Sunday, January 20, 2019

Are You DEAD? Part I

Behold, I have set before you today life and good, and death and evil,” G-d warns the Israelites in the book of Deuteronomy. “You shall choose life, so that you and your offspring will live.”

If those are the only multiple-choice answers in God’s test called "Life," why did He really have to tell us what to choose? Which rational-minded person would not choose life? Who would say, “Nah,” I think I’ll pick death, but thanks for the offer.” And yet, more often than we think, we actually do pick death. Perhaps we don’t elect it in one fell swoop as would an executioner wielding a sharp sickle, but even more cruelly and self-deceptively we choose death by a thousand cuts. Simple examples which support that premise are the “toxic” foods or drinks we grab for regularly which slowly compromise our health leading to diabetes, hypertension alcoholism, etc. 

Then there is the deadly choice of having the wrong friends. They are the fun-loving lot who waste our time, kill our ambition, distract us with false fleeting pleasures and pursuits, and effectively help us kill the best years of our life and persuade us to spurn momentous opportunities. Often they help us slough off our values and beliefs too. Many years later we wake up dead and question, "What happened to the person I used to be and where is the one I wanted to be?" We do the same things to ourselves spiritually, one “small” sin at a time. We kill ourselves slowly. No, we don’t "wake up" dead overnight. Rather, it’s a slow almost imperceptible war of attrition against ourselves. We at first dip our toe in a pool of vagaries and soon find ourselves far from the shores of certainty. To be honest, that’s why I always detested multiple choice exams at school. I couldn’t use my words skills to spin a tale somewhere in the gray area and pretend I knew the answer. The instructions were clear. Take you HB no.2 pencil and fill in ONE answer boldly. Do you choose life or death, good or bad? That’s the thing with the Almighty God, even more than my college professors or Bill O’Reilly, He is the King of the No Spin Zone.

There are two oft-used sentences which give more proof that the person saying them is choosing death rather than life. They are, “I hate my life” and “I love my life.” Both these statements reveal a lack of faith, a lack of purpose and are inherently comfort-zone cop outs.

Let’s first enter the world of the chronic complainers—“I hate my life.” We read about them in last week’s Torah portion, they are the freed Israelites. The Egyptians had enslaved the children of Israel with back-breaking labor and embittered their lives: “The children of Israel sighed from the labor, and they cried out, and their cry ascended to God from the labor.” So, God freed them with a mighty hand and performed numerous miracles for them. And yet still, after all they saw and lived through they were extremely distressed by every challenge they faced, so much so, that they lamented ever leaving Egypt. They said to Moses, “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us to die in the desert? What is this that you have done to us to take us out of Egypt? Contrary to the famous words, “Give me liberty or give me death,” the Israelites, once having obtained liberty, said give me slavery. Servitude, after all, offers a sense of comfort, just as our own habits and routines are a form of slavery; we feel safe because we know what tomorrow will look like: We went to sleep a slave; we will wake up a slave. The burden of having to challenge ourselves is muted. Even after God opened The Red Sea for the Israelites to pass through and smote the Egyptians, upon the next perceived hurdle they recall Egypt with nostalgia putting a new spin on their former embittered lives: “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by pots of meat, when we ate bread to our fill!

If we don’t fight the fear of change in our own lives and abandon the comfort zone, we will always be crying to return to Egypt. We will resort to choosing evil because we are really more afraid to live than to die. Most of the Israelites preferred to worship Egypt’s useless Gods of stone and to be slaves to certainty rather than to serve the Almighty God of their forefathers. And so it may come as surprise to know that the Israelites were not spared during the plague of darkness. Yes they could see when the Egyptians could not, but during the cover of darkness God smote four-fifths of them--2,400,000 died because they were wicked and did not want to leave Egypt.[i] So enmired were they in their dark deeds, it is fitting they died in darkness never to see the light of the Torah that awaited their people.

And even for those who left Egypt as God and Moses instructed, the waters of the mighty sea did not part for them until they first jumped in neck-deep and showed faith in the unknown future that God had in store for them. The sages teach that not only did The Red Sea part, but all the waters of the world divided. For when the Jewish people serve God’s will with faith, even nature itself will override its own natural behavior to accommodate them and help them. And you're scared, why?

It’s rather simple: if you hate your life, it’s because you are a prisoner of your own insecurities, a self-shackled slave and person of no faith. If you hate your life, it’s because you do not recognize the Godly spirit inside you, nor the Godly hand that guides you. He gave us the exit strategy: He opened the sea before us, and gave us the Book of Life, his Torah. So, why are you choosing death? Why are you looking backward? There is nothing left for you there! “…For the Lord said to you, ‘You shall not return that way anymore.’” 

Sometimes it is not nostalgia and self-deception that keep us miserably locked in the past, but hatred. Our hearts become poisoned with it so that even if we “leave Egypt,” Egypt doesn’t leave us. When we bear grudges and foster hate, they keep us imprisoned and nourish the sick sentiment of “I hate my life.” And so the Torah wisely commands us, even after all the Egyptians did to us, “You shall not despise an Egyptian....” Let it go. Move on! “DO not be afraid,” the Almighty ensures us. “I will go before you and fight your battles.” So just believe that God will and more importantly, give Him a reason to do so.

                Now if you’re not too dead, let’s enter Fantasy Island—“I love my life.”
                                                                                        … To be continued Monday

[i] Rashi

Friday, January 11, 2019

My Sin is Before Me

It's 11a.m. and Aliza Davidovit is reporting live, although I feel half dead after a week of sleepless and short nights. I don’t have much time. Shabbat starts early; I have so many things to do and I’m just starting my article now. I’m questioning what the result will be as I’m not used to writing when I feel so pressured. But I figure if after centuries of slavery the Jews were liberated in one night and left Egypt in such haste that there was not even time for their bread to rise--and still their Exodus was successful enough to name a book after it--then maybe I’ll make out just fine too. The same happened to Joseph. After over a decade in Pharaoh’s prison, he was hastened out and in an instant went from being a prisoner to being the second in command  of Egypt.  Does haste make waste?  I hope not. God is better at rushing than I am. And though I don‘t expect to part any seas with this article, perhaps I can open a few hearts and minds and perhaps God will provide the yeast so that my words don’t arrive brittle and flat like a matzah.

Growing up, whenever I would eat an extra cookie or two, or three or sometimes half a pack, I would ask myself as I then agonized for two hours on the treadmill, “What  obsessed me to do that?” I'd jokingly conclude, "the devil made me do it.” But if you were raised in a traditional Jewish home, as I was, and your Judaism consisted of having a bar mitzvah, going to grandma for Passover and to shul on the High Holidays and not much more, then you probably never learned that yes, we actually do believe in Satan in Judaism and in Hell. And even more pleasant to know is that they are both out to get you. So don’t feel lonely ever, be certain, your evil inclination is with you always. “At the entrance sin is lying, and to you is its longing, but you can rule over it.” (Genesis 4:7) God tells these words to Cain when he is dismayed that the Lord accepts the offerings from his brother, Abel, but not his own. All Cain had to do was try hard, kill off his evil way of thinking and jealousy.  But he chose to kill his brother instead. It seemed much easier than working on himself. It always does.

How often in our own lives do we find it ever easier to kill another person with our gossip, slander, character assassination, etc., to make ourselves feel better, to re-establish superiority in a realm in which we feel threatened instead of realizing that  everything we are feeling is a problem we ourselves have to work on, and not them, the subjects of our disdain? Many may recall the famous phrase from the waffle commercial of the late ‘60s and onward, “Leggo my Eggo.”  But more appropriate to deal with our own puffed up sense of importance would be to repeat the mantra “Leggo my EGO.”  Our egos have an insatiable appetite and when we partner up with Satan, we find ourselves excessively catering to our self-serving needs, of course to our own detriment in so many ways. Now you’re asking, “Well isn’t God more powerful than Satan? I believe in God and that’s it.” You’re right, God is the most powerful. But that’s not the right question. The right question is, "Is Satan more powerful than YOU?" No, God didn’t set you up for failure. He positioned you for great success. As any person who goes to a  gym knows, through resistance strength and growth will come. I realize now with wisdom how it truly was Satan who made those cookies so irresistible, and I’ve spent so much of my life in a tug of war on many fronts--doing and then undoing--which leaves a person going nowhere.

Well maybe if God would have posted a picture of what Satan looks like in the post office along with the other “Most Unwanteds,” we could dodge him at every turn. Unfortunately, Satan is a chameleon, the ultimate shape-shifter, and he knows how to personalize his temptations for each customer. The question is, “Are you buying?” The price of sin at first seems cheap, but oh how we pay dearly, either with our money, our health, our relationships, etc. Things we were once so certain of soon dissolve under our feet.  Not only does Satan wear many disguises, but what tempts you is not the same thing that tempts me. If you are someone who is prone to anger and rage then the master tempter will flash red before you; for, the sages teach that losing one’s temper is tantamount to idol worship. You scream, kick and curse; you’re doing the devil’s favorite dance. If you are someone who is prone to procrastination you will find that whenever you want to do something that’s good and healthy for you or others, unprecedented distractions will keep your wheels spinning. It is certainly one of the reasons this article is being rushed in the final hours before Shabbat. 
These are just some simple examples, but the truth is, that everything in our life is a test and there really is no thing that is neutral. For instance, a person can hold a Bible in his hands and then go around smacking old ladies on the head with it, hardly putting it to God’s intended use. One can use one’s cellphone to look up pornography on the Internet or to look up Torah classes and charitable causes. The examples are endless, but they all lead to one concept, idol worship. Every second and action in our lives is feeding one of two things: God or the evil inclination. And as they say, "The one that wins is the one you feed the most." I’m not suggesting that a person should make themselves crazy (at first), nor grow a halo over night,  but just a little bit more scrutiny and self-interrogation as to whether the things we do daily in our lives are helping or hurting our souls and the world we live in, will cause us to change, hopefully for the better.

Just like the evil inclination, idols are also not standardized prototypes and easily recognizable, they are not merely big statues with heads of dogs or eagles, etc. Idols are the everyday things in our lives that we worship more than doing God’s will. If spending all your dollars at the mall is unquestionably more important to you than giving charity, then you are an idol worshiper and a Pharaoh; for, it means you care nothing about the suffering of your fellow human beings when the Torah clearly tells us to love our neighbor as ourselves. It means you love your Jimmy Choo shoes and Gucci belt buckle more than God’s will. It makes you a Pharaoh because although he  knew that death was to sweep over his country with the plague which would smite Egypt’s first born, we read that Pharaoh awoke at midnight when the plague started, meaning he was able to sleep just fine before it started. How little he cared for his people. After Joseph’s brothers threw him in the pit, they sat down to eat—something for which they too were criticized. Have you hardened your heart to the world around you like Pharaoh and the stonehearted idols he worshiped. For in a society where we ourselves become the idols we worship the most, we are all doomed.

Idols are all around us and the list of Satan’s tools and fools are endless, but a practical suggestion is just to think about the everyday things we do and use in our lives and simply question, “What do they bring out in you and in others?” Are they getting you to do the devil’s dirty deeds or helping you to uplift yourself and the people in your life? Will God be happy when he reads your text messages or looks at your browsing history? How would you answer God if He asked you the same question by which we evaluate everyone else, "What have you done for Me lately?"

Thursday I spent a lot of time in a Judaic bookstore. I wished I could insert all the knowledge surrounding me like a microchip into my brain. I don’t know about you, but when I’m in a bookstore I’m always searching for answers, hoping I’ll fall upon the right book to bring me to the next level of awareness and understanding. I was satisfied with my find, and just as I was about to pay for the books at the cash register, I reached for the store’s business card and found standing right beside them some cards that were left by a very brazen solicitor, cards for tarot reading and astrology reading. Of course such is forbidden in the Torah. And I couldn’t help but think how even here in a book haven of God’s word, that Satan found its way in. Perhaps some other seekers of truth and answers would have picked up those card and searched out the answers from the darkest source, even though they were surrounded by the "letters of light."1  I showed the cards to the owner who immediately threw them where they belong.

I really hate rushing when I write, but I couldn’t go into Shabbat without reminding you that life is a test, one that God assures us we can pass. Yes, God is the master planner, but the devil is in the details, so don’t get entangled in his knot. “Take care lest your heart be lured away, and you turn astray and worship alien gods and bow down to them. For then the Lord's wrath will flare up against you….” Don't play with fire. Satan has been around much longer than you. He has experience and plays to win and make you sin. Run for your life. Sometimes it's good to rush.

Shabbat Shalom!

1. "Letters of Light" is also the title of a book by

Friday, January 4, 2019

Nothing Left to Say

One might think that with all my heartfelt convictions and passionate opinions that I’d be bursting with an overflow of words between one article and the next and that I could hardly wait to pick up my ink tipped sword to fight the next holy battle. How I wish it were true. Any writer will tell you that there is no enemy more threatening to their resolve than the blank white page that stares you down like a condescending mocking adversary immobilizing your start button. We writers are fully stocked with self-doubt, confusion and distractions. But with words and inspiration, I fear the seven-year famine every time. And this time is no different except that this week I should be more ashamed than usual in the shadow of last week’s Torah reading in which Moses beseeches God to find another messenger for his divine mission because he is “not a man of words.”  But it turns out not having words, even as God’s chief spokesman, is not a disqualifier.  And so God tells Moses: "Who gave man a mouth, or who makes [one] dumb or deaf or seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? So now, go! I will be with your mouth, and I will instruct you what you shall speak.” And so now I’m praying as I sit down to write, after two days of dodging impediments choreographed by Satan, that the Almighty will instruct me as well what to say, that is, if I’m meant to serve His purpose. And though I’m no Moses, I find faith in the fact that when God has a greater good in mind He even put words into the mouth of the prophet Balaam’s donkey. And so, hee-haw, here I go.

There is a belief in Judaism that each person is allotted a certain number of words in this lifetime and thus it’s incumbent upon each of us to use them wisely, keep them clean of slander, gossip and curses. “For behold, He… declares to man what his speech is.”[i] I actually got a small taste of the distaste of hearing our own words played back to us. I’m a big fan of my Amazon Echo, which more often than not serves my requests satisfactorily. I prompt it with the word, “Alexa” and then put in my command. But on those few occasions where the machine didn’t perform, I called Alexa, all in jest of course, an idiot and a moron.  How was I to know that Google fashions itself a God and records our interactions too. When I played it back, I felt ashamed. I didn’t sound like the person I view myself to be or want to be. As always, I’m grateful when God gives me a chance to see myself objectively and to do better. And then there is my mother, the strongest, kindest, classiest women I’ve ever known, who since having a stroke three years ago has adopted a vocabulary that is in serious need of censoring. And so I’m terribly pained that Wednesday she went to sleep, ever laughing but with expletives upon her tongue, and Thursday she awoke having lost her ability to speak.  She bounced back from a first such episode last week, but this time she is still mumbling her words as I’m here typing away and stammering over mine. And I can’t help but be filled with a sense of dread realizing that in life, at any moment, at any time, God can take away our ability to repent, to say I’m sorry, to change course, to change curses into blessings. How terrifying to be locked into a destiny. And just as I’m no Moses, my mother, my precious yiddisheh mameh,  is no Pharaoh. But the concept of being locked into a destiny leads me to this week’s Torah reading.

Moses proceeds to do what God has asked of him despite his initial pleas to defer the responsibility to someone else. But Moses is not successful at first and his efforts to convince Pharaoh to liberate the children of Israel fail. After each brutal plague, Pharaoh hardened his heart and refused to let them go. On each occasion Pharaoh exercises his free choice and refuses to do the right thing for his country and his people, and for himself. His ego could not submit. He fashioned himself to be a god and in posturing himself as a deity, he would not yield to the God of Moses. When the plagues were heavy upon him and his country, he was of one mindset, but when relief came, his arrogance prevailed. How often in our own lives do we acknowledge it’s time to change our behavior and turn to God for answers, to submit to His will and commandments when we are going through our own plagues of “darkness” and hardships. But when things get a bit better, we forget our moments of vulnerability, those moments when God seemed to be our only refuge and soon resume our overconfident stance that we’ve got it all under control. But God tests us again and again if we don’t pass the first few times, as He did Pharaoh.  And then something terrifying happens:The free choice is eventually taken out of our hands.God Himself hardened Pharaoh’s heart because it comes to a certain point when repenting becomes impossible. For sin begins as a guest but then proceeds as the host.  Five times the Egyptian leader spurned God and Moses even after acknowledging God and his own sins: “God warns a man once, twice, and even a third time, and he still does not repent, then does God close his heart against repentance so that He should exact vengeance from him for his sins.”[ii]

In our own lives we often behave like Pharaohs hanging on to habits, friends, behaviors, beliefs, even jobs,that we knew from the onset had the potential to ruin us. But now we refuse to set them free or lack the power to do so. Have you hardened your heart and begun to make excuses to accommodate your guilt? “I know I’m married, but the affair keeps me sane”; “I know I shouldn’t, but I’ll just do  this once or twice”; “I know it’s wrong but it feels good;” “I know it’s forbidden, but I tried my best;” “I know I shouldn’t, but I’ve done it before;” “I’m not religious; those rules don’t apply to me.” Man often starts off the master of his sin and soon finds himself its slave. It happens when we silence both our inner voice and real life advisers like did Pharaoh who did not heed the voice of his servants who said to him, "How long will this one be a stumbling block to us…Don't you yet know that Egypt is lost?" This week’s Torah reading reminds us to take stock of our life and behaviors before we too become lost or even worse, locked into a destiny we no longer have the power to change. As the Talmud says, “A prisoner cannot release himself from prison.” So stop building your own prison bars one wrongdoing at a time.

The Israelites, too, did not heed Moses’ words. Wrapped up in their slavery, they could not fathom there was actually a way out. They showed no faith in God and had descended into such depths of impurity that they were almost not worthy of being saved at all. They became so accustomed to their servitude that most did not want to leave Egypt at all. Have we become like that too, so mired in the filth of life that we can’t even see it anymore? Have we become slaves to it?

It was almost too late for the Israelites; it was definitely too late for Pharaoh. But will it be too late for you and me? It is believed in Judaism that before the arrival of the Messiah you will not find a person who is not plagued by serious problems. So if your life is burdened now more than ever, know there is a reason for it. There is something in the air.  If you tune in, you will feel it. Are we being punished or prompted to do good or both? Probably. My Amazon echo was a subtle but poignant reminder that we what we do and say is being partially acknowledged by our lovely gadgets and devices and comprehensively by the Almighty. One day soon it will all be played back to us and there will be a price to pay.

This afternoon when I tried to get my mother to exercise her slurred speech and say, “She sells seashells by the seashore,” we broke out into laughter because that’s what we often do in this house to handle our heartaches. But then when I tried to get her to repeat Psalm 121 in Hebrew, “My help is from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth,” my heart cried in silence when God’s holy name was mangled upon her sweet lips.  As I write this conclusion in the deep hours of the night, I don’t know what tomorrow morning will bring.  I’ve awoken to three years of shocks and heartache with but a few sprigs of good news.  I pray with all my heart that her speech will come back. But I can’t help but learn a lesson from this episode and this week's parashah and realize that we each must reach out to God as soon as we can and never take for granted that we can call upon His holy merciful name at a time of our own convenient choosing. For, tomorrow, we simply may not be able to or He may no longer be listening. Either way, my friends, it just turns out that way too often tomorrow is a lifetime too late.

[i] Amos 4:13
[ii] Rabbi Shimon b. Lakish