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!

Friday, July 12, 2019

Is God Ignoring You?

Mann tracht, un Gott lacht” is an old Yiddish adage meaning, “Man plans, and God laughs.” Despite our best efforts and sometimes extreme manipulations to direct and control our life’s course, only the Almighty knows all the hurdles and twists and turns our journey will take. For most of us, our life’s destination scarcely resembles the idyllic imaginings we’ve conjured in our youth as if life was a travel brochure and all stops along the way were meant to be pleasurable and to serve us. But then divorce and sickness come, bankruptcy and betrayals, opportunities lost or stolen, anguish, death and deep, deep disappointment. And as we travel this highway through hell, at each of its toll booths we pay a heavy price: We toss away our faith, our kindness, our trust, our mercy, our honesty. After a road long traveled, what is left of who we used to be? Very little if you don’t believe that all of life is a God-given test to fortify us and elevate us. There is only one audience in life and it is not your neighbors, your boss, your family, or your Facebook or social networking audience—they perhaps are the provocateurs or the elaborate ways through which the Lord will work His way—but the sole audience is God. Have you walked with grace along your path? Have you walked in faith? Does God like the “show” He is seeing or will your review be a shameful embarrassment?
The space between “what we want” and “what we have” is HOLY ground, and how we walk upon that space tells God who we are. We teach children from day one that they can’t always get what they want, mostly because we know it’s not good for them. And yet as adults we throw the worst of tantrums when things don’t go according to the wills and wants of our self-inflated egos. We resort to cheating, stealing, lying, coveting, slandering, cursing, conniving, stepping on people, hurting people, using people, working on the Sabbath, scoffing beggars and ridiculing the religious all in our efforts to self-pacify but with the result of enraging God. And so you say you prayed to God but He  ignored you. You must realize, however, that this waiting time is in fact the incubation period for our character. When we are left languishing, it is not God ignoring us, but God watching us closer than ever.  And sometimes we are just hard of hearing:  God does answer us but we just don’t like the answer, because His answer is “No!”-- What kind of person will you be when God says “No”?
For forty years the desert Jews were tested and punished because they lashed out against God and Moses. All they saw in their mind’s-eye life-destination brochure was a land flowing with milk and honey. But almost every time a hurdle was set before them they cried to return to Egypt. How quickly we forget when God wants to open seas for us to traverse, He does; when He wants to smite our enemies with plagues He does; when He wants food (manna) to fall from the heavens, it does. After all the trials and tribulations that Job went through and all the strong instigations around him to curse and forsake God for his profound suffering, Job says, “Shall we also accept the good from God, and not accept the evil?" And it is written, “Despite all this, Job did not sin with his lips.
In this week’s Torah reading, Chukat, we read that God was so angry at Moses for hitting the rock twice to bring forth water, instead of SPEAKING to it as he was instructed to do, that Moses was prevented from entering the Promised Land.  Why was God so mad? Because a man of Moses’ stature and greatness had no right to show anger or lose control (none of us do). The Talmud links anger to conceit and teaches that it shows complete lack of faith and is tantamount to idol worship. But the sad twist is that God doesn’t really laugh, He cries and he goes down into the darkness with us when we spiritually stumble and fall. Unfortunately we recurrently fail to learn that if we won’t fall on our knees in His worship, He will bring us to our knees in other more bruising ways.
Friends, how we behave while we are waiting says a lot about us,  even if we wait a lifetime. We must cross over our hardships and disappointments with dignity and morality, by figuratively taking off our shoes, for where we walk is holy ground.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

I Remember Father: David Davidovit

As a young girl, I recall how lucky I felt every time I had to leave the synagogue sanctuary while those who had lost parents remained to say the memorial prayer, “Yizkor.” There was always a sad heaviness that enveloped the room like a gray, damp, low-hanging cloud while the “still-carefree” siphoned out from the pews row after row. I would look over the “mechitza,” the barrier that separates men from women, and catch my father’s eye. He’d blow me a reassuring kiss that no barrier could impede. His own mother had died when he was only 4 in a war-torn Europe that had no mercy for the dead or the living. My heart would fill with anxiety as I exited toward the lobby with the other "lucky ones.' For even at a young age, like him, I’ve always been a worrier and I knew, one day, I too would have to stay. That one day came all too soon. I will never forget the night that my father smelled a fire in the house. We all jumped out of bed. He smelled it the next night too and the one after that. At age 62, my father died of a brain tumor, a glioblastoma whose deadly tentacles spread out like Hitler’s conquering murderous Luftwaffe. At 29, I would be among those who stayed. I too would hold a thin, 8-paged “Yizkor” pamphlet that weighed a thousand pounds, saturated with tears, grief and regrets.

I had never understood why it was necessary to formalize personal memorials, to put my grief on a schedule. Why should someone be all but commanded to remember someone they have loved and lost? What else could they ever think about? I could never understand it until the day God took you away from us forever. Losing a father like you who never let a day go by without saying how much you loved us and how proud you were of your family, a father who had endless patience to advise and listen, a father who paced the house and popped Tums after Tums until I came home safely from a date, a father who would stop any business meeting, no matter who sat before him, and say, “I’m never too busy for my daughter,”-- losing a father who was larger than life to me, an Israeli war veteran and my own personal hero, crushed my heart and soul and took my breath away. I often still can’t catch my breath when I think back on your last day. How ironic life is that you were there to celebrate my first breath and I was their to mourn your last.

The only way to numb the pain, I thought, was to try and forget and to block out the memories. You truly were a “Melech” David, a King David. Your every way and wisdom, your strength of character and dignity, all bespoke the manner of a king, and your crowning glory was the kindness and generosity of your heart. You really are the only person I’ve ever known who would leave a room when there was gossip. You entered every room with class and a smile and left it evermore lit and elevated because of your integrity and warmth. You were among very few men whom others wouldn’t sign a contract with because your word was more than good enough.

Remembering all you were was too painful. Life went dark. For years when my world was filled with questions and I needed to hear your voice in the consuming silence, I tried to forget you. When my heart was aching with grief, I longed to forget you. When my mind despaired for your wisdom, I ached to forget you. In trying so hard to forget, I didn’t realize that your voice and your wisdom, your love and your guidance, your arms and your essence have been around me all this time. They were also inside of me. It was not you who left me, but me who left you. I’m so sorry daddy for trying so hard to forget all that was taken from me when you died, that I forgot to remember what you left behind. I have succeeded only to bury you twice and miss you all the more.

I remember, daddy. I remember. I see you clearly before me now, your sweet deep dimples, your kind blue eyes, your large beautiful hands; I see you eating an extra bagel when you think no one's looking; I see you falling asleep while telling me a bedtime story when I was child. I see you speaking in Hebrew with pride and nostalgically reminiscing about the beaches in Haifa and of the Jewish Homeland you fought for and so adored; I see you coming home from a business trip with a bag full of gifts and a ton of tales to tell. I see you in the kitchen always hugging mummy and dancing with her and our little dog, Papoush, barking with jealousy; I see you walking to shul with your tallit bag under your arm and peace on your face. I see you holding your grandson during his bris and beaming with pride. I see you clinging to your golf tournament trophy with great enthusiasm for being the textile industry’s worst golfer. I see you at the head of the Shabbat table saying the prayers slightly out of tune but with all your heart and soul. I see you coming through the front door every evening after work with a huge smile and simply happy to be home. I remember, daddy. I see you, I hear you, I feel you.  I remember you telling me when I started to become religious that before anything be sure that you’re mensch. I remember every single thing about you, daddy. And in remembering all you were, I'm reminded too of all that I must be. With the loss of you, I got lost in the shadows not realizing soon enough that you left me a legacy of light! 

Friday, April 19, 2019

A House of Cards?

Marie Antoinette once said, "Let them eat cake." But as Passover arrives not even that is an option. I cannot deny that every year, as I sip away at my morning latte, I lament the loss of my breakfast bagel and my spirit sadly flattens like a whole wheat matzah.
But Passover is not just about cutting bread from the menu or getting rid of the last possible crumbs from our fridge. It is also a divinely sanctified time for us to take an introspective look at ourselves, to clean up our spiritual crumbs, and to commit ourselves to doing things differently and better today than we did yesterday. A thorough and honest search often reveals that we are much more crumby than we realize or care to admit.
The yeast that makes bread rise is compared to a man’s swollen pride and self-puffery. Yet matzahs are hardly attention seekers. Everything about them bespeaks humility. And indeed they are a needed reminder to a people who often bloated by their own success, forget that at any moment history can take the air right out of them. The destiny of a Jew can pivot in a second.
Repeatedly in Jewish history we have seen that Jews can be up one day and under the heel of its enemies the next. One day Joseph was the viceroy and savior of Egypt until his people were rendered slaves of Egypt. German Jews were also respected citizens of their beloved Vaterland, Deutschland until they were cremated and gassed to death.
And though today American Jews, once again have it good so to speak and America has been a great friend to Israel and a wonderful home to millions of Jews, we must remain forever aware that we are Jews. Antisemitism has now reached concerning levels and a cushy life is not a couch Jews should get too comfortable on. The Passover Haggadah reminds us that each generation must consider that it was they themselves who came out of Egypt and not their ancestors. We are free and safe at anytime only by G-d’s will. We must earn our redemption daily.
So what is the reason that G-d’s chosen people historically has had to go to sleep at night with their running shoes on? Well, you can find the answer by interviewing every person and nation who ever persecuted Jews. But that can be a challenging task. Or you can open up Deutronomy 6:3 where it says: “And you shall, hearken, O Israel, and be sure to perform, so that it will be good for you.” And then jump down a few sentences where it says: “13. You shall fear the Lord, your God, worship Him, and swear by His name. Or What? “Lest the wrath of the Lord, your God, be kindled against you, and destroy you off the face of the earth.”
My friends, Jewish destiny is as brittle as a matzah. And even as we succeed, let's not forget who is puffing the air into our well being. So let’s try to make every effort to remember we are Jews and show it in ways that are important to God, i.e., by observing His Torah. Yes, these days are different than all other days. For one, I will miss my bagels. Secondly, it's an apt time time to acknowledge that at the center of that sesame-seeded symbol of pride is a big fat zero--an accurate evaluation of what we are without God as the core. And so, as we munch on our matzahs, it’s the perfect time for us to reflect upon our more savory days and take note of Who really is buttering our bread. Happy Passover!

Friday, April 5, 2019

What Are You Talking About?

Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, is like a boot camp for our tongue. We spend the whole day praying instead of tongue wagging and abstain from eating instead of pacifying our thousands of demanding taste buds. Twenty-five hours of repurposing and disciplining an eight-muscled tongue is no small effort when 364 days of the year it is granted free reign. And so as people exit the synagogue at the end of the holiday, I’ve noticed that most whom I’ve encountered, family and friends, will stop themselves mid-sentence, when they are about to comment negatively on something or someone they saw that day. The sentence will start with, “Did you see how So and So looked? And will be self-interrupted with, “Ah, I just finished praying, it’s a New Year. I don’t want to talk bad.” 

Indeed, showing great promise, at the end of the very intense Day of Atonement, our tongues seem to know better. But as the awe of the day loses its grip on us and the savory break fast meal moistens our mouths, we quickly forget our prayers of repentance and all the hours we spent begging to be sealed in the Book of Life. Our tongues resume old habits and give life to the language of death, the language of the snake who talked bad about God to entice Eve to sin and successfully brought death to the world--a true and tragic fall from Paradise. For the Torah says that when God blew life into Adam, he became a "speaking being." And thus a person's speech is an expression of the very soul that God breathes into him,   making gossiping, slandering, spreading rumors--true or false--all sins. Deadly ones!

With His love He breathed life into our mouths and with that very same vessel we spew hate, mischief, curses and falsehoods. As delectable as fresh gossip may be, know that our tongues can effectively lick our names write out of the Book of Life and write an entirely new biography, one with a scary ending. The Talmud states that every word which issues from our mouths, whether good, evil, by mistake, or on purpose, is written in a book: “Then those who feared the Lord spoke with one another; the Lord has hearkened and listened, and a book of remembrance has been written before Him […].”  So please tell me, with the stakes so high, from all the role models in the Torah, from Moses to Queen Esther, why would you want to emulate the snake?

Last week, I wrote an article about the kosher laws  entitled, “Is your diet making you ugly?” In this week’s Torah reading we learn how talking bad about people and slander can you make you even uglier. The punishment for it is a skin disease called tzarat (miscalled leprosy). Moses’ own sister, Miriam, is punished with an ephemeral bout of tzarat for talking bad about him.  And even Moses himself was affected by it momentarily. God turned his hand white with tzarat, and then back to normal again, after the world’s most humble man was hesitant about God’s assignment and said that the elders of Israel wouldn’t believe him. The Talmud says that even when the Messiah comes and all people and animals will be healed of disease and the impure will be made pure, the snake whose scaly skin  actually is leprosy, will not be healed because of his evil words. In this Parasha we also read that it is the duty of the Kohanim, the priestly spiritual leaders, to evaluate the skin diseases of the people, not doctors. Why you ask? Because its cause is spiritual, not medical. There is no suffering, our rabbis teach, without sin. “Plagues only affect a person on account of the evil speech which comes out of his mouth.” (Talmud)

The power of speech is so mighty that God created the world not with His hands but with ten utterances: “And G-d said ‘Let there be light!’”(1:3); “And G-d said ‘Let there be a firmament!’”(1:6); “And G-d said ‘Let the water gather!’” (1:9), etc. Using the power of speech negatively effectively destroys what He so lovingly created. God created the world in seven days and thus we read this week that the slanderer who is diagnosed with tzarat is separated from the community for seven days. “The punishment is measure-for-measure: If you promote divisiveness amongst others, then you will also suffer the divisiveness of separation from the community.”[i]

So here I repeat, the world was created by words, it is sustained by words and it can be destroyed by words. Words never die! We are taught in a Midrash that when Moses smashed the first set of tablets indeed the tablets were destroyed but the words and letters that were upon them, they lived, and they all flew back up to heaven. (Jerusalem Talmud, Taanit 4:5). So detrimental is the misuse of words that we see in the Book of Psalms how King David praises God and says “Arise, O Lord, save me, my G-d, for You have struck all my enemies on the cheek; You have broken the teeth of the wicked.” (2:8) From all things why would David be happy God broke the teeth of the wicked, wouldn’t he be happier if he broke their swords or their legs? And the answer is that teeth are necessary to speak and to curse and to galvanize armies and stir up hatred. But teeth also allow people to pronounce blessings and prayers. However, seeing that Israel’s enemies used their teeth as sounding boards to foment hatred toward God and his people, God smashed their teeth and they became as useless as a snake without bite and venom.

Eleanor Roosevelt is attributed as saying: “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.” So my dear friends, what are you talking about? I know personally when someone calls me and asks me, “So have you heard the latest?” I know we are not off to a healthy start. If all your friendships revolve around gossiping about others perhaps it’s time to question who your friends are. If today they yap about others be sure that tomorrow they will talk about you. When’s the last time you walked away from a conversation smarter than when you started, more inspired and motivated? Do your friends make you better people or vile and base?  It’s time to question your life’s purpose. Are you a creator or a destroyer? Are you behaving as if you were created in God’s image or slithering in the shadows like a sneaky snake. If you don’t believe that words have power, then why bother praying on Yom Kippur at all, or anytime for that matter?

I know it’s not easy to stop and  that being a yenta is as contagious as the plagues it causes. But we are better than that. How can we not be? God made us! Remember the simple advice we’ve all been told in our life, “Think before you speak.” If we’d be in court in front of a judge we’d measure every word we say. Well we are in front of a Judge, an eternal Judge who is always watching and can’t be fooled. Know before whom you stand!  Watch your mouth and remember most things are better left unsaid.

[i] Rabbi Shraga Simmons