Thursday, December 6, 2018

The Fountain of Truth

My ever-so-elegant mother was born in France. Thus, perhaps it’s in my blood to like all things trimmed with ostrich feathers? And so, when I saw a bedazzling-golden-gilded-masquerade mask further embellished by burgundy plumage, I thought there was no better decorative accessory to hang on the bare narrow wall in my office.  I couldn’t get back fast enough to hang it up.  Yet, all my creative efforts to affix it and angle it so as to maximize its beauty failed-- nails, glue, hooks, all for naught. It didn’t fit and that was it. For the first time in a long time I wasn’t talking to the walls, they were talking to me.  But what were they saying? I speak three languages but Sheetrock isn’t one of them. Nonetheless, that blank wall, at which I often stare unwittingly when turning away from my blank computer screen and as a reprieve from writer’s block, was demanding something else.  Did it even know what or was I supposed to know?  Three days later, with great ease I hung upon my narrow wall in vertical fashion, the antidote to the mask and all its duplicitous implications--three 12X12 paintings each bearing a bold Hebrew letter Aleph, Mem & Tav. Together they spell the word emet /“truth.” My wall seems very happy now, my soul too, my wallet not so much. But I have learned long ago that in the long run the price of truth is cheaper than its competitors and very often recompensed beyond measure. 

The problem with most of us is that we are seduced and charmed by masks and false veneers, even our own. They seem easier to wear when interfacing with the world and even with ourselves. It’s ironic that Moses used to wear a mask to temper the light and Godliness that emanated from his face and we wear figurative masks to hide the lies and darkness of who we are.  We hide behind our titles, money, fashion labels, and some even behind religious garb. Truth takes a lot of guts, both to dish it out and to receive it. We’ve heard it said, “The truth hurts.” Like the famous line in the movie A Few Good Men: “You can’t handle the truth.”  But then our lives are beset with problems and we turn to God and ask, “Why is this happening to me?”   We can tolerate the truth only when life hurts more than the truth.  When our tears burn like acid. 

Truth involves accountability. It involves the whole story, A-Z, not just the details you want to include. And that is why the three-letter word for truth in Hebrew is comprised of the very first, the middle and the very last letter of the Aleph Bet. It is ALL encompassing.  The truth, unlike me, does not need an editor to polish it up and to cut out extraneous words. And so, we see in this week’s Torah reading how Joseph’s brothers who seemed to live without much conscience all those years for having sold their brother, only dared to face the truth when they had terrible troubles of their own. The truth was not extraneous to them, it was in them. “They said one to another:  Indeed, we’re guilty concerning our brother in that we saw the anguish of his soul when he entreated us and we would not hear; therefore is this anguish come upon us.”  

We read in the Torah that Yehuda, Joseph’s brother, buried two sons of his own. Rabbinical exegetes explain that it was punishment for the pain he cast on his own father by his involvement in Joseph’s disappearance. Yet even then, he did not say his misfortunes were a result of his misdeeds.  And so, his troubles didn’t cease until he professed culpability along with his brothers. In our own lives too, when we attribute the source of our troubles to everything and everyone instead of pointing the finger at ourselves, our suffering will continue.  Firstly, because we will never change, repent or make good. And secondly, because God will keep reminding us through further tribulations. The Talmud says that God hates liars. And something tells me it’s not a good thing when God hates you.

The Hebrew word aval (indeed) which comes before the brothers’ long repressed confession is interesting because it can mean many things. The manner in which they use it is honest and free of excuses: “INDEED we are guilty.” Except this same Hebrew word, aval, also means BUT. Ah, the word “but,” the famous pivot upon which the best excuses swivel: But, I wouldn’t have cheated on her if she lost weight; but I wouldn’t have stolen a few bucks from the petty cash if they paid me more; but I did it because they deserved it.  Who said the manufacturing business is dead? We manufacture more excuses every day for the decisions we make than the Chinese manufacture knock-off fake designer wear.  We put in a lot of time and effort manufacturing phony, make-believe lives, producing semblances of decency, piety, importance and sophistication. Instead, we really should be ripping off the mask and taking our true selves to task.

Why? Because that same word aval which means both “indeed” and “but” in Hebrew, also spells another word and that word is MOURNING. Erase the Hebrew vowels under the letters and you have no idea if you are reading the word, “indeed,” “but” or “mourning.”

Three times a charm, right?  Wrong! Nothing’s a coincidence in God’s holy language. Mourning is the common denominator for the two roads we can travel. On one road mourning will heal us.On the other, it will bury us alive. We can mourn our misdeeds, pull off the self-deceptive mask, stop appeasing our conscience, toss out cheap excuses, retire all the “ifs and buts” as Joseph brother’s ultimately do. Or, we can perpetually mourn our troubles, continue to justify our misdeeds and invite further suffering upon ourselves--sometimes to the point of no return--simply because we are stubborn, arrogant or ignorant and look so much better with the mask on. With the mask on, it’s never your fault.  Now you not only have something in common with the mass producers of the phony and fake but also with Eden’s Primordial Snake. He too was a master at making excuses to justify wrong behavior and thus brought mankind down. Better to be like King Davidwhose greatness shines in both his ability to take responsibility for his actions and the humility of his admission and the repentance that follows. This is part of the reason that the ultimate redeemer of the Jewish people and the world will descend from David's line ― he will be ‘Messiah, son of David.’[1]
I look away from my computer and the “truth” is hanging before me. I really love it. Knowing my sensibilities, I’m not really sure how I could ever have contemplated hanging a mask to begin with. The only feather it seems I've really been bequeathed to pick up is my writing quill which I will continue to dip in God's Soul--the ultimate Fountain of Truth—and tell you everything you don’t want to hear.


Thursday, November 29, 2018

Weepers of the Faith by Aliza Davidovit

Many holy books lay open before me. My old friends, we have missed each other. The ancient teachings held me spellbound me as the words seemed to lift from the pages and enwrap me like a cyclone pulling me into the vortex of their depths offering wisdom and insight to stir my soul.  But being a writer who has put down her pen for too long--since my mother took ill--nothing I read was able to inspire the first few words to begin this article. Like my mother, I too seemed to be half-paralyzed, at least scripturally.
I plucked myself from the depths, put my books aside momentarily and checked in on my mother to see how she was enjoying the movie I had rented for her. Suddenly, the title of the film unfurled the path that my words would follow. It was titled “Born Yesterday.” In it a loud-mouthed ill-bred gangster hires a journalist to serve as a tutor for his ditzy girlfriend to “smarten her up,” to help her better fit into the upper echelons he himself seeks to enter only to later corrupt. But the ironic twist of the tale is she turns out to be quite the student whose mind is opened up and ethics finely tweaked to see the ugly truth about herself, her boyfriend and the immoral life she is living.   She tosses out the old and starts her life anew as if she was just born yesterday.

I thank Hollywood for the title, but I thank the Torah for the wisdom. For contrary to the condescending implications that comes with the phrase “born yesterday,” in Judaism, it’s a blessing and an obligation to be born yesterday--and today and tomorrow and the day after that.  When a Jew is living as a proper Jew, he aims to be reborn every day as a better version of himself and as a better servant of God. OUCH! The word servant bothered you. I felt it. You wanted to stop reading then and there. But be certain that in this life YOU WILL SERVE, and if it won’t be God by your choice, He will arrange that you serve much harsher taskmasters: enemies, bosses, creditors, unpleasant family members, doctors, the IRS, etc. If you don’t believe the Torah, then maybe you’ll believe Bob Dylan: “Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord/But you're gonna’ have to serve somebody.”

Our calling to our faith does not end after our fancy bar/bat mitzvahs or after we put down the prayer books on the High Holidays. Our duty is to keep refining ourselves and to up the game in our observance of Judaism. I’m aware most people don’t want to be preached at and at this point will be saying “Thanks, but no thanks-- I’m already a good Jew.” And then they will proffer their self-serving and self-created definition of what constitutes being a good Jew which usually involves liking blintzes, fasting on Yom Kippur and feeling bad when Israelis get killed in acts of terror. Sorry, but that is tantamount to a doctor saying he’s a good doctor because he likes hospital cafeteria food, he dispenses band aids and feels bad when patients die. If you want to know what a good Jew looks like, you may want to read the God-given instruction manual.

By every other metric of our lives, such as our health, finances, beauty, etc., we aim to be better than we were last year, last month, even yesterday. It is only when it comes to being Jews that we dare not strive and have no drive to be better. Instead of being keepers of the faith, we are weepers of the faith--always crying how hard it is to keep God’s laws. “I’m a good Jew. I do enough, believe me. Too many rules.”

Sorry again, but if you are not “born yesterday” and every day as a Jew, then you are dying every day as a Jew and you are taking your children and a nation down with you. The rabbis teach that every Jew is a letter in the Torah. We also know that if a single letter is missing or damaged in the Torah, the entire scroll is not kosher and we are prohibited from reading it. What letter are you in the Torah? Bold and strong, faded and broken, or simply gone?  Will we have to stop reading because of you? What will happen to our precious Torah and the Jewish people if we are on self-delete? Shabbat candles, kosher, charity, praying…there must be something you CAN do or do better.
Ah leave me alone, I’m happy,” you say. No, you’re not happy. If you were happy the self-help market and the life-coaching industry wouldn’t be a booming multibillion-dollar industry. We are scrambling in the darkness seeking artificial lighting to help us get through the uncertain night.  Sometimes life drags us down so deep, indeed to where it is pitch black, and we’re not even sure we’ll survive to see the morrow. And who is the you that shows up tomorrow anyway? The same you that brought you to the darkness to begin with, or the one who is proficient at the blame game? Perhaps it’s time to examine the root of who you are. Stop using the flattering glowing light of a dimmer when looking your Judaism and your life in the face.  Turn up the Torah in your life and you will shine in unimaginable ways and find a source of lasting strength to sustain you and those around you.  

Let’s learn from the approaching holiday of Chanukah called the Festival of Lights:
The Jewish people are like a symmetrical wing of the menorah. In order to soar we must “flap” in synchronicity. 
🕎 Just like the menorah’s light must not be hidden for personal convenient use, a Jew must also bring light to the outside world, not by flashing one’s Rolex, but by being a shining example of ethics, honesty, philanthropy, kindness, hospitality, etc.
🕎 Just as the menorah light is “reborn” every night in a crescendo of illumination, a Jew too must strive every day with the mentality that yesterday wasn’t good enough. Today we must shine brighter.
🕎 Just like the menorah consumes 36 lights (double chai) by the end of Chanukah—symbolic of the 36 righteous people who sustain the world—a Jew has to constantly know that s/he has been Divinely chosen to be a sustaining light among the nations.

It is no secret that Jews claim a disproportionate amount of Nobel Prizes—in 2017 alone, 22.5% of the winners were Jews even though the total Jewish population comprises less than 0.2% of the world's population. To us, it is a statistic; to a statistician it is a miracle for “throughout the [entire] 20th century, Jews, more so than any other minority, ethnic or cultural group, have been recipients of the Nobel Prize.” 

It is no coincidence of fate. The Jewish people are mandated not to merely see the light, but to BE the light. “The soul of man is God’s candle,” Proverbs teaches.  The Torah itself—the ultimate battery pack-- is compared to a fire; by keeping its commandments, we become powerful eternal flames, not merely candles in the wind or glow-in-the-dark wands that burn out while the party’s still on.

Be wise. When tomorrow comes, be proud to say, “I was born yesterday!” Don't try so hard to fit in when you were destined to stand out--and shine!