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] www.aish.com Rabbi Shraga Simmons

Friday, March 29, 2019

The Perfect Blend


Good thing my juicer can’t sue me for blender abuse,  as every second day another media-proclaimed health guru raises his or her glass to toast to a new concoction that promises to be the cure to everything from the plague to plaque from phlebitis to arthritis. Who wouldn’t be on board? And so, it was not too long ago that I was ready to put down my book of Psalms and take up celery juice instead as the new savior for all my ills, including bone density. (Although Rav Nachman teaches that one’s sins are engraved on one’s bones and I wondered how my green drink would help with that.) Nonetheless, my Ninja and Bullet have been spinning overtime trying to keep up with the latest crazes. Some have even dropped dead from over usage and so I’m back to praying that the flavor of the month will have better results on me than on my electric assistants now resting in appliance heaven.

Many years ago, my long-time friend, comedian Jackie Mason, had a poignant routine on health trends brilliantly baring man’s foibles. He exposed the sad hilarity as to how every other day another food item is deified and glorified until a study comes out a week later conclusively proving that the healthful item your about to ingest will kill you in an hour.  That’s the devil of our day: The desire for the quick fix. The insatiable hunger for magic tonics or potions that will obviate all the responsibilities that go along with being healthy (or being religious.) 

I have some obvious conclusions to draw from the fact that health crazes and diet books are so popular: We fundamentally believe that we are what we eat, that healthy items make us healthy and that we want to be healthy. And yet God has given his people a “diet book” that ensures that they will be not merely healthy, but HOLY; a diet very unlike my liquidizers whose warranties have long expired, but rather one that has endured through the millennia. Yet we flout God and prefer to believe the spandex-wearing fitness gurus who are fitly dressed to stretch the truth. The sages teach that the food we eat affects much more than our bodies; By eating not kosher we sully our souls, distance ourselves from the Almighty and bring on sicknesses. The kabbalists teach that our soul is in our blood and seeing that food feeds our blood it affects our souls as well. The more we learn the depths of our commandments, the more we realize that God is the best diet guru even if He doesn’t have an infomercial. 

The Jewish people are allowed to eat only ten animals, none of which hunt for prey. They are docile and peaceful. Our sages have taught that  eating animals that lust for blood and go for the kill affects our characters and personalities. If eating an energy bar gives you energy, then how hard is it to believe that eating violent and aggressive animals can transform your energy as well making it ever harder to keep the Torah's commandments, all meant to elevate our animal soul? 

For an animal to be kosher it has to possess two traits: It has to chew its own cud and must have split hooves. The Torah lists four animals that can fool you because they possess one out of the two requirements: the camel (chews its cud, no split hooves), the hare (chews its cud, no split hooves), the hyrax (chews its cud, no split hooves) and the pig (has split hooves but does not chew its cud). The Torah was written thousands of years ago, before National Geographic and The Animal Planet, and still unto this day no other animal has manifested other than these four tricky ones itemized in the Torah that possess these characteristics. As for food that comes from the water, fish is all that is permitted and it must have both fins and scales to be kosher. Before I became kosher, a lifetime ago, I used to eat shrimp and other foods the Torah calls abominable. If I can give it up, you can too. Today, I’m repulsed that they ever entered my mouth. As for creepy crawly things, okay gross, but if that’s your craving, know that they too are not allowed. The Torah admonishes that not only eating certain foods renders us impure but even touching the carcass of some has an effect on us and contaminates us. But there is no Purell antibacterial sanitizer to counter the effects on our soul. Interesting how we are afraid to shake hands, touch doors knobs, use public bathrooms, etc. because we fear to be physically contaminated, but the Torah, which predates our modern-day microbe germaphobia, takes this concern even deeper. What we touch, who we touch and how we touch also results in spiritual contamination. We must work harder to guard our souls and feed our souls. Pandering to and feeding our other appetites will destroy us and distance us from our Creator. We often wonder why God doesn’t do what we beg of Him. A blatant simple answer comes in Jewish style, in the form of a question: Do we do what He asks of us? As with every relationship it demands mutual respect. Keep kosher, purify yourself, be holy--watch miracles happen.

People will often ask if God really cares what I eat for lunch? And the answer is a resounding thunderous, YES. So much so that Adam and Eve were thrown out of the Garden of Eden for eating the forbidden fruit. The first sin revolved around eating and brought about the fall of mankind. It is said of Adam that he was the most gorgeous man that ever lived, but by eating what he should not have, his stature and beauty were diminished. Simply because God said so, food affects us profoundly. When we sin with food, and in general, our inner light is diminished and it shows in the spiritual realm as well as on the earthly plains. No coincidence that the Hebrew word for skin (or) and the Hebrew word for light (or) are homonyms. I hate to push kosher as a beauty remedy, but if you want to “glow” you should probably forsake your beauty serums and try eating kosher instead and keeping the commandments.

Eating kosher doesn’t just mean avoiding pig and its non-kosher cohorts, it also means not eating “like” a pig. Be a mensch in all your appetites. Have restraint and limitations. Don’t listen to the slithering snake offering you the “forbidden flavors” of an artificial and ephemeral paradise. Eat healthily, take care of the body that God gave you (it's just on loan) but also guard your soul. Body and soul are partners in time, crime and the sublime. One day we will have to give an accounting for our vast intake not just as regards our fitness but before the Eternal Witness who gave us His menu along with the commandment that we not contaminate ourselves: “For I am the Lord your God, and you shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, because I am holy, and you shall not defile yourselves ... For I am the Lord Who has brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your God. Thus, you shall be holy, because I am holy.” Bon App├ętit!


Friday, March 15, 2019

Sorry! Sorry! Sorry!


Forgive me if the mere mention of the title will inspire last song syndrome and you’ll be humming all day because of it, but with Elton John now on an international tour, his song “Sorry seems to be the hardest word” seems to be at the tip of my pen. And yet, ever ironically, an article came out this past week based on a TED Talks series “How to Be a Better Human” which postulates that we say “sorry” way too often. It reasons, according to Canadian sociologist Maja Jovanovic, that apologies “make us appear smaller and more timid than we really are, and they can undercut our confidence.” And of course in a society where everything revolves around how the “I” feels, why should one walk around feeling like a small “i” so that you can feel like a big YOU? The only problem with that way of living life is that it is Godless. In the preservation of the “I” and in our mania to foster it, everything and everyone becomes a casualty. The aforementioned sociologist even posits that apologizing for bumping into someone, is one sorry too many. However, that entire philosophy most certainly steps on God’s foot, which leads to this week’s Parasha, Vayikra and many reasons to be sorry.

Without having to ask “Can you hear Me now?,” for the third time in the Torah it is written that God “called” Moses, and once again it was to assume a momentous duty. So important is this new duty that God is to impart to him that the entire book of Leviticus is titled Vayikra, which means, “He called.” Leviticus opens with God instructing Moses how the Israelites should “say sorry” to atone for their sins through sacrificial service. They were to atone not only for sins against God, but for sins against each other. They were to atone not only for sins they did, but also for  their sinful thoughts. They were to atone not only for clear violations of the commandments, but for sins they were not certain they even violated. They were to atone not only for sins they did on purpose, but for ones they committed accidentally. Why? Because God takes “sorry” very seriously. Yes Moses got the “call,” but have we dropped it?

The sages teach that thought, speech and action are garments of the soul. We need to clean those garments when they become sullied by sin. The sacrifices provided the remedy to purify those “garments.” And let’s not keep this so sterile. The act of sacrificing involves slaughtering a living animal, cutting it into pieces and sprinkling blood, etc.; It’s gory even if it is for a holy end. But be sure that those who brought sacrifices were cognizant of one thing: that the animal before them was dying in their stead. Since it is the animal soul of man that causes him to sin, “atonement comes about only through blood” (Zevachim 26b).

But there is one thing that even sacrifices cannot do for us, and that is to say sorry to one we have wronged, hurt, lied to or stolen from. Until we make good, God won’t forgive us. For the wise among us know that nothing really belongs to us. Everything belongs to God, and so when you wrong a person, steal from them, lie to them you are in essence violating God. If you feel diminished or embarrassed by extending an apology, it’s good for you; it’s part of the atonement. Even our fasting on Yom Kippur absolves only our sins toward God not those perpetrated against others. When we try and preserve the “I”, our ego makes no room for God, for goodness, for apologies or forgiveness. And luxuriating in your own imagined greatness will bring you to sin. The word for “I” in Hebrew is “ani”, spelled with the letters alep, nun and yud. When those same letters are rearranged they spell the Hebrew word “ayin," which means nothingness. Moses was the most humble person in history because he rearranged the letters, perceived his nothingness, he knew there was no reality beyond God’s Will and in a profound unfathomable way he lived beyond the “I.”  That made him the worthy recipient and teacher of God’s Torah. Interestingly, the Hebrew word for poor (ani) has the same pronunciation as the Hebrew word for "I"--ani. Homonyms are no mere coincidence in God's holy language. For certain the person who lives only for himself and feeds the "I"  as if he's catering a banquet, no matter how "rich" he may become, is nonetheless, very poor indeed. 

In this generation of selfies and excessive self-love, the challenge for us all is ever harder. We question why we should do anything for anyone, even our own people. Unfortunately, the third Temple has yet to be rebuilt and we can’t throw some poor sheep on the fire to atone for us. But saying sorry to God, to our neighbors and to ourselves is still possible through prayer, charity and repentance. We have to suffocate our egos and give breath to a new and more meaningful life.  If God loved Moses for being the most humble man on earth then we can deduce, even though we are no Sherlock Holmes, that God must hate the arrogant and prideful. And indeed it is written in the Talmud that where the arrogant reside, God cannot dwell. So don’t be too cool to wear a kippa and to ask for a kosher meal; don’t be too haughty to say I think I will stop working on Shabbat; don’t be too cosmopolitan to say I am a Jew and I love Israel.  To be a Jew means to make sacrifices and take risks in our lives for God, for our Homeland, for our people and for all humanity. It is a noble task and a worthy banner to carry. So many groups from gay rights activists, to Black Lives Matter, to neo-Nazis proudly wave their flags, but Jews who have a Divine calling act as if they are embarrassed to be Jews. Take advice from Moses, try being humble with other things, but be proud to serve God and keep His Torah and Commandments. Be the bright light among the nations that you were destined to be, not a dim watt.

Forget about all those self-help books and Ted Talks promising to make you the best YOU; God’s book will make you the best JEW. In that destined role you will truly find who you are and your talents and your purpose will rise to the top and anoint you like the oil used to anoint kings and high priests. "Just as physical light influences plants to grow, spiritual and intellectual light [Torah] prods man to achieve his potential." (Rabbi Michael L. Munk). So, yes, be sorry. Be very very sorry if tomorrow you are not a better person and better Jew than you were today. And if you think saying sorry to God or to man makes you “small”, then I’m sorry to tell you, you weren’t all that much to begin with.