Friday, July 10, 2020

The Heart of it All

Who does Aliza Davidovit think she is that she moralizes to us through her vlogs and blogs? The answer has nothing to do with me. The truth is these lessons give me anxiety and my evil inclination tells me every week to stop, in fact every week for 25 plus years. For some years, unfortunately, that inclination won. It had a great argument. Who cares what you have to say? It’s a hassle. You can be in the gym instead, at the mall, etc., and have one less worry. In any case, for some readers it will never be good enough and for others, well they’ll just think that I’m just an attention seeker. My answer is simple, “Don’t hate me cuz I’m dutiful.” I love learning Torah and it’s a treasure that I’d gladly keep all for myself, except, that it’s forbidden. There are 613 commandments in the Torah and the 22nd positive one, according to Maimonides, is to learn Torah and to TEACH it. G-d gave me the gift of writing. At this time in my life, more than ever, I’m quite sure it wasn’t just to interview famous people some of whom have behaved in ways not worthy of my words, at least not the finer ones. Just as those commandments prohibit me for stealing and murdering and oblige me to keep kosher and keep the Sabbath, those same commandments demand that what I know of Torah, with full accuracy, I must share. Indeed readers are not always receptive but we learn from the holy prayer Shema Yisrael,And these words which I command you today shall be UPON your heart.” The best I can do is put these words UPON your heart. And since a heart is porous, one of my rabbis taught me, eventually a wise heart will allow these words to enter. 

The Talmud teaches that when you save one life it is as if you’ve saved the entire world. 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 G-d to earn our way to everlasting life. If you are the same person you were yesterday, you are dying. The Torah is compared to the Tree of Life, I’m praying that my blogs will inspire you to choose life and to kill off what’s killing you, all the false gods you’ve chosen to serve instead of G-d and His Torah, our Torah. Satan comes with sexual provocations,  the lust for money, and jealousy of others. Nevertheless, the struggles are yours to win. Evil inclination also puts tempting words upon your heart and so the Torah warns us: Beware, lest your heart be misled, and you turn away... And the wrath of the Lord will be kindled against you. (Deuteronomy 11:16-17) 

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] G-d and with men, and you have prevailed." It’s actually rather simple. The life of a living, breathing Jew is a constant struggle with G-d and for G-d. It is that struggle that makes us Israel; it is the struggle that makes us a light among the nations. 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 and have come to love our sins; we have put down our gauntlets and prefer not to resist and fight back. Soon we forget how. Pay heed: If you are not struggling daily to increase your relationship with G-d, 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 or quickly dying. Don’t be a comfort-zone-Jew. Stop getting caught up in the secularism, materialism and lusts of this world and forsaking your Jewish identity and duty. Coronavirus has surely taught us all the things that we can live without. G-d is not one of them. The Torah wasn’t just bequeathed to rabbis, it’s your heritage too. Pretend it’s the millions your parent’s bequeathed you and cling to it greedily, for it is worth much more.

There is a famous excuse: “I wasn’t brought up religious.” Well many of us weren’t brought up rich either and yet that’s still a popular pursuit. 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. I will focus on one, the transference of Moses’ leadership to Joshua. Moses had sons, why didn’t one of them get the job? Because being a Torah Jew isn’t about nepotism; not your father, or yesterday’s victories, or last week’s donations, or the plaque in the synagogue with your grandfather’s name or all your hoity-toity 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 G-d is with you. And if you live in FAITH instead of fear, falsehood and fleshpots, you just might find you have invented many of your struggles altogether. Win the moments and you win life. YOU are Israel! You may struggle with G-d and man, but you can prevail--SO PREVAIL!

Friday, June 12, 2020

The Great Escape!

Husbands whose Internet surfing habits are not exactly kosher and wives whose shopping habits are not exactly frugal may be very familiar with this browser option, “Delete History.”  With a few clicks within the drop-down menu, yesterday is but a memory.  Writer’s, too, have their technological means of erasing a verbal wreckage zone: backspace, delete or, best of all, click “new” page and all indications of illiteracy magically disappear. That is the tragedy of our generation, the ease with which we try to and can erase who we were yesterday if it doesn’t fit today’s narrative. Where we came from and former versions of ourselves, all the things which made us who we are--the good, the bad and the very ugly, the substance of our existence--we hit delete and prefer to design the holographic version of the phony face we serve the world. I couldn’t help but be jolted by HBO’s recent decision to not play the movie Gone with the Wind in its streaming movies library because of the current race protests in the USA. I thought about my own heritage and favorite movie, The Ten Commandments, and wondered if I should start a new protest and have it pulled from the airwaves as well. After all, my people were slaves in that movie and frankly it’s beclouding my freedoms. Well, not exactly mine, but my fellow Jews; they too prefer to forget from where they came; it’s easier to sever ties that way. Forgetfulness absolves all debts. But our Maker is smarter than those He made and He thus made it mandatory that we remember. 
The most important thing we must remember is that G-d took us out of Egypt. When do we have to remember it? I’ll give you a few seconds to guess. One. Two. Three. Was your answer Passover? You are minutely and partially right. The Jewish nation is told in the Torah to remember it, “...All the days of your life.” (Deuteronomy 16:3) Don’t you ever believe your delusions of grandeur. Our forefathers were slaves and we will forever be slaves. But as free slaves we have just the simple additional option of who we serve. Will you be a servant of G-d, like Moses and King David, and keep His commandments or a slave to your passions, cravings and follies, a slave to money and those who hold it over you. A slave to the evil inclination that blankets us with forgetfulness to confuse our path. Remember G-d took you out of Egypt so that you will know that He is not a G-d who created the world and then went into hiding as some philosophers posit. He got involved with our destiny personally and with high drama because He cares and had very special gifts to offer: the Torah and the Land of Israel.
And that is the next thing to remember: the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Have you even read the whole book once before shelving your Judaism for materialism, Buddhism, hedonism, commercialism and all the “isms” that seduce you? Do you know more rules about golf and mahjong than Torah directives?  Set aside the whole holy scroll for a moment, can you even list the 10 Commandments as listed in the Torah?  “But beware and watch yourself very well, lest you forget…” (Deuteronomy 4:9). In the end, the worms will eat us and G-d will judge us. What good deeds, as outlined by Judaism, will you be carrying in your designer handbag?
The next thing we are mandated to remember is the nation of Amalek, the first nation to attack the Jewish people after leaving Egypt. Amalek is no longer a physical army on our tail, but it still attacks us. It is the forces in our life that cool us off from G-d by igniting other fires. King Saul didn’t annihilate Amalek completely as G-d commanded and lost his crown because of it.  “The numerical value (gematria) of the Hebrew letters that spell Amalek (240) is equivalent to that of the letters that spell safek, “doubt.” All things holy are certain and absolute... Amalek is doubt; baseless, irrational doubt that cools the fervor of holiness....” (Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson).
We can withstand our temptations just as Joseph was able to withstand one of the most beautiful women in the world coming on to him. The trick is to not set ourselves up for failure. Like any army it seeks your weak spots and vulnerabilities. If someone would try and kill you, you’d run for your life. Remember Amalek and all it stands for and run for your life. 
We are also commanded to remember our sin of the Golden Calf and our rebelliousness. Yes, we are G-d’s chosen people, chosen to lead by example with exemplary behavior, chosen to be the light in dark places, not to be fashion models but models of decency, integrity, honesty and responsibility. We are not mandated to trot on high horses but on “higher ground.”
Another thing to remember is that G-d struck Miriam the prophetess with tzara’at (a skin disease) for speaking negatively about her brother Moses and quarantined her for seven days. G-d doesn’t hide our faults and sins and delete history, He compels us to remember them and learn from them. If only the Israelites would have learned from Miriam’s punishment for slander the 12 spies who surveyed the Land of Israel prior to the nations’ entry wouldn’t have sinned by bringing back a frightening report of the Land. For the Golden Calf they were forgiven, but for that they were not and were condemned to wander the desert for 40 years. Don’t let your tongue be your noose. 
There are more things we are commanded to remember, including the Sabbath. As such, I must put down my notebook and prepare for the holiest and most beautiful day of the week. Turns out that the great escape is in remembering who you are. Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, June 5, 2020

I Know the Way

No matter how far we go from home, either running from who we are or lured and lulled by the fake gods that taunt us, something always drives us home. A family sickness, a funeral, sometimes even something good, but fate brings us home.  And who are we when we return to the scene of our prime? Do we at all resemble that soul that our feet took wandering through the dark crevices of exile? Are there any traces of the Source inside us? Drink the bitter water; it shall tell us what we’ve become.[1]

A great nation blessed by G-d Himself, chosen for “monogamy,” has morphed into gross polytheists and selfish polygamists.  And now,   the waters of truth are gathering around our door, the torrents are not far behind. “Deliver me, O God, for the waters have reached until my soul!  I have sunk in muddy depths without foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the current sweeps me away.’ (Psalms 69:2-3) Yes, my beloved Jews the waters are rising, our faltering footholds are becoming strangleholds, and as always and as promised we are being forced back home. 

We ran from who we are and where we belong because we forsook our G-d and got seduced by a world of lies. But the world isn’t lying anymore. The old masks have dropped, albeit now we wear new ones.  Anti-Semitism, the one virus for which no vaccine will ever be found, is flooding reasonableness, muddying our waters, building up pressure; and the dam will surely fall.  It’s spreading,  it’s infiltrating and all our materialistic and institutional strongholds are exposed for what they are, vapors and illusions. When things get hot those illusory safeguards leave us cold. We’ve walked the streets of the Diaspora, we ate among strangers and dressed like them, pursued their gods and cheated, lied, stole and slandered for their sake. In our high-tech modern world, we had no place for an ancient desert G-d. Luxury labels in our collars, brand items on our wrists. Now the looters and rioters sport the very same. Are we now equals? These fake gods, Chanel, Gucci, BMW--are they kingmakers? For then now all men are kings. No, we were an anointed nation by holy oil, a nation of priests, especially chosen to be the light. But we muffled our ears to our own Divine calling and sought our strength from make-believe muses and mellifluous memes. All in vain. “Hear, O Israel, the L-rd is our G-d, the L-rd is ONE.”  

The streets of the world again are beating with the thumps of protest and hatred. “You are a Jew.” If you forgot, they will remind you. Our Jewish institutions are vandalized, our holy objects desecrated--why should they care if we don’t? Did we scream, fast and cry when we heard our holy Torah was thrown on the floor and profaned like we would if our Mercedes were scratched or our dog hurt his paw. Our people attacked, our race forever blamed...the threats are getting louder. It’s time to go home.  We have one G-d, one Torah, and one home: Israel. The burden of “never again” falls not to the nations of the world, but upon us. We learned from the smoke and ashes that when we hem and haw and falter, tomorrow is too late. Some adhere to the calling, others are stirred by the shouting. And so I now remember the words of Israel’s former chief rabbi, Meir Lau who evokes the two images of the Prophet Isaiah regarding the return of the exiles to Israel: the cloud and the dove. "Who are these that fly like a cloud and like doves to their nests?" (Isaiah 60:8). The cloud is moved by the external force of the wind; the dove has an internal homing sense that returns it to its land. No matter what propels us, it’s time to go home. It’s time to return not just to the land that G-d gave us but also to Him and His Torah. For not even in the Promised Land nor with a million angelic voices singing Hatikva will we find hope, promise and peace if we dismiss the very land deed which bequeathed it to us, i.e., the Torah. 
“...And you will return to the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul, and you will listen to His voice according to all that I am commanding you this day you and your children,
then, the Lord, your God, will bring back your exiles, and He will have mercy upon you. He will once again gather you from all the nations, where the Lord, your God, had dispersed you.
” (Deuteronomy 30:1-4)

As Rabbi Avraham Tanis says: “Man believes in himself and questions the Almighty, when really, we should believe in the Almighty and question ourselves.” Friends we’ve had our run, a long run of arrogance and rebellion; I’m tired of running. It’s time to go home. 

1.   If a woman was suspected of adultery, she was brought before the Kohen and made to drink water wherein a scroll with G-d’s name written forward and in reverse was dissolved. The results of drinking would reveal her innocence or guilt. (Bamidbar 5:11-31)

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Washing My Hands of You!

"The L-rd rewarded me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands He recompensed me." (Psalms 18:21)

It is illuminating how compliantly we all adhered to the ever-changing guidelines in order to avoid catching the Coronavirus, most especially our attentiveness to hand washing and the disinfecting of all our touchables. After all, we want to stay alive, so we do what’s right for us. Judaism also highlights the importance of washing one’s hands except that its rules are not inconsistent and reliant on questionable science with its questionable motives; it rules were given by G-d. Their aim, too, is to keep us alive, in this life and the next. In Judaism one is not permitted to pray without washing one’s hands, even if it means traveling the distance of four miles to do so. The moment a Jew gets out of bed in the morning one cannot take but a few steps without the mandatory washing of hands.. One cannot eat bread without washing one’s hands as well. All these are not just physical imperatives but they also have spiritual ramifications. For instance, our sages teach that when a person sleeps they are 1/60th dead. When the soul returns to the body the impurity of death still lingers upon the tips of the fingers and hands. Not washing has both spiritual and physical repercussions.

And so, since everything in this world is a message from the Heavens above, I can’t help but know that new “cleanliness protocols” around the globe, ushered in by the lovely Covid-19, is a wakeup call to us all: It’s time to clean up our acts. Our immoral behaviors are deadly. From adultery to theft, from gossip to disrespecting our parents and the elderly, from wasting seed to immodesty in all our behaviors, we are dirty. I’m reminded of the famous line by Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth who compulsively rubs her hands and pleads: “Out, damned spot! Out, I say!” The blood spot she sees is projected solely upon her hands by her own guilt for committing murder. Yes, we have to keep physically clean, but it is our crimes against G-d’s Torah that make us most dirty, and just as stress manifests as sickness, so does sin. 

There is only so much that hand sanitizer can do for us. It certainly won’t wash our way into G-d’s good graces. For the past 49 days since the second day of Passover, the Jewish nation counted the passage of that time with a special prayer. There are a few reasons for doing so and one is to cleanse our souls from defilement. Each day we grapple with a trait that calls for “fixing”, i.e., purification. That spiritual preparation leads us into the Shavuot holiday, wherein the holy Torah was given on Mount Sinai by G‑d to the Jewish people, and as a gift to all humanity, more than 3,300 years ago. That gift is the eternal sanitizer and the only means through which we can refine ourselves. “...For God has come in order to exalt you, and in order that His awe shall be upon your faces, so that you shall not sin." Sadly, when this pandemic erupted, we  dashed for the Purell and not so much for G-d.  But on this holiday of Shavuot we are given the chance once again to grab our Torah with both hands, 'clean hands' and commit ourselves to being better Jews and better people. To be certain we really aren't as nice as we think we are. This holiday we read the Torah portion of the Ten Commandments, the purifying Decalogue of our souls. Here’s a quick review of  them  to see how well you are doing.

“I am the Lord, your G-d, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” It is from this starting point that any of the commandments have relevance. Do you really believe in G-d? How do you believe in Him? Do you believe in a G-d that owes you something or does your belief have you realizing that every second of this gift called life you owe Him. Do you believe He is a loving G-d who will forgive you no matter how you live your life? Because if you do, then you believe in something, maybe Disneyland, but it’s certainly not G-d.

II “You shall have no other gods….” Though you may not have a golden calf in your living room, it does not mean you are guilt-free of idol worship. ANYTHING that comes between you and G-d is an idol, including your money, your fancy lifestyle, your fear, you anger, your own arrogance and your vanity. 

III “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord in vain.” How many times have you made a promise to G-d and not kept it? That’s calling upon G-d’s name in vain and it makes you a liar. The Talmud teaches that God hates liars. Have you perjured yourself in traffic court or on other occasions while you swore with your hand on the Bible? Have you sworn to a friend that something was true when it wasn’t? Have you said the wrong prayer on the wrong occasion calling down G-d’s holy name for no reason at all? 

IV “Remember the seventh day and keep it holy.” Often people say I love my job, so it’s not like working on the Sabbath and it’s not hard. Very simply, nothing is hard for G-d. He created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. You think you are doing everything right, you know it all and have all the questions and the answers. After all, you know there were no cars in the desert, so you can drive on Shabbat, right? Ok, I’ll stop here because you're a scholar but I'll just add that there are thirty-nine categories of labor that are forbidden on Shabbat. Can you please list them for me please while you’re driving to shul?

V “Honor thy mother and father.” Most people think this decree means not to be rude to your parents. Did you know you are not even allowed to sit in your parents’ chair and you are not allowed to contradict them unless they oppose the Torah teachings, and even then with kid gloves? If you curse them or hit them, the Torah calls for the death penalty. 

VI “Thou shalt not murder.” Did know that embarrassing a person in public, according to biblical exegetes, is tantamount to murder. Breaking someone’s pride and dignity and crushing their spirit is also regarded as a form of murder. Slandering and gossiping about people can kill their reputations and ruin their lives and you can effectively kill their potential with your dagger-like tongue.

VII “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”  Only you and G-d know the truth. But be certain, no excuse is good enough, not even that your own wife gained 20 pounds or that your husband doesn’t buy you flowers. Dressing provocatively,  taunting and teasing and leading others down this road is a sin too. When you cheat, you cheat not just on your mate, but G-d as well.

VIII “Thou shalt not steal.”  Manipulating someone’s mind or heart is considered stealing. When you make appointments and don’t show up, you're stealing people’s time. When you make salespeople believe you’re going to buy something when you have no intention to, you're stealing their time and emotions. Taking small things like grapes, artificial sweeteners, and not paying, things you deem as having no value, is the reason why G-d destroyed the world with a flood. 

IX “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” Perhaps you would not lie under oath, but any form of lying against another person’s good name, even to aggrandize yourself or your business, is a sin. 

X “Though shalt not covet.” Maybe you don’t admit to lusting after your neighbor’s donkey, but have you bought things you cannot afford or simply wanted because you coveted with your heart and eyes. Have you hungered for your neighbor’s life or wife because they look better than your own? The Torah wisely admonishes you not to do so and to keep your eyes in your head. Coveting leads to the violation of all the other commandments. To covet is also your way of telling G-d He doesn’t know what He’s doing.

                        Oh, dear people of the Book, pick up the Book and wash your hands of sin

Friday, May 22, 2020

Your Story Doesn't Add UP

The salutation on the letter I received from the US Census Bureau in March was hardly warm and personal. It read, “Dear Resident.” Now, as a law abiding, patriotic and taxpaying citizen, it would hardly upset the Republic if I was greeted by the feds with, “Dear beloved citizen, Aliza Davidovit.”  So be it, even without Uncle Sam’s reciprocal sentiments, my heart will mend. After all, it is still life affirming to be tallied among the living, especially since Covid-19 from whence we tally daily and precipitously the infected and the dead.  Nonetheless, it is a humbling thought that our existence, as per the census at least, is a mere statistic. You have been counted, but do you count? 

A heavy cloud has beset the world. If being just a number, a statistic, a dispensable cog wasn’t enough, now we are further dehumanized by wearing face coverings and driven into prescribed isolation. Our smiles and dimples, our frowns and grimaces, our personalized interface with the world, further diminished. 

Hypothetically, what if it were true, as some believe, that Messianic times are upon us and that current events presage Gog and Magog, a bloody apocalypse? Now that so many of the things we deemed as vitally important just a few months ago have lost their relevance in light of the Coronavirus, what is left of us? The scale of our personal worth has been re-calibrated. Now that simplicity has, by mere practicality, obviated ostentation and that the toilet-paper frenzy mobilized greater masses than the Klondike Gold Rush, how has your value changed in this world? What have you counted for in this lifetime? Have you been a mere number or have you counted for one but lived as if you alone were an entire army, an indomitable force that gave life to your convictions, gave love to the world, gave hope to the downtrodden, gave kindness a home, and served the will of God?  Anyone who knows a bit about computer programming knows that any image we see on a screen is composed of pixels, and those pixels are composed of numbers. Change any number on the computer and the picture you see will change. Do you really know your own number and what spiritual image you are conjuring and casting? Where are you in sequence relative to your obligations to Judaism, to your fellow Jew, to our Holy Land of Israel? When we are at the DMV or a bakery we all know our number; G-d forbid we should miss our turn. But in relation to G-d, we are hardly so conscientious.  Perhaps we have all stepped out of place and that is why a disjointed, fractured national image is being projected.

In this week’s Torah reading, Bamidbar, we read how G-d commands Moses to take a census of the entire assembly of the Children of Israel. The sages teach that G-d wants a counting of his people for a different reason than governments. G-d counts out of love. Each is precious to Him. For certain, as the All-Knowing, does He really need to count? Doesn’t He already know exactly how much of everything and anything there is? He could have told Moses here in Sinai now the census count is 603,550. But any collector of fine things knows that you count and count again what you love.  And this counting of His children was hardly impersonal; it was by name and father’s house and tribe.  But the count is not only precious for the counter, but also for the counted. Imagine having three kids and in front of them only count two. The hurt is unfathomable. We each want to be counted and want to count. But with that acknowledgement comes responsibility. G-d is not just counting his children, He is counting on them as well. He is counting on you: Don’t just be a Jew at heart, i.e., “A Cardiac Jew,” be a Jew in deed. Just as each tribe had its own flag and color and gem, you too have a unique special attribute that Hashem gifted you with. And you are meant to use it in His service and in a concert with your fellow Jew. Yes, every Jew has to keep the 613 commandments but one is also compelled to offer what is unique in them. Look deep into yourself, to the part that even a mask can’t conceal. The best mirror of oneself is the study and observance of Torah. It really shows you who you are, who you are not and what you should be and can be. The sages teach us that there are 248 limbs in the body corresponding to the positive commandments and 365 tendons corresponding to the negative commandments (equaling 613), which comprise the entire commandments in the Torah. My question to you is how many of your body parts are acting in service to God? If the parts make the whole, then how much of you is acting Jewish? The statistical odds of being born Jewish is small. Value your uniqueness and rarity. Don’t just be counted or lazily count yourself out, count for something!  You can fool the whole world, but G-d Himself knows your number; and it’s your duty, as G-d’s treasured children, to add up to much more!