is relatively small. Even with its $107B portfolio ($113.8B according to the Congressional Research Service), it's a drop in the bucket compared to what the Federal Reserve Bank does. This would not be a solution to deal with the size of the federal government debt, but rather send the message that corporate welfare and crony capitalism, or what I like to call "crapitalism," are unacceptable. The symbolism behind Ex-Im acts more as a litmus test of small government than anything else.

It doesn't matter if we stop with the protectionism and other countries don't because they are still harmed. Just because other countries metaphorically jump off the bridge with their protectionist policies doesn't mean we should follow suit. There are better ways of going about improving the state of our exporters without subsidizing them, which is all the more true since the largest beneficiaries are large corporations that can easily adjust their financial practices. Reduce regulatory burdens. Make meaningful tax reform, particularly with the corporate tax. We don't need an Export-Import Bank financing large companies to improve upon our economic wellbeing, and that really should be the message behind allowing Ex-Im to end its charter.

Friday, July 11, 2014

A Call for China and the United States to Develop More Constructive Relations

It's the diplomatic event of the year as far as Sino-American relations are concerned. July 9-10, 2014 marked the sixth annual U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (中美战略与经济对话). The purpose of such a gathering? To have high-level functionaries address the challenges of the political, geo-strategic, and economic issues between the two countries. While I would prefer them to have than diplomatic discussions over doing something like go to war, I still have to wonder how constructive such dialogues can be. This is particularly because one country views the party as adversaries in a zero-sum world.

Since it implemented the export-growth model, China has been very dependent on American consumption. China also fueled American consumption, which is why the two have developed an unhealthy dependence upon one another. There are also many issues that impede growth of Sino-American relations. Taiwan has been an issue for decades now, and given that Taiwan is more democratic in nature and Beijing is still hung up on its nationalism, I don't see that going away anytime soon. There have been increasing tensions in the East China Sea and South China Sea, not to mention the cyber attacks that have resulted in the indictment of five members of the Chinese army. National security issues such as these are contentious, and are more likely to be sorted out in a non-diplomatic arena, although if you are worried about balance of power, you'll need China's cooperation. Rather than focus on what cannot be achieved through these dialogues, how about what can be done to ameliorate Sino-American relations?

Economics seem like a good place to start. The United States should focus on helping China liberalize its markets instead of enacting tariffs or calling China a currency manipulator (because honestly, there are much more egregious culprits of currency manipulation going on out there). China should focus on liberalizing its markets, especially its capital markets, instead of giving into reactionary, corrupt politics. Giving a jumpstart to the bilateral investment treaty would do some good. The United States could remove its export controls on China, and China needs to stop erecting trade barriers. Protectionism only benefits the very few while causing net economic loss for many. Rather than view the other as adversaries or have conferences that cover too many topics for a two-day period, maybe they should view themselves as partners of engendering amicable relations via liberalized trade. A paradigm shift would go a long way in promoting proper economic interdependence.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Same-Sex Couples Can Parent Just As Well As Straight Couples, Which Means....

The legalization of same-sex marriage has been making headlines in America, but one topic that doesn't get as much attention is that of same-sex couples adopting children. What makes the issue of adoption intriguing is that you're not simply talking about a union between two consenting adults of the same sex. You are now throwing in another party, i.e., a child [or children]. As the thought-terminating cliché goes, "Think of the children!" Children are particularly interesting from a libertarian philosophy (see here, here, and here) because they aren't fully autonomous individuals with mens rea, but still deserve respect and consideration because they are human beings. As such, let's go with the assumption that the welfare of the child matters in this discussion.

Some will argue that it's because the optimal family arrangement is one's biological mother and father, and others will argue that having the biological differentiation of one mother and one father is best for the child as the basis for their claim. They argue that as such, same-sex parenting is not only not ideal, but can actually harm the child. I'll get into the probability of that being the case momentarily, but let's ask another question: what if they're wrong? What if by not allowing same-sex households to adopt, you keep the child in a considerably worse situation? If the anti-gay side is wrong in their claim, then they have actually caused damage of many children. There are many children who are in the foster care system. Although foster parents should be lauded for taking in these children, it's hardly a stable or emotionally healthy for the child. As Ezra Klein astutely points out, "The idea that there is something so wrong with same-sex households that it would be preferable for these children to go two or four or six years without parents--an idea, again, that has little to no evidence behind it, and that is in fact contradicted by most of the evidence--bespeaks a homophobia so deep that it is hard for me to believe it could persist long among people who actually know any children in the foster system, and who actually know many gay couples."

Whether we're talking about the social costs of carbon, whether guns kill people, or any other policy, we have to ask about burden of proof when someone is making a claim. In this instance, the anti-gay argument is that same-sex households are suboptimal. The burden of proof goes to whoever is making the claim of the existence of something, not the one being skeptical of the claim. If the burden of proof went to the skeptic, then we would have to accept the existence of flying unicorns and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. To avoid giving credence to unsubstantiated claims, we ask that people provide some sort of credible substantiation to support a claim. This is especially true when discussing public policy and peoples' lives are affected. One of the premises behind public policy is about being able to assess the risk of a "clear and present danger." Risk assessment, or more specifically, cost-benefit analysis, is vital to determining public policy, and if you're going to be spending taxpayer dollars or using the government to ban something, you better be able to come up with something other than your perception of what a family should like as a basis for policy, or G-d forbid, anti-gay biases. Otherwise, you'd open the floodgates of ridiculousness in the world of public policy, and we'd have to call on the government to prepare for a number of unsubstantiated threats, including an alien invasion, an infestation of leprechauns, the coming of the Rapture, or the invasion of Mozambique because you're under the misimpression that they are an actual national security threat.

If we're going to make a policy decision based on the claim that same-sex households are suboptimal, it better be backed up with evidence adequately describing the benefits and harms, or opponents should simply back off because they don't have a leg to stand on, which is also how I feel about those who say genetically modified food is bad for you. Asking for evidence to support a claim isn't to much to ask for, is it? I think not, but good politics has a propensity to get in the way of good public policy. With that out the way, let's take a look at that evidence, shall we?

For those whose raison d'être it is to undermine families with same-sex parents simply because the parents are homosexual, they go to the Regnerus study (2012) as "proof" because it's really the only study conducted that even can be misconstrued to suggest anything resembling evidence. First, I have to say it's ironic that the study is used this way because, even as Regnerus himself admits, his study provides no conclusions regarding the wellbeing of children in families run by same-sex couples. The issues with this study go beyond the fact that this was a study that was funded by a conservative anti-gay organization called the Witherspoon Institute, or that the peer-review process was rushed and poorly implemented. Regnerus' study did not have a sufficient sample size because all but two of the children did not from households initially led by different-sex couples. Those who are anti-gay want to complain about insufficient sample sizes. Is two a woefully small number for a sample size? For sure! And then there's the matter of not having a valid comparison group. You can't take children from unstable, opposite-sex households from "failed heterosexual unions" [that ultimately resulted in family dissolution] because the homosexual partner wanted to keep up the façade of being straight. Much like any of the other studies that have been fallaciously used to discredit same-sex parenting, they do nothing to measure the specific effects of same-sex parenting on the wellbeing of children.

If you're going to make an apples-to-apples comparison, you need the valid comparison group to legitimately make a claim either way (i.e., opposite-sex families with roughly the same means and resources as same-sex couples so we can isolate the sexual orientation of the parents), which is why I was happy to see this very recent study that came out of Australia (Crouch et al., 2014). As far as sample sizes go, it's the largest of any study ever conducted on the topic, not to mention that given the number of same-sex couples in Australia (Crouch et al., p. 1), it's a good representation of the demographic. Not only does this study negate any misconceptions on the anti-gay side, but the study went as far to conclude that even in spite of stigma that the children receive because their parents are homosexual, children of same-sex couples actually fare better. It might have something to do with same-sex parents taking on roles that are suited to their skill sets as opposed to traditional gender stereotypes, but it also might have to do with the fact that since one cannot "knock up the other partner" in homosexual sex, the same-sex couple makes a conscientious decision to have children because they are usually at a point in life where they can handle the responsibilities of childrearing.

Even if you want to argue that Australian cultural norms aren't 100 percent importable or that the study surveyed those who consented, the findings in the Australian study are consistent with years of methodologically sound social science research shows that there is no qualitative difference between same-sex parenting and opposite-sex parenting. If you need more examples of this consensus, then how about a thirty-year longitudinal meta-analysis by the American Academy of Pediatrics (Perrin et al., 2013) or a number of other studies representing the scientific consensus essentially concluding the same thing (e.g., Bos et al., 2014; Farr and Paterson, 2013Goldberg and Smith, 2013; Lavner et al., 2012Potter, 2012; Farr et al., 2010Patterson and Wainwright, 2007Short et al., 2007Tasker, 2005)?

What goes into the wellbeing of a child are the relationship between the two parents, the relationship that the parents have with the child, as well as socioeconomic resources. As much as it kills social conservatives (especially those who use the nirvana fallacy only for studies that disagree with their viewpoint), the gender or sexual orientation of the parents are a negligible determinant in the wellbeing of children, especially in comparison to the aforementioned factors. Not only can we see that is the case in these studies, but the anecdotal evidence becomes apparent when people actually meet families with same-sex couples and realize that they function like any other family. It is the sort of compelling nature of the overwhelming evidence that helped the Supreme Court Justice rule 5-4 in United States v. Windsor that DOMA was unconstitutional, and it will continue to be the sort of evidence that will continue convincing people that same-sex couples can parent just as well as opposite-sex couples. What does this mean for the other side? It means that the shaky foundation upon which their arguments were based are crumbling at a faster rate than anticipated, and thusly have one less argument to relegate homosexual individuals to a second-class citizenry. Misconceived arguments based on shaky, tenuous evidence have no place in public policy, and I am glad to see that such arguments have less and less influence in American politics. May this sort of methodology extend to all areas of policy!

Monday, July 7, 2014

Being Able to Thank G-d for Our Struggles (And Not for The Reasons You Think)

It is not uncommon for Jews to view prayer as a way to communicate with G-d. To quote R. Jonathan Sacks from the Koren Siddur (p. xxxii), "In prayer, we speak to G-d. Through Torah G-d speaks to us. Praying, we speak. Studying, we listen." While I agree with the importance of verbalizing one's prayers, my apprehensions go beyond "If G-d is omnipresent and omniscient, doesn't it defeat the purpose of prayer?" While that question is important, there is the issue of G-d's Infinite Oneness. Since G-d is infinite, by definition, G-d is not finite. That might seem like a tautology, but it's worth uttering. Why? There is necessarily a gap between the infinite (i.e., G-d) and the finite (e.g., humans) because G-d does exists neither in time nor space. That is what infinity, i.e. G-d, conceptually is. This means that the conversation actually turns into a monologue. Fortunately, this does not have to change the Jewish definition of prayer. When we talk about "prayer" in English, we are unsurprisingly taking it from the Christian definition. The word "prayer" actually comes from the Latin word precare (to beg). It would explain why Christians, and Catholics in particular, get on their knees to pray. In Judaism, it's different because we stand before G-d when we pray. The Hebrew word that is commonly mistranslated as "prayer" is תפלה. The word תפלה comes from the Hebrew reflexive verb התפלל, which means "to judge oneself." Using etymology, Jewish prayer is a moment of self-evaluation, self-reflection, and a medium to assess our relationship with G-d, what it means, and how we can improve upon that rapport.

It was during such a davening session that I had one of these epiphany-like moments. When one wakes up in the morning, there are a series of blessings that are recited. There are three that are in dispute between the Conservative and Orthodox movements. Although I'm not going to get into all three, one of them has to do with thanking G-d for one's Jewishness. Orthodox practice is to recite the blessing [in the negative] of "not making me a Gentile" (שלו עשני גוי), whereas the Conservative movement prefers the blessing of "making me a Jew" (שעשני ישראל). I don't want to get into the debate of which is "more halachic" or "are there other ways of reforming the blessing without 'destroying the halacha'" because it detracts from the insight I was able to glean from the modification in the blessing.

Before continuing with the insight, however, I do want to say that I prefer the more positive affirmation because I prefer emphasizing who I am versus who I am not. I find that affirming who I am without demeaning others in the process is preferable to essentially saying "Thank G-d I'm not one of them." [Side note: Given the historical context of relations between Jews and non-Jews when these blessings were created nearly two millennia ago (e.g., Jews were surrounded by pagans; the Jews were exiled by non-Jews in 70 C.E., which is an event that shaped Judaism as we know it today), it made more sense to frame the blessing as such. However, given that relations with non-Jews are better, it seems more sensical to opt for the blessing in the positive.]

What did I find about שעשני ישראל to be so intriguing? Although the word "Jew" being used in this blessing is Israel (ישראל), the word ישראל literally means "[he who] struggles with G-d." When I thought of being part of the people Israel in that way, I translated the meaning of the blessing in my mind to conceptualize it as "Thank you G-d who made me to be someone who struggles with G-d." Why in the world would I be thankful for struggle? Isn't struggle supposed to be difficult and arduous? Yes, which is why I found this realization to be so fascinating.

In Christianity, a Christian finds solace in accepting Jesus as their savior. In Buddhism, one strives to reach nirvana by detaching oneself from the suffering of worldly attachments. In Judaism, G-d has given us the opportunity to not only find spirituality in the everyday and the mundane, but to do so while struggling. While תפלה certainly has its emotive qualities, it's about processing what we know about what is going on in the world and how Judaism perceives G-d.

I don't subscribe to גם זו לטובה ("this too is for the best") or that G-d is testing me with life's challenges (Infinite G-d, remember?). I do, however, take life's challenges as an opportunity to learn and better myself. Although it is difficult, I am doing my utmost to take a negative and gain whatever positive lessons I can. I know there is a lot of evil in the world that is difficult to explain, but it is better than a world without pain or suffering. This might seem counterintuitive, but hear me out.

Imagine a world without pain or suffering. It sounds idyllic, but it would get boring really quickly. I think of struggles as a necessary evil because it helps give our lives meaning, as well as gives us a reason to connect to others because if we had all of our physical or spiritual needs provided for, why do we need others in our lives? Struggle is a great developer of character, and I find that I am a lot stronger and wiser as a result of what I have had to endure in life. In all honesty, which feels more meaningful: gaining something because you worked through it or because it was handed to you? As a result, I have also realized that life is not about ephemeral enjoyment of the physical, but also has a deeper spiritual understanding that comes with having an element of struggle in our lives.

In summation, religiosity and spirituality don't have to translate into complacency, passivity, or blind acceptance to G-d. It means that we keep the metaphorical conversation going with G-d. It means we continue to ask the big questions and go about our religious practice while grappling with the pains, travails, and difficulties that life has to throw at us. It paradoxically means that we live a much more meaningful life, and for that, I am thankful.