Saturday, November 16, 2019

ME, MYSELF & I

Unlike giraffes, we live in a generation where no one will stick their neck out for you. And if evolutionists are correct that giraffes’ necks elongated over time to meet the needs of its survival, then perhaps we humans are just a generation away from having one arm a foot longer than the other. As personal and societal narcissism expands with viral speed and existential toxicity alongside the erumpent technological platforms to broadcast that narcissism, then 12 more inches of arm will possibly accommodate the need to take “selfies” and glorify the “I.”
Yes, “ME,” “MYSELF,” and “I” are celebrities in this age of narcissism. The echoes and clamoring of “It’s all about me” drown out the needs and cries of others and mutes the voice of God. Whereas once pagans killed people to worship gods, today we’ve killed God to worship people--OURSELVES. Consistently, upon the altar of self-deification, we have sacrificed the better part of us: compassion, morality, integrity, courage, charity and family, religious obligations, our history, the present and the future. And it is not the sweet odor of incense that hovers in the air as decency burns, but the stench of corruption, greed and mercilessness.
By deductive reasoning, if I am better and more important than you, then my problems and distresses are more important than yours. But that is not the world God wanted. The Talmud teaches that if we petition God for our needs and wants, first pray for another. For God cannot reside in an egotistical arrogant person. Get yourself out of your own way. You want to throw something on the sacrificial altar to get results (other than scapegoats), start with your ego. By further deduction we must recognize how very far away we are from God and truth by looking to Moses as the paradigm of behavior. Because he was the most humble person to walk the earth, he was worthy and able to be God’s messenger. He didn’t mistakenly drop the Divine Tablets to take a selfie and have his name written in a bestselling book. Conversely, he told God to blot his name out of His book if He destroyed the Israelites. Thus, if God was so close to Moses due to his humility and self-effacing behavior, imagine how bad we look in God's eyes because of our selfishness. We are polar opposites. Selfishness is an antithesis to the five senses with which God created and blessed man, for it has no eyes for the suffering of its sister, has no ears for the cries of its brother, it smells not its own stench, it has no parched tongue to know another’s thirst and it has no heart to feel or hand to touch another in comfort. It has only an extra-long arm to take a selfie, an extra-long arm that will lead to self-strangulation.
It is little wonder then that the world in which we find ourselves is falling apart due to its fragmented nature wherein each person thinks the world revolves around them instead of realizing that the whole world depends upon them. There is an apropos rabbinic allegory about heaven and hell. “In each location, the inhabitants are sitting at a long table but the utensils are too unwieldy to serve oneself. In hell, the people keep trying to stuff their own faces but can’t get the food into their mouths and so they starve. In heaven, the people help each other and feed one another across the table and are sated.”
Far from heaven, as congressmen and senators serve special interests for self-aggrandizement, cash and political survival, as corporate technology is steeped in an ever-growing surveillance culture so as to ultimately control us, as the news media panders to agenda and become lapdogs instead of watchdogs, the building blocks of our civilization are crumbling. Every day it becomes evermore easy to say, “Who cares about anyone else? I have to look out for myself.”
In this week’s Torah reading, Vayera, we read about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, societies where people cared only for themselves and were heartless and callous towards others. Being charitable was a crime. Their profound egotism and lust for easy gratification led, as it always will, to self-destruction. As the Talmud says, “He who is affected by a voracious hunger finally eats his own flesh.” Yes, man is made of earth which is the most selfish of creations as it is surrounded by a gravitational field that pulls everything toward itself. Yet even the earth is not so selfish that it begrudges the flower and the tree to grow upward and the seedlings to sprout. In the final analysis, the earth gives much more than it takes. Do we?
In the center of the biblical account of Sodom and Gomorrah stands the Patriarch Abraham, who asks God to spare the city if even fifty righteous people could be found. God said he would. Abraham slowly tweaks the number down to ten in case fifty could not be found. God consents. Not even ten could be found. But we learn here not only about the failings of Sodom and Gomorrah, but also about Abraham’s, and Noah’s too. When God told Noah he was going to destroy humanity, Noah didn’t say a peep, he just built an Ark. When God told Abraham he would destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham’s best was to suggest that God should spare the righteous. But, when God told Moses that he was going to wipe out Israel because of the sin of the Golden Calf, Moses said, “Please forgive their sin—but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written.”
It is said that in the Messianic Age everyone will be beset by intractable problems. As today’s crises escalate personally and globally, we too cannot merely ask, “Will it be okay for me?” We are our brother’s keepers. Like those in the allegory, we too each have a long spoon in our hand with which we can “serve” another and the other can serve us. On our own initiative let’s grow “longer arms” to give each other a helping hand and not contrastingly to pickpocket each other of our dignity and humanity by our mere self-absorption. If only ten righteous people could have been found, Sodom and Gomorrah would not have been destroyed. The question to ourselves is, “Would we count among them?”

Sunday, November 10, 2019

The Light Inside (Lech Lecha)


To this day the people closest to me question how I can sleep with so many books in my bed, biblical commentaries piled neatly beside me barely an arm-reach away. My reply is usually the same, “At least I don‘t wake up, like some, with a stranger in my bed or with a horse’s head like in the movie the Godfather.” For I am a strong believer that the way you make your bed is the way you will lie in it.
Actually a person’s grave and a bed have something in common in Judaism, in each a person dies and is judged. While asleep a person is 1/60th dead, the Talmud teaches. And just as in death, one’s deeds are examined, judged and recorded. That is why upon waking in the morning the first thing a Jew must do before even getting out of bed is to thank God for returning his soul and for having faith in him despite yesterday’s failings. We are given another chance to make our beds anew.
When a Jewish person dies it is customarily said that he has gone to “his world.” Why “his world” and not the next world? It is because one's life after death is comprised of what man creates for himself while he is alive. Rabbi Akiva Tatz emphasizes that in the next world a person exists alone with his actions; everything that you are or are not is blatantly in your face. If you are a liar, a manipulator, a thief, an adulterer, a fraud, a phony, an impostor or plain out pompous idiot, well, you’ll find yourself in the the company you created.
As such, when people turn to me for advice, my first question to them is what end result do you want? Usually, when the bigger picture is taken into account, the steps one takes are modified. Being reactionary in all aspects of our life may put out little fires and may pacify our egos from incident to incident, but such behavior tabulates to a very petty uninspired life.
The question stands: So what do you really want? And luckily for those who hate having to decide, the choice was never really ours to begin with. A Jew has only one mission in life and that is to create light from darkness. In every single choice we face in life there is a hidden spark of Godliness, of light that is waiting for you to uncover it. In this week’s Torah portion we read how Abraham tells his nephew Lot, “Please part from me; if [you go] left, I will go right, and if [you go] right, I will go left.” One lesson we can learn from this is that even though the direction of our life can be offset by circumstances or the actions of others (in our limited perspective), whether we are deflected left or right, it is how we travel that road that remains in our control. Do we further bury the sparks with our hate, jealousy, anger and bitterness or seek the ember among our smoldering dreams. We often keep looking for a guiding light to lead the way, but the light is hidden in the challenges and the heartaches. They can be accessed and released through how we behave. In essence we are the light. So light up! In Hebrew, the language wherein there are no coincidences, the word for "test"—nisayon–also means to be “lifted up.”
Many of us are going through painful times and our life’s compass has us spinning in circles. We are bored by our routines and feel like we are going nowhere and as stuck as a tire spinning uselessly in eight inches of icy snow. There’s just no traction. We often believe that physical motion will extract us from the traps we are caught in and just want to escape to anywhere. But the truth is we are never in the same place twice even if we are going in circles. We are rather on a spiral either going up or going down. We may go from point A to point B a thousand times, but how have we released the sparks along the way or not is the crux.
How many mitzvahs have you done between the two points? Do you walk around with a miserable disposition and bring everyone down or do you make everyone smile? (In Judaism, one’s face is public property and we have to keep a smile on it and greet people kindly). Do you give charity between your two points? Do you actively search for mitzvot to do with acts of kindness when you set out from your door? If we find ourselves trapped in darkness it’s usually because we have yet to release the inner light in the areas we repetitively confront. If you are trapped in yourself, it simply means you are selfish.
Often in life I hear people say I wish my father or mother were still around as they would tell me what to do. Luckily the lessons of Abraham our forefather are eternal for us, his children. He went through ten trials of faith that we can’t even fathom from being thrown into a fiery furnace to having to sacrifice his son on an altar (which the angel stopped), from his wife being taken by Pharaoh to warring against four kings with his small band of men. Those are only 4 of his ten tests. Whatever our problems, his were worse. As a result of his faith nonetheless, it is to him that God says, "...And you will be a blessing. I shall bless those who bless you and curse whoever curses you; and all the families of the earth will be blessed through you." (Genesis 12:2-3).
When God told Abraham, “Go,” He didn’t even tell him where he was going. Like us, he too had no clear path. But he taught us that when you walk with God and with faith in Him you are never walking into the darkness. Although Abraham’s wanderings reflect an aspect of God’s telling him to “go” physically, the journey was also an inner one: “Go to yourself.” Go toward the light. A beautiful analogy can be found in the Lubavitcher Rebbe's writings which cites the Yad Malachi in regard to studying the Babylonian Talmud, "[It] never reaches its decisions directly but arrives at them through digressions and dialectics which shed, in their apparent meandering, more light than a direct path could." 
People often try and find themselves in their job titles, their assets, their looks, their haughty affiliations, all for naught, for they are finite “treasures.” As King David writes in Psalms, “To every goal I have seen an end, but Your commandment is exceedingly broad.” It is only in God’s Torah, the Tree of Life, the eternal light, where you can truly go to yourself. Every Jew is a letter in the Torah. That is where you are. The Talmud teaches that the Torah is not in Heaven. It is not some distant philosophy for wise people to contemplate. It is here on earth for every person to apply in every decision he makes in order to liberate the light.
Thus, before we go into the darkness of the night and die a little, review the day and question how your deeds and words brought light to this world and to your own world, the one you’re creating for yourself. Don't be regretful of the "life" that lies beside you. No we are not angels. It’s not easy. But remember angels leave no footprints; man, however, was meant to make his mark.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Fools of THOUGHT

Perhaps the “likes” on Facebook and other such electronic validations further encourages us to say things or do things we believe will please others. But the desire to be liked to be accepted starts early on in life. Often the price for admission is our individuality. We suppress what is different about us either in opinions, morality, stance or proclivities because we don’t want to stand out or be laughed at or disliked. How often in social settings or on Facebook or other blogging sites do you find yourself among fellow conservatives or liberals pandering to the conversation with trepidation that if you say something out of the accepted norm of your “clan” you will have your head ripped off for having your own mind?
Just a few days ago with the impeachment inquiry vote we saw how the vote was divided along strict party lines. But it is such unanimity that brings destruction to the world. Where are the dissenting voices, voices such as Abraham’s which bravely go against everyone else’s when they are wrong? Our potential dear friends, both personally and collectively, lies not in sublimating what is unique about us and in squelching our voice but rather speaking boldly, come what may. A herd mentality is a dangerous thing no matter which part of the political, social or religious spectrum you may be on. It suffocates justice and truth. Its progeny is toxic.
In this week’s Biblical portion we read about the Tower of Babel wherein God looked down upon those who set to build a tower into the sky and said: "Lo! [they are] one people, and they all have one language.” So what’s wrong with that? It’s not like they were committing murder. What is wrong is that they were so single-minded, so much in lockstep, so much of “one language” that no one questioned the other or challenged the other as to whether their actions were correct or not. Such uniformity in mind and action is a dangerous thing as it is bound to succeed, as did communism and fascism to a great extent.
Interestingly, in American jurisprudence, in order for a person to be found guilty all the jurors must agree on the same verdict. Judaism and its teachings have a different view. In the days of the Sanhedrin, the rabbinical courts which were officiated by brilliant men, if the majority found someone guilty they were deemed guilty--but if ALL the judges were unanimous in finding a person guilty, the accused was to be set free. One of the rationales was that because of the superior composition of the judicial body at least one judge should have been able to contrive a scenario where the accused was not guilty. Solid consensus revealed something was wrong with the court. Being of ONE mindset does have murderous implications. It begins with murdering ideas, then kills freedom of speech and soon enough blood flows.
No, it is not easy to stand against the establishment; it is not easy to be that only voice that speaks out against wrong or injustice, I recall how many people scoffed at me when I ripped up my masters diploma from Columbia University years ago in protest of its invitation to Iran’s President Ahmadinejad. One blogger wrote that I ripped all proof of having any brains at all. Throughout, I kept in mind the famous quote, “It doesn’t matter what they call you, it’s what you answer to!” And more importantly it is WHO you answer to and for me that is God alone. It’s incredible how it bothers people when you serve God because it disempowers them. Thus history has shown us many leaders and philosophies which have aimed to provoke God and force people away from serving Him. Indeed the people of Babel were attempting to seize control of the world away from God. So how did He punish them? He confounded them and “confuse[d] their language, so that one will not understand the language of his companion.”
I urge you all to be that voice that rings out in the silent halls of consent, the one to make a ruckus when something is not right whether it’s on a national scale or an old lady being mistreated by a checkout clerk at the supermarket. Let’s not pretend we like to mind our own business while every other second of the day we are on information overload seeking out what’s going on in every dark place in the world from celebrity to gossip to local riffs and tiffs.
Learn from the story of Noah. In a world of complete depravity, he had the courage to be the sole voice of decency, to walk a righteous path. For certain he wasn’t winning any popularity contests as he was hardly speaking “the language” of the times. Both he and his ark were oddities to deride, and then it began to rain.