Saturday, November 16, 2019

ME, MYSELF & I

Unlike giraffes, we live in a generation where no one will stick their neck out for you. And if evolutionists are correct that giraffes’ necks elongated over time to meet the needs of its survival, then perhaps we humans are just a generation away from having one arm a foot longer than the other. As personal and societal narcissism expands with viral speed and existential toxicity alongside the erumpent technological platforms to broadcast that narcissism, then 12 more inches of arm will possibly accommodate the need to take “selfies” and glorify the “I.”
Yes, “ME,” “MYSELF,” and “I” are celebrities in this age of narcissism. The echoes and clamoring of “It’s all about me” drown out the needs and cries of others and mutes the voice of God. Whereas once pagans killed people to worship gods, today we’ve killed God to worship people--OURSELVES. Consistently, upon the altar of self-deification, we have sacrificed the better part of us: compassion, morality, integrity, courage, charity and family, religious obligations, our history, the present and the future. And it is not the sweet odor of incense that hovers in the air as decency burns, but the stench of corruption, greed and mercilessness.
By deductive reasoning, if I am better and more important than you, then my problems and distresses are more important than yours. But that is not the world God wanted. The Talmud teaches that if we petition God for our needs and wants, first pray for another. For God cannot reside in an egotistical arrogant person. Get yourself out of your own way. You want to throw something on the sacrificial altar to get results (other than scapegoats), start with your ego. By further deduction we must recognize how very far away we are from God and truth by looking to Moses as the paradigm of behavior. Because he was the most humble person to walk the earth, he was worthy and able to be God’s messenger. He didn’t mistakenly drop the Divine Tablets to take a selfie and have his name written in a bestselling book. Conversely, he told God to blot his name out of His book if He destroyed the Israelites. Thus, if God was so close to Moses due to his humility and self-effacing behavior, imagine how bad we look in God's eyes because of our selfishness. We are polar opposites. Selfishness is an antithesis to the five senses with which God created and blessed man, for it has no eyes for the suffering of its sister, has no ears for the cries of its brother, it smells not its own stench, it has no parched tongue to know another’s thirst and it has no heart to feel or hand to touch another in comfort. It has only an extra-long arm to take a selfie, an extra-long arm that will lead to self-strangulation.
It is little wonder then that the world in which we find ourselves is falling apart due to its fragmented nature wherein each person thinks the world revolves around them instead of realizing that the whole world depends upon them. There is an apropos rabbinic allegory about heaven and hell. “In each location, the inhabitants are sitting at a long table but the utensils are too unwieldy to serve oneself. In hell, the people keep trying to stuff their own faces but can’t get the food into their mouths and so they starve. In heaven, the people help each other and feed one another across the table and are sated.”
Far from heaven, as congressmen and senators serve special interests for self-aggrandizement, cash and political survival, as corporate technology is steeped in an ever-growing surveillance culture so as to ultimately control us, as the news media panders to agenda and become lapdogs instead of watchdogs, the building blocks of our civilization are crumbling. Every day it becomes evermore easy to say, “Who cares about anyone else? I have to look out for myself.”
In this week’s Torah reading, Vayera, we read about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, societies where people cared only for themselves and were heartless and callous towards others. Being charitable was a crime. Their profound egotism and lust for easy gratification led, as it always will, to self-destruction. As the Talmud says, “He who is affected by a voracious hunger finally eats his own flesh.” Yes, man is made of earth which is the most selfish of creations as it is surrounded by a gravitational field that pulls everything toward itself. Yet even the earth is not so selfish that it begrudges the flower and the tree to grow upward and the seedlings to sprout. In the final analysis, the earth gives much more than it takes. Do we?
In the center of the biblical account of Sodom and Gomorrah stands the Patriarch Abraham, who asks God to spare the city if even fifty righteous people could be found. God said he would. Abraham slowly tweaks the number down to ten in case fifty could not be found. God consents. Not even ten could be found. But we learn here not only about the failings of Sodom and Gomorrah, but also about Abraham’s, and Noah’s too. When God told Noah he was going to destroy humanity, Noah didn’t say a peep, he just built an Ark. When God told Abraham he would destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham’s best was to suggest that God should spare the righteous. But, when God told Moses that he was going to wipe out Israel because of the sin of the Golden Calf, Moses said, “Please forgive their sin—but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written.”
It is said that in the Messianic Age everyone will be beset by intractable problems. As today’s crises escalate personally and globally, we too cannot merely ask, “Will it be okay for me?” We are our brother’s keepers. Like those in the allegory, we too each have a long spoon in our hand with which we can “serve” another and the other can serve us. On our own initiative let’s grow “longer arms” to give each other a helping hand and not contrastingly to pickpocket each other of our dignity and humanity by our mere self-absorption. If only ten righteous people could have been found, Sodom and Gomorrah would not have been destroyed. The question to ourselves is, “Would we count among them?”

Sunday, November 10, 2019

The Light Inside (Lech Lecha)


To this day the people closest to me question how I can sleep with so many books in my bed, biblical commentaries piled neatly beside me barely an arm-reach away. My reply is usually the same, “At least I don‘t wake up, like some, with a stranger in my bed or with a horse’s head like in the movie the Godfather.” For I am a strong believer that the way you make your bed is the way you will lie in it.
Actually a person’s grave and a bed have something in common in Judaism, in each a person dies and is judged. While asleep a person is 1/60th dead, the Talmud teaches. And just as in death, one’s deeds are examined, judged and recorded. That is why upon waking in the morning the first thing a Jew must do before even getting out of bed is to thank God for returning his soul and for having faith in him despite yesterday’s failings. We are given another chance to make our beds anew.
When a Jewish person dies it is customarily said that he has gone to “his world.” Why “his world” and not the next world? It is because one's life after death is comprised of what man creates for himself while he is alive. Rabbi Akiva Tatz emphasizes that in the next world a person exists alone with his actions; everything that you are or are not is blatantly in your face. If you are a liar, a manipulator, a thief, an adulterer, a fraud, a phony, an impostor or plain out pompous idiot, well, you’ll find yourself in the the company you created.
As such, when people turn to me for advice, my first question to them is what end result do you want? Usually, when the bigger picture is taken into account, the steps one takes are modified. Being reactionary in all aspects of our life may put out little fires and may pacify our egos from incident to incident, but such behavior tabulates to a very petty uninspired life.
The question stands: So what do you really want? And luckily for those who hate having to decide, the choice was never really ours to begin with. A Jew has only one mission in life and that is to create light from darkness. In every single choice we face in life there is a hidden spark of Godliness, of light that is waiting for you to uncover it. In this week’s Torah portion we read how Abraham tells his nephew Lot, “Please part from me; if [you go] left, I will go right, and if [you go] right, I will go left.” One lesson we can learn from this is that even though the direction of our life can be offset by circumstances or the actions of others (in our limited perspective), whether we are deflected left or right, it is how we travel that road that remains in our control. Do we further bury the sparks with our hate, jealousy, anger and bitterness or seek the ember among our smoldering dreams. We often keep looking for a guiding light to lead the way, but the light is hidden in the challenges and the heartaches. They can be accessed and released through how we behave. In essence we are the light. So light up! In Hebrew, the language wherein there are no coincidences, the word for "test"—nisayon–also means to be “lifted up.”
Many of us are going through painful times and our life’s compass has us spinning in circles. We are bored by our routines and feel like we are going nowhere and as stuck as a tire spinning uselessly in eight inches of icy snow. There’s just no traction. We often believe that physical motion will extract us from the traps we are caught in and just want to escape to anywhere. But the truth is we are never in the same place twice even if we are going in circles. We are rather on a spiral either going up or going down. We may go from point A to point B a thousand times, but how have we released the sparks along the way or not is the crux.
How many mitzvahs have you done between the two points? Do you walk around with a miserable disposition and bring everyone down or do you make everyone smile? (In Judaism, one’s face is public property and we have to keep a smile on it and greet people kindly). Do you give charity between your two points? Do you actively search for mitzvot to do with acts of kindness when you set out from your door? If we find ourselves trapped in darkness it’s usually because we have yet to release the inner light in the areas we repetitively confront. If you are trapped in yourself, it simply means you are selfish.
Often in life I hear people say I wish my father or mother were still around as they would tell me what to do. Luckily the lessons of Abraham our forefather are eternal for us, his children. He went through ten trials of faith that we can’t even fathom from being thrown into a fiery furnace to having to sacrifice his son on an altar (which the angel stopped), from his wife being taken by Pharaoh to warring against four kings with his small band of men. Those are only 4 of his ten tests. Whatever our problems, his were worse. As a result of his faith nonetheless, it is to him that God says, "...And you will be a blessing. I shall bless those who bless you and curse whoever curses you; and all the families of the earth will be blessed through you." (Genesis 12:2-3).
When God told Abraham, “Go,” He didn’t even tell him where he was going. Like us, he too had no clear path. But he taught us that when you walk with God and with faith in Him you are never walking into the darkness. Although Abraham’s wanderings reflect an aspect of God’s telling him to “go” physically, the journey was also an inner one: “Go to yourself.” Go toward the light. A beautiful analogy can be found in the Lubavitcher Rebbe's writings which cites the Yad Malachi in regard to studying the Babylonian Talmud, "[It] never reaches its decisions directly but arrives at them through digressions and dialectics which shed, in their apparent meandering, more light than a direct path could." 
People often try and find themselves in their job titles, their assets, their looks, their haughty affiliations, all for naught, for they are finite “treasures.” As King David writes in Psalms, “To every goal I have seen an end, but Your commandment is exceedingly broad.” It is only in God’s Torah, the Tree of Life, the eternal light, where you can truly go to yourself. Every Jew is a letter in the Torah. That is where you are. The Talmud teaches that the Torah is not in Heaven. It is not some distant philosophy for wise people to contemplate. It is here on earth for every person to apply in every decision he makes in order to liberate the light.
Thus, before we go into the darkness of the night and die a little, review the day and question how your deeds and words brought light to this world and to your own world, the one you’re creating for yourself. Don't be regretful of the "life" that lies beside you. No we are not angels. It’s not easy. But remember angels leave no footprints; man, however, was meant to make his mark.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Fools of THOUGHT

Perhaps the “likes” on Facebook and other such electronic validations further encourages us to say things or do things we believe will please others. But the desire to be liked to be accepted starts early on in life. Often the price for admission is our individuality. We suppress what is different about us either in opinions, morality, stance or proclivities because we don’t want to stand out or be laughed at or disliked. How often in social settings or on Facebook or other blogging sites do you find yourself among fellow conservatives or liberals pandering to the conversation with trepidation that if you say something out of the accepted norm of your “clan” you will have your head ripped off for having your own mind?
Just a few days ago with the impeachment inquiry vote we saw how the vote was divided along strict party lines. But it is such unanimity that brings destruction to the world. Where are the dissenting voices, voices such as Abraham’s which bravely go against everyone else’s when they are wrong? Our potential dear friends, both personally and collectively, lies not in sublimating what is unique about us and in squelching our voice but rather speaking boldly, come what may. A herd mentality is a dangerous thing no matter which part of the political, social or religious spectrum you may be on. It suffocates justice and truth. Its progeny is toxic.
In this week’s Biblical portion we read about the Tower of Babel wherein God looked down upon those who set to build a tower into the sky and said: "Lo! [they are] one people, and they all have one language.” So what’s wrong with that? It’s not like they were committing murder. What is wrong is that they were so single-minded, so much in lockstep, so much of “one language” that no one questioned the other or challenged the other as to whether their actions were correct or not. Such uniformity in mind and action is a dangerous thing as it is bound to succeed, as did communism and fascism to a great extent.
Interestingly, in American jurisprudence, in order for a person to be found guilty all the jurors must agree on the same verdict. Judaism and its teachings have a different view. In the days of the Sanhedrin, the rabbinical courts which were officiated by brilliant men, if the majority found someone guilty they were deemed guilty--but if ALL the judges were unanimous in finding a person guilty, the accused was to be set free. One of the rationales was that because of the superior composition of the judicial body at least one judge should have been able to contrive a scenario where the accused was not guilty. Solid consensus revealed something was wrong with the court. Being of ONE mindset does have murderous implications. It begins with murdering ideas, then kills freedom of speech and soon enough blood flows.
No, it is not easy to stand against the establishment; it is not easy to be that only voice that speaks out against wrong or injustice, I recall how many people scoffed at me when I ripped up my masters diploma from Columbia University years ago in protest of its invitation to Iran’s President Ahmadinejad. One blogger wrote that I ripped all proof of having any brains at all. Throughout, I kept in mind the famous quote, “It doesn’t matter what they call you, it’s what you answer to!” And more importantly it is WHO you answer to and for me that is God alone. It’s incredible how it bothers people when you serve God because it disempowers them. Thus history has shown us many leaders and philosophies which have aimed to provoke God and force people away from serving Him. Indeed the people of Babel were attempting to seize control of the world away from God. So how did He punish them? He confounded them and “confuse[d] their language, so that one will not understand the language of his companion.”
I urge you all to be that voice that rings out in the silent halls of consent, the one to make a ruckus when something is not right whether it’s on a national scale or an old lady being mistreated by a checkout clerk at the supermarket. Let’s not pretend we like to mind our own business while every other second of the day we are on information overload seeking out what’s going on in every dark place in the world from celebrity to gossip to local riffs and tiffs.
Learn from the story of Noah. In a world of complete depravity, he had the courage to be the sole voice of decency, to walk a righteous path. For certain he wasn’t winning any popularity contests as he was hardly speaking “the language” of the times. Both he and his ark were oddities to deride, and then it began to rain.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Totally Their Fault?

Many of us at some point in our lives feel disgusted with our yesterdays, with last year, with life the way we lived it. We want a different today and a different tomorrow. Our fitness efforts, our academic pursuits, our religious strivings, our attempts to find the proper mate, to be responsible, less lazy, etc., all fall short of our envisioned glory. Healthy-minded people are always wanting to “turn over a new leaf,” which literally means we want a fresh blank page to start anew. We think that the new page has some magic that the page before lacked. As a student, I always loved the first page of my notebook. It was always so neat. However, by day three the pages looked like an ink-dipped drunken chicken had danced across the ruled paper. We all strive for new beginnings, but really we engage in “old” beginnings. We use yesterday’s pen filled with yesterday’s excuses and find that the fresh page onto which we spill all our hopes is soon filled with inkblots resembling a Rorschach test reflecting our crippling psychological dramas. When we fail, very simply,  it’s everyone else’s fault; all our demons become our alibis: My parents were too easy; my parents were too tough; it’s my wife’s cooking, my bosses attitude, it’s the scale, it’s God’s fault, my cousin’s fault, my sister’s, my brother’s, my partner’s, the dog’s,  etc., la la la la la la. Adam and Eve sang that very same song, the self-expunging, self-pacifying one that serenaded them right out of Eden.

In this week’s Bible reading, we too start again from the beginning with the reading of Genesis. One can’t get a fresher start than creation. The first words God says are, “Let there be light.” This is not merely the Almighty calling into existence “physical” light, but as the Lubavitcher Rebbe teaches,  it was a mandate to mankind. Your thoughts, deeds and words should bring light to this world and reveal the godliness implicit in each thing and each encounter. Where there is light, there can be no lies. As our politicians like to say, sunlight is the best disinfectant. And as the polls indicate, most of us have an aversion to politicians because  lying is their forte. We hate being lied to. The problem is we lie to ourselves most of all, as mentioned above in the form of transferring blame. But as long as we prefer to be legends in our own minds and live in the darkness where our own culpability can’t find us, as long as we continue to blame the person to our left for our failures, we will perpetuate those failures and continue to entertain ourselves with false fresh starts. Nothing grows or thrives in the dark but mushrooms and fungus. You want to succeed? First “Let there be light.” After the first man and woman sinned and ate of the forbidden fruit, instead of taking responsibility and deserved blame for transgressing the one commandment they had, Adam blamed Eve and God; Eve blamed the snake. And the fruit didn’t fall far from the forbidden tree. After Cain kills his brother and God takes him to task, the rabbis teach that Cain blamed God. Cain reasons that if God had accepted his (lackluster) sacrifice, then Cain wouldn’t have been driven to jealousy and fratricide.

The All-knowing God asks Adam and Eve a very important question, “Ayeka?”-- “Where are you?” Certainly He knew where they were, the same way he knew where Abel was when He questioned Cain as to his brother’s whereabouts. The question is one meant to incite self-introspection, not geographical coordinates. The question is to give man a chance to repent and say, “I’m sorry. I messed up. It was me and all me. It’s my fault. I want to do better.”

Throughout many synagogues in the world above the arc harboring the Torah, there is a sign in Hebrew that  reads, “Know before whom you stand.” It’s not just knowing that you are before God that counts; you have to know yourself too: The real you. Big deal if your search reveals you are not that superstar, hot- shot, business genius that you fancied yourself to be, Pirkei Avot reminds us that from a putrid drop we came and to a place of dust and worms and maggots we go (Pirkei Avot, 3:1). Being honest is the biggest aid to advancing yourself in life. Because Adam and Eve chose to hide among the trees in the shadows of their sin instead of embracing the purpose of creation--“Let there be light”--they were punished and expelled from the Garden of Eden. Had they answered honestly to God, He would have forgiven them. Interesting that the same letters in Hebrew that spell the word ayeka, also start the Book of Lamentations authored by Jeremiah, “lamenting the destruction of the Holy Temple, the suffering of the Jews of that time, and the ensuing exile.” But there the letters are pronounced differently and introduce great tragedy. The relationship is self-evident. If we don’t answer the first ayeka honestly and give a true accounting as to where we are in life and why, then we will awake to woeful mournful lamentations about our lives.

Adam was supposed to live a 1000 years. King David was supposed to live only 3 hours. Adam asked God to give 70 years of his life to David and so Adam lived until 930. Adam’s was a gift to all mankind because King David taught us something we didn’t learn from Adam when he had the chance. David taught us how to take the blame we deserve, to beg for forgiveness and to not try and hide our sins from God or ourselves. God loved King David not because he was perfect, but because he knew when he was wrong, when it was his fault and he strove to improve his life’s journey on a real “fresh page” with God as his GPS. Hence it is through him that the Moshiach will come.

There will always be hurdles before us. That’s life. It’s all a big test to bring out the best in us. Whether others are entirely wrong, you BE right! Don’t wallow in the shadows of the Valley of Excuses. Let there be light! 

Friday, September 6, 2019

Shabbat Message

A friend of mine recently told me about an all–you-can-eat restaurant that charges customers a fixed price no matter how much food they pack on their plates -- but then ALSO charges them by weight for the food they leave on their plates. How genius, I thought, to minimize waste. And of course with my mind always steeped in the Torah, I could not help but make the quick leap to our relationship with and duty to the Almighty.

How many gifts and blessings God has put on our figurative plates: food to eat, clothes to wear, good health, family and friends, beauty, strength, talents, business and personal connections, cars, cell phones, social networking, etc. So many things on our golden plates, much more than we can digest in a lifetime and enough to give the less lucky acid reflux. And yet how much of what we have do we really use to better the world we live in, to serve God, to help others and to help ourselves? Most of us turn to God and pray for what we feel we are missing, but what if He would answer us by asking for an accounting of what we’ve done with all He gave us so far? How much of your talents and strengths which He gifted you have you used for selfish purposes only? How much of your money have you used to give charity? Have you used your God-given charms to brighten life and spread God’s word or to cause mischief and to be skillfully deceitful? In addition, instead of always asking for more and nurturing your perspective from a famished-filled suckling cup, look at your current plate with appreciation and wisdom and you will find it much fuller than your gratitude. God gave every species and animal what it needs to survive—just look at nature. Does God love us less than the ant or bird?

We live in times where we are all spoiled, where everything is instant, where knock-offs and originals are indistinguishable. We are in an all-you-can-eat restaurant all year long but know that as we are busy stuffing our own selfish faces, we are really here to be serving God. And so as Judgment Day, Rosh Hashanah approaches, know that God will weigh our plates. How much of what He gave have we wasted and misused? Waste not, want not! There is no free lunch and with Godly precision our deeds will be weighed before Him and He will extract His price. And we will pay!

Monday, August 5, 2019

Message in a Bottle


Last week my creative eye took interest in a cute, small bottle of makeup that I own forever but have never used--an impulse purchase never returned. In my mind’s eye I imagined that if I’d just empty out the contents, I could transform it into something decorative and pretty, and fill it with something artistic and sparkly.  A two-inch bottle, how hard could it be? Maximum, it would be a 20-minute effort which would suit my patience quota for such projects. How could have I anticipated that the makeup content inside was not only waterproof and sun proof, but also boiling-water proof, soap proof, Windex proof, vinegar proof, oil proof, acetone proof and, two hours later, I suspected even nuclear proof as well. Its tiny, narrow neck offered limited maneuverability and access to clean it. I wasn’t giving up. I couldn’t help but laugh through my frustration and have mercy on this little bottle screaming with artistic potential and all that I put it through. But for potential to go in, the muck had to come out. And so, I tackled each smear until the bottle was clear--crystal clear. The only residue that remained upon the battle-weary glass was my lingering question, “Why does everything have to be so hard?” And the answer to that became clear after reading last week’s Torah portion.

So many of us in our lives are going through such difficult times—crushing times. It is rare I speak to someone lately, including myself, who doesn’t feel their problems are unprecedentedly huge and seemingly insurmountable. And we suffer great sorrow. And more often than not, we question, “Where is God?," rather than question ourselves, “Where am I in relation to God’s Will?” “What does He want from me that I’m not doing?”  And then I think back to Operation Clean-the-Bottle, and therein, I recognize you and me. The sages teach us that sin sullies our souls and blocks us from being vessels for the Godly light. We become so veiled and dirtied by sin that we can neither be, nor see, the light. Nothing beautiful can radiate in or out becomes we are such a mucky mess.

Before Adam sinned “man was enveloped in a halo of light…But after the sin, the halo of glory which illuminated man’s spirit disappeared” (Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, Via Rabbi Elie Munk). The garment of “light” which cloaked man and also radiated through his body was diminished and replaced by garments of skin.  “When man sinned he reduced his soul to a state of opaqueness and concealment making it ever harder to recognize itself and its relationship to God.”[i] 

What is our job, great nobility that we are? We are the cleanup crew. But bleach won’t do the job to raise the shattered holy sparks which became dispersed in all things in this world through creation and Adam’s sin (Rabbi Isaac Luria Ashkenazi ). God gave us the directives on how to clean our souls and bring the light (sparks) out of the dark places if we follow His Torah and make it our Torah. Each of the 613 commandments cleanses us and elevates us and makes us worthy receptacles of God’s blessings and Light. Clean the bottle and prepare it for beautiful things. The kabbalist known as Or ha-Ḥayyim teaches that, “When God turned the skin of Moses' face into a source of light, He demonstrated that the process which had once turned light into skin was reversible and that man could be rehabilitated to the spiritual level he once enjoyed prior to the sin.”

But if we don’t change our ways, repent, clean ourselves up on our own, then God will clean us up and it usually takes the form of punishment. In this past week’s Torah reading we read of all the 42 encampments (and backtracking) the Israelites set up and broke down during their 40 years of wandering. Not an easy, smoothly-paved road. But they created many of the bumps and hurdles by themselves by continually sinning and rebelling against God and Moses and failing the many tests God set before them. When we are haughty and happy we feel we don’t need God and when we suffer we don’t believe He is there. How foolish  is mankind?  The rabbinic sage,  Sfas Emes, says that each hardship and encampment through which the Israelites journeyed was a cleansing and served as a preparation for the gift of the Land of Israel. Do you personally really want to figuratively wander blindly for 40 years and wonder why your life resembles a man-made disaster zone that only God can repair? Or would you prefer to take matters into your own hands? Start keeping kosher, lighting Sabbath candles, pick up a book of Judaism, stop sinning and spinning in circles like a misguided dog chasing his own tail…just start cleaning up somewhere in your spiritual house.

Or you can wait and if He loves you and has faith in your potential, He will clean you Himself, but often His way hurts!  Sickness, financial woes, betrayals, humiliations, the list is long.

Further proof that God cleans what He loves is that the Israelites are not commanded to merely meander into town and make friends with their new Canaanite neighbors, but they are commanded to drive them all out of the land and destroy their structures of worship and idols. Before something Godly can enter, before blessings can enter, “the bottle” has to be thoroughly cleaned. The filth had to be demolished before God’s holy nation with their holy mission could settle in the Land. The Israelites are also warned, “And let the land not vomit you out for having defiled it, as it vomited out the nation that preceded you.” You can’t be holy and unholy at the same time. Which do you choose to be?

Imagine you are a crystal-clear bottle. Each time you sin, (i.e., violate the Torah) the bottle gets filled with black coal. When you follow God’s Torah it gets filled with luminous gems. Now stand back and look at the bottle and judge. Have you made room for the light? Are you sparkling? Or is your bottle 3D: dense, dark and dastardly? Perhaps it’s time to polish your own soul before God brings in the pressure washer.  To thine own self be true, and never underestimate the message in a bottle.

[i] Lecture by Rabbi Kessin, Mendel, June, 1991

Friday, July 26, 2019

The Blank Page


As I’ve written before, there is nothing harder for a writer to face than a blank white page. Somehow, its nothingness, its emptiness, its void seems to be more powerful than all the wisdom and words we have inside of us. For me, it’s Satan dangling not a red cape engaging me to charge forward with wit and words--the Taurus that I am--but rather an immobilizing blank stare that aims to paralyze me with doubt that I even speak English at all. I return to my old blogs but  they nor my voluminous file of articles nor the books that I’ve written give me the assurance, “Don’t worry we too all started with a blank page.”  I question sometimes why I should even bother writing. After all, I don’t get paid for it, plus the non-religious think I’m moralizing and the more religious are certain they have nothing to learn from me. And then I think about how important it is in Judaism to save even a single life, even if that single life is mine.

But saving a life is not just about keeping a person breathing, it is also about creating and recreating ourselves to be better people, better servants of God to earn our way to everlasting life. If you are the same person you were yesterday, you are dying. If I have to recycle an old blog, then I’m “dying” too. I question too, “Why does it all have to be so hard? Why is it such a struggle?” I know the answer. Slowly my fear dissipates because the page is not as blank as at first and I realize that my struggle every week is also all our life’s struggle and the struggle of the Jewish people and all those who strive toward God.

It has been asked why from all the Torah’s great men from Abraham to Moses, why the Jewish nation has come to be called Israel, the name given to our Patriarch Jacob after wrestling with an angel who ultimately blesses him: "Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, because you have striven with [an angel of] God and with men, and you have prevailed." It’s actually rather simple. The life of a living, breathing Jew is a constant struggle with God and for God. It is that struggle that makes us Israel; it is the struggle that makes us shine. It is that struggle that makes everything we never dreamed we could be or were destined to be, possible. But sadly, too many of us are stuck in our comfort zones:
  “I’m Jewish enough; I give at the office; at home we keep kosher; I listen to YouTube videos about religion….” Not enough. If you are not struggling daily to increase your relationship with God, to refine your character and to bring His light into the world with your unique gifts, you are not living, you are merely existing and slowly dying. Don’t be a comfort-zone-Jew. The number one reason people bungee jump is because they want to step out of their comfort zones and feel alive. Ironic that people are ready to jump to near death, but not to life. Judaism and Torah offer you a jump up and an eternal life, not a cheap thrill. Have faith Hashem will catch you. Stop getting caught up in the secularism and materialism of this world and forsaking your Jewish identity for it. How sad it would be if your designer shoes will outlive your soul. Struggle for God. Be a Jew. No statistic can show you more convincingly that we are doing something very wrong more than the fact we are losing more Jews to intermarriage than to any enemy. It’s time to redefine the enemy. The Torah tells us over and over again that God punishes the Israelites for theirs sins; beloved Jews, it’s time to redefine the enemy.

In last week’s Torah reading we learned that the Jewish nation could not be cursed by their enemies because they were keeping all of God’s laws. And much to the dismay of Israel’s enemies the curses were turned to blessings. Yet we must remain forever vigilant as a people. For those who seek to destroy us come not only with guns and hatchets but also with miniskirts and smiles, with flattery and with false comforts.

Friends, the beautiful thing about the blank page and your life is that they can be whatever you want them to be and read how you want them to read. Every day you have the opportunity to rewrite the story of your life.  Just because you were not brought up religious or you were brought up very religious, don’t believe the GPS, you have not reached your destination. It  also applies to all areas of our lives. The only definitions that will define our life are the ones by which we live.

In this week’s Torah reading of Pinchas we are introduced to four situations where people were born into a “situation” but it didn’t dictate or assure their journey in life. Pinchas, in an act of zealotry and against his more docile and peace-loving nature as a grandson of Aharon, killed an Israelite prince and his Midianite paramour in honor of God Who prohibited such a union. The act curbed God’s wrath against the nation, stopped a plague and as a result Pinchas and his offspring who were not supposed to receive it, were awarded priesthood by God. “There were eighty Kohanim Gedolim in the time of the First Temple and three hundred during the Second Temple, all descendants of Pinchas. (Via Rabbi Eli Munk, Tosafos to Zevuchim 101b). See how one man made a difference.

The next example we see is that of the five daughters of Tzelafchad who petition Moses that they be granted the portion of the land belonging to their father, who died without sons. Their petition is successful and is incorporated into the Torah’s laws of inheritance. What is important to learn here is a lesson we learn in Ethics of Our Fathers, where it is written: “In a place where there is no man, strive to be a man.” On a practical level yes, they stood in for sons. But on a deeper level, though they did not have the power to conquer the land as did men, there are many ways to conquer: Sometimes it is with sweetness, kindness, love and integrity. There are many ways to transform and conquer a land, or any task, to serve God’s will. And further it is incumbent on each one of us to stand up in a situation to do the right thing, to point out wrongs and to be “a man,” not a wimp, in God’s service.

In this parasha we are also briefly reminded of Korach's fate, one which had no precedent nor ever occured again. The earth opened up and swallowed him and his cohorts for rebelling against Moses' leadership, and then immediately closed up. (Ramban) But we are also reminded that, "Korach's sons did not die." Why? Because they separated themselves from their father's evil ways and repented. As such, "they merited that Samuel the Prophet would be one of their descendants." (Chabad)  We can cast off the "sins" of our "fathers" by being children of Hashem and keeping His Torah. Where there are no men, strive to be one!

And the final example in this Torah portion is the transference of Moses’ leadership to Joshua. Moses had sons, why didn’t one of them get the job? Because being a Jew isn’t about nepotism; not your father, or yesterday’s victories, our last year’s articles or all your connections in the world are going to make you the person you need to be, only you can do that yourself by living day to day from struggle to struggle, by recognizing you are not struggling alone and that the power of God is with you. And if you live in faith instead of fear you just might find you have invented the struggle altogether. YOU are Israel! You may struggle with God and man, but you can prevail--SO PREVAIL!