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!

Friday, May 15, 2020

Why would you do that to Me?


Herzl’s consideration of Uganda as an alternate “Jewish Homeland” was rejected for there is only ONE Promised Land. The Israelites’ worshiping of idols was sinfully wrong because there is only ONE G-d. A nation whose underlying sentiment is that another Jew’s affairs is “not my business,” is deleterious and splintering, for the Jewish people too, are ONE. A fundamental of Judaism, as foundational as the Aleph Bet, is that all Jews are responsible for one another, for we are ONE people. When Mayor De Blasio calls out the Jews, he doesn’t just mean the MIB, he means me too.  G-d, His Torah and Israel, i.e., the people and Land are ONE. As such all our destinies are intertwined. Our shared responsibility does not end by donating money to a Jewish cause or planting a tree in Israel; that, however important it may be, is just a pretense to shirk responsibility. And great responsibility beckons us all the days of our lives and every moment of those days. Every sin a Jew makes affects the entire nation and the world. For your adultery, your thievery, your gossip, your lies, your arrogance, every Jew will pay. When it comes to G-d’s laws, we have a very hard to time swallowing this acerbic truth. And yet in our secular lives we get it loud and clear. When a Jewish ball player, boxer, philanthropist, scientist does something great, we beam and aim to bask in their greatness. When a Madoff-like character rears his head, we shrink and hide. We are quite cognizant of the fact that in world affairs the act of one Jew impacts us all.

The Coronavirus is a perfect manifestation of what occurs also in the spiritual realm, it too with serious repercussions. A man coughs in Wuhan and over 300 thousand people are dead. A Jew sins anywhere, and we all are impacted. “Each man will stumble over his brother.” (Leviticus 26:37).  We see early on in the Book of Joshua as the Israelites set out to conquer the land, they are commanded not to take any silver and gold, nor vessels of copper and iron for themselves as they are “consecrated to the Lord.” The Israelites are miraculously successful in their first effort and the walls of Jericho fall to them by the mere blowing of the shofar. In their next battle 36 men die and Joshua is crestfallen and cried out to G-d only to find that one man did not obey the commandment and coveted the gold and silver and took some for himself. The sin of one Jew caused the death of 36 others. I often think about the Israeli soldiers who are putting their lives on the line for us spoiled Jews in the diaspora and when I’m tempted to be lax in observing a mitzvah, I think perhaps their lives are in my deeds. And they are, just as their lives are in our prayers.

In the past I’ve asked on Facebook whether G-d is a punishing G-d or a loving G-d. For the most part respondents feel that G-d is a loving G-d. It is true. But one does not preclude the other. To live life thinking that we can flout G-d’s will and not worry because He loves us no matter what is living in a Disney-like world with feel-good exemption coupons. Anyone who has read the Torah even a single time knows that our behaviors matter. When Adam and Eve sinned, G-d punished them; the generation of Noah sinned, and G-d drowned them; when Cain sinned, G-d punished him; and when it came to Sodom and Gemorrah, G-d destroyed them, and so on and so on. We are not in elementary school where everyone these days gets a gold star for participation. Yes, G-d loves us and that is why throughout the Torah G-d tells Moses, “Speak to children of Israel.” When you care, you remain in dialogue. But unlike humankind, G-d doesn’t talk for nothing. It doesn’t matter if you are much kinder than the Jew who wears a black hat, you TOO are mandated to keep Shabbat and kosher. What really makes you “so” nice and kind if the Torah tells us that for your sin other Jews will be punished? Figuratively, if you sneeze, your neighbor will get blown away. We have to look no farther than this week’s Torah reading to know exactly what G-d wants from us and what He will do if we don’t listen. We have to stop deluding ourselves that we are good people even without Torah. What makes you so good? Maybe your sexy clothes are taunting someone else’s husband; maybe your showoff ways are invoking jealousy; maybe you minding your own business is making others vulnerable to life’s great hardships; maybe your “innocent” gossip is destroying innocent lives; maybe your harsh rebukes on social media are debasing society; maybe investing money in the stock market with its lousy odds instead of giving charity where G-d’s returns are guaranteed, maybe all that doesn’t make you so nice. Maybe begrudging someone a “like” or heart on social media leaves them sad, lonely, insecure. Don’t be so sure you’re so good. G-d alone decides what’s good. The words of this week’s reading are loud and clear. If you follow G-d’s commandments life will be abundantly blessed. If not, well some things are better left said for themselves. 

But if you do not listen to Me and do not perform all these commandments, and if you despise My statutes and reject My ordinances, not performing any of My commandments, thereby breaking My covenant…I will order upon you shock, consumption, fever, and diseases that cause hopeless longing and depression. You will sow your seed in vain, and your enemies will eat it. I will set My attention against you, and you will be smitten before your enemies. Your enemies will rule over you; you will flee, but no one will be pursuing you. And if, during these, you will not listen to Me, I will add another seven punishments for your sins: I will break the pride of your strength and make your skies like iron and your land like copper. Your strength will be expended in vain; your land will not yield its produce, neither will the tree of the earth give forth its fruit. And if you treat Me as happenstance, and you do not wish to listen to Me, I will add seven punishments corresponding to your sins….” (Leviticus 26:14-43).  It goes on and on, avoid reading at your own risk.  If that’s not a G-d you can believe in, well, I don’t think He really cares. He’s not applying for a job interview.  But if you do believe in G-d, it’s time to start realizing it’s His will that counts. Yes it's true that G-d made man, but in some measures man has “made G-d”-- for we have a fashioned a G-d that fits our lazy, selfish and ironically godless agendas. Remember that you never sin alone, the whole nation is there right with you. And as Rabbi Hillel famously said, “If I am only for myself, what am I.”  The truth is, without your nation, without your G-d, without your Torah or your land, you really are nothing at all. We are one or we are none!


Friday, May 8, 2020

The Sound of Silence

Last week I looked through my blogs of previous years for some inspiration, a starting point to get me going.  I used to fear the blank screen as a writer until it dawned on me just a year ago that it was never me writing these articles. It was always G-d. I was just the pen He used. I’d been restless all morning waiting for Him to pick me up again and put me to use. I stared and stared at the blank page further exasperated by numerous interruptions that had me jumping from my seat more times than any writer would care to. No inspiration came, not from above nor from my previous articles.  Had G-d put down His ball point or had I just dropped the ball? 

Although I’ve been writing Torah blogs for over 25 years, it turns out that every year since I started posting my blogs to the Internet in 2012, I’ve skipped writing about last week’s Torah portions.  It’s ironic for me personally as this week’s Torah reading is the one which corresponds with my Hebrew birthday. It is called, Emor, which means “SAY.” In fact, within the very first sentence the word say is written three times. How auspicious for one who would become a writer and would have so very much to say. And yet somehow words  have failed me repetitively at this same point.  Nonetheless, the sages teach that the spaces between the words and letters of the Torah are just as important as the letters and words themselves, just as  is the silence between  notes to give any song meaning and form.  

In a world of unceasing chaotic noise, perhaps talent and wisdom is to know when to stay silent. In the silence, in the spacing, our identity takes shape and defines itself. We have only to look at the effects of social distancing and its resulting isolation. When we pull away from the narrative of our lives, ones we are often unwittingly interlocked with, only then can we really get a clearer picture of who we are. And when we reassert our voices into life anew, we can better decide where we will position ourselves. Will I be like the letter ayin that heads the word oneg which means happiness/joy or like the ayin that inserts itself at the end of the word ra, which means bad or evil?  The sages teach that every letter came before G-d ‘ere He created the world wanting to be the one that starts His Torah. Where do you want to fit in? When the silence breaks, know that sequence has consequence. Where will you place yourself vis-a-vis your relationship with G-d and others. It is not surprising that the word humility in Hebrew, anava, starts with the letter ayin because the ayin has no sound of its own. Its sound depends completely on the vowel attached to it: ah, eh, oo, etc.  Moses was known to be the most humble person that ever lived, in a manner, a man of silence. No sound of his own, i.e., no ego. He tells G-d: “I am not a man of words, neither from yesterday nor from the day before yesterday….” (Shemot 4:10) It was that humility that made him worthy of being G-d’s messenger and teacher to humanity. A man of no words? Today we call the Torah the Five Books of Moses. That’s a lot of words. 

I’ve truly come to value the sound of silence. My father always taught us not to talk needlessly. So many people talk simply to talk, to be heard, to be braggarts, to be important. Their words make them feel like a somebody, from academic snobbery, to scriptural swank, to gossip, as long as  they are talking. As long as we hear our voices in the air, we feel important, alive. And the age old question comes to mind, what if a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it, did it really make a sound? The answer comes to us in last week’s Torah reading, whose voice came to me only later in the week. G-d commands the Israelites, “"You shall not curse the deaf” (Leviticus 19:14). 

Now not tripping the blind we can understand, but why not curse the deaf? Really no harm done, right? Wrong. The physical ear, whether it works or not, is a physical manifestation of the soul’s ear--and speech originates from the “soul of speech.” No words are lost in the universe and they all make their mark. And a word out of place can disrupt the algorithm of the universe. Sefer HaChinuch explains that a curse can have its effect even when it’s not heard (via Rabbi Munk). The Rambam says that a curse actually affects the one cursing. Anger, which propels curses, is tantamount to idol worship as it is a tacit reaction that implies G-d was not behind whatever it is that angered the person.  

Friends, our words comprise our reality and also compromise it. As such, we have to learn not to be afraid of the silence when we have nothing godly to say. Interesting, to give honor and respect to those who died we will often take a moment of silence in their memory. Let’s do the same for life and the living. Stay quiet to give honor and legitimacy to the words we do say. In some fields such as mine, we often get paid by the word. But when you serve G-d you are rewarded for appropriate silence.  Last week’s commandments prohibit us from cursing the deaf, and our parents, from lying to one another, to gossiping. This week’s Torah portion, ends with someone blaspheming G-d. That’s the problem with the tongue, when it gets started it doesn’t know when to stop. It will start thinking that cursing or gossiping about the deaf or those not within range is harmless and it will end up like the snake taking on G-d Himself. Talk is cheap, silence is golden. Choose your worth.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Breathtaking Speech

Life is so expensive these days but we took some comfort in thinking that at least the air we breathe is free. And then came along the Coronavirus with its cruel ability to asphyxiate its victims and we are painfully reminded that breathing is a gift and a very expensive one at that with ventilators costing thousands to build and even more to use. You see my friends, breathing was never a freebie to do with as we please; it comes with great responsibility and accountability. For certain, man cannot count his every breath in order to display his appreciation of them. But how one uses one’s life and speech, which those breaths afford us, says a lot. There are no words without the breath that carries them forth. So I must ask: What have you been talking about? Have you made talk cheap?

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,'” etc.(1:3) With love and great aspirations, G-d breathed life into our mouths and gave man alone the ability to speak and yet with that very same vessel we spew hate, mischief, curses and falsehoods. We use the very tools He used to build the world, to destroy it. The Talmud states that every word which issues from our mouths, whether good, evil, by mistake, or on purpose, is written in a book. They never disappear even though we plead with our interlocutor to not repeat what we said.  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 whose venomous tongue brought down mankind? 

In last week’s article I wrote how Adam’s eating the forbidden fruit diminished his physical and spiritual beauty. In this week’s Torah readings we learn how talking slander about people can you make you ugly. The punishment for it is a skin disease called tzarat (miscalled, leprosy). 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 which 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). We must look at our punishment and see how it fits the crime. Covid-19—It’s breathtaking! 

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) Of all things, why would David be happy G-d broke the teeth of the wicked? Wouldn’t he be happier if He broke their necks? 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. And that is exactly what G-d is waiting for and wanting from us. He wants us to pray to Him when we have a problem, not to verbally sabotage the person who may have given it to us; he wants us to bless the food we eat and the lives we live not curse humanity for our perceived injustices; don’t cuss, don’t slander, don’t be a yenta. “You shall not go around as a gossip monger amidst your people (Leviticus 19:16). Use your breaths as if your life depended on them, because it does.

So my dear friends, what are you talking about? I know 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? Life and death are in the tongue. If you don’t believe that words have power, then why bother praying on Yom Kippur at all, or anytime for that matter?  You wouldn’t use your finest crystal classes to gather a urine sample. So why use the same mouth you use to pray also for despicable, undignified and sinful speech.

I know it’s not easy to stop and that being a yenta ironically is as contagious as the plagues it causes. But we are better than that. How can we not be? G-d made us! Remember the simple advice we’ve all been told, “Think before you speak.” Save your breath, guard your words, watch your mouth and remember most things are better left unsaid.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

A Killer Menu: Bon Appétit

A universal visceral reaction upon first hearing about the Coronavirus was, “Of course it came from China; they eat dogs, snakes and bat soup.” One didn’t have to be religious or Jewish to get nauseated at seeing animals that we call pets hanging from meat hooks or imagining bats doing laps in our broth. Our brainless stomachs and rudimentary retch reflexes just know some things just shouldn’t be eaten. With subtle feelings of superiority we question, “What kind of person eats things like that?” Certainly there will be consequences. All of our own health crazes and the billions society spends on them strongly indicate that we fundamentally believe that we are what we eat, that healthy items help make us healthy and that bat broth breeds deadly viruses. How coincidental, it turns out that G-d believes the same thing. We may deem foods as “gross”; G-d deems some foods as unclean and an abomination. I tend to trust Him more than the Chinese, W.H.O., or the FDA as to what is consumable, after all He did create the world and everything in it. I certainly vouch for His very famous “diet book” that ensures that His people will be not merely healthy, but also HOLY; a diet that has endured through the millennia. “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.” (11:45)

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? 

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 hand sanitizer or alcohol percentage to counter the effects on our soul. Interesting how we are afraid to shake hands, touch doors knobs, or come within 6 feet of each other because we fear to be physically contaminated, but the Torah, which predates our modern-day germaphobia and virus avoidance protocols, takes this concern even deeper. What we touch, who we touch and how we touch also results in spiritual contamination. 

People dismissively ask if God really cares what they 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. 

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.” 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.  The next time you pick up your spoon, pause for a moment and know that G-d is looking at you in the same bewildered and repulsed manner that we look at those who shop at wet markets and eat bat soup: “Why would they eat that? It’s killing them on so many levels.” The Master Chef of the universe, the King of nutritionists specifically commanded his children, to “distinguish between the unclean and the clean, and between the animal that may be eaten and the animal that may not be eaten.” (Vayikra 11:47). Stop being impressed and lured by the fancy French names on killer menus. They are euphemisms for physical and spiritual “poison.” “Do not defile yourselves with them, that you should become unclean through them” thus said the Lord.
                                                          Bon Appétit!

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Sorry, Closed--Due to Us

G-d created this world and if you think the Chinese are solely responsible for shutting it down, you are wrong and dangerously mistaken. The Angel of Death is diffusing with avidity. Mankind has been driven into its homes just as the Israelites were driven into their own “isolation” on the very first Passover so that death would pass them over. Goat or sheep’s blood marked their doorposts. Today we have Mezuzot instead with its three highlighted letters “shin,” “dalet,” and “yud”— an acronym which stands for Shomer D’latot Yisrael, “Guardian of the Doors of Israel.” It is as it has always been, the words of G-d, the Torah, will protect us--if only we would let them.

But man can’t live by words alone. Say the word “food” a hundred times, but you will still be hungry. G-d has driven us into our homes, via His puppets, i.e., governors, mayors, presidents and their like, not only to rediscover our family relationships and reevaluate our priorities, but also to rediscover our relationship with Him. His words demand actions: body and soul partners in time — a very limited time. In many places in the world because mankind has been pushed into hiding, animals are breaching the boundaries of their natural habitats and roaming city streets, goats running rampant in Wales, wild pigs in Paris, coyotes in San Francisco and monkeys in Thailand. When G-d looks through His celestial window, can he tell the difference between us? How different from animals have we become? We worship our animalistic needs and desires while starving our souls. We emptied the supermarket shelves, but the shelf that holds our bibles and prayer books, they are still full, untouched.

One of the Hebrew words for plague is “Dever” דבר. The very same Hebrew letters, Dalet, beit, resh  also spell the word “Davar” which means word  or utterance. Hence the Ten Commandments in Hebrew are Aseret Hadibrot, really meaning the Ten Utterances. G-d’s words sustain us. “And [Moses] took the Book of the Covenant and read it within the hearing of the people, and they said, "All that the Lord spoke we will DO and we will hear." (Exodus 24:7) But when we break that vow and violate G-d’s word, davar, we get dever, the plague instead. Perhaps having to wear masks is symbolic of what we’ve become, hypocrites with our true faces hidden. Moses had to wear a mask because his face beamed with the light of G-d; our faces however, bespeak a godless pallor.

Last year at this very time, with unwitting prescience, I wrote that destiny is as brittle as a matzah and that it can pivot in a second. And woe, how it has. Breathtakingly so. With the upcoming holidays, keep in mind that Passover is not just about cutting bread from the menu, it is also a divinely sanctified time for us to take an introspective look at ourselves, to clean up our spiritual crumbs. It is a time to remember that G-d alone has saved us and can save us, not Dr. Fauci, or Trump, or medical masks or ventilators made by General Electric. Yes, GE may “bring good things to life,” but G-d alone decides who lives. 

Thus says the Lord: Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom, nor the strong man boast of his strength, nor the rich man boast of his riches.” (Jeremiah 9:22). 

Friends, it’s time to flatten our egos like yeast-free bread and start serving the one and only Who is puffing the air into our well-being. The difference between this night and all other nights is that G-d is no longer asking, He is telling. Oh beloved humanity, be expeditious and afraid, lend Him your ears and obey the word of G-d, or the ark will surely sail without you.

Friday, March 27, 2020

I'm Sorry for What I Did!

Like most days, I asked a question on Facebook this past week. This one however, relating to the coronavirus, was rhetorical. I asked: “Is there really anybody who is saying right now, "I can't understand why God would do this to us because we were so well behaved?"  We have lost our way my friends, lost our souls, become high and mighty, turned ourselves into gods—selfish and heartless ones at that--created our own morality and conveniently altered G-d’s Will like a custom made suit that fits to a T.  But we who just last month thought we were gods in our respective microcosms and fiefdoms, who would command Alexas and Siris and Amazon to give us what we want, who lavished in a life of plenty manufactured in China, that same “we” has been brought to its knees. And our custom-made lives are popping at the seams. We would not humble before the invisible G-d, so now we kneel before the invisible virus. Unlike us, this invisible virus does not discriminate, it hates Democrats and Republicans, it hates the unknown and the famous, it hates Jews, Muslims and Catholics, it hates the rich and the poor, it hates democratic countries and it hates tyrannical ones. And in its universal hate, it has reminded mankind that we are one and G-d is one.  Some, in stubbornness, will still blame the Chinese; they played their part. But the Talmud teaches that not one blade of grass grows in this world without Divine supervision, so much more a virus that pretty much has overnight changed the world as we know it, perhaps irreversibly. Now each of us, like a punished school child, is sequestered to his corner, to shelter in place and to think about our behavior. Perhaps it’s time again to pull out our ruled notebooks as in years gone by and write a thousand times. “I’m sorry for what I did,” I’m sorry for what I did,” etc.

In this week’s Torah reading, God “calls” Moses, and once again it was to assume a momentous duty. So important is his new duty that the book of Leviticus is titled Vayikra, which in Hebrew means, “He called.” God “called” Moses to instruct him how the Israelites should “say sorry” to atone for their sins. What a beautiful gift G-d gave mankind: forgiveness. But unlike cute modern-day catchphrases, such as “love means never having to say you’re sorry,” we indeed have to be sorry, say we are sorry and behave as if we are sorry. 

The means to atone for sin was through animal sacrifices.  More graphically, it involved slaughtering a living animal, cutting it into pieces and sprinkling blood, etc. And be sure, those who brought sacrifices were cognizant of one thing: that the animal before them was dying in their stead. God takes “sorry” very seriously. Yes, Moses got the “call,” but we have dropped the “ball.”

Today we have no Temple and therefore no more animal sacrifices can atone for our sins. Today, what stands between us and the dispatched Angel of Death is the Torah: Penitence, prayer and charity can avert the evil decree.  “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. And you shall choose life, so that you and your children may live. (Deuteronomy 30:19) 

Friends, I know a lot of fancy words, but I can best summarize by saying mankind has become low. Even those who teach G-ds’ laws in every religion, many are liars, cheaters, panderers who became too business oriented instead of soul saviors. The secular have become too open-minded, too accepting of moral decay. We’ve been bumping off each other in close proximity in an “everything goes” mindset and have brought out the worst in each other. Politicians who are elected to lead are instead ready to ruin their countries for greed and internecine hatred. G-d had enough. Now we are isolated with only G-d to keep us company. We have no more audience to see our clothes, our cars, our jewelry, our manicures. It seems karmic that China, which has manufactured our phony lives, has also manufactured our death. We are all in hiding with only who we really are as our company. If the power goes out, taking Wifi and Netflix with it, what will be left of you? Can you stand yourself?

When a person dies, in the Jewish faith we say, “Shehalach lolamo,” meaning the deceased went unto his world. Why “his” world? Because in the afterlife we go to the world we’ve created for ourselves. The time to change is now!!!  I pray G-d will forgive us and this plague will disappear as quickly as it came. But friends, while we are already “figuratively” on our knees, I do believe it’s time to say, "G-d we are so, so sorry. Please let us out of solitary confinement and we promise the next time we won’t do it again." In the meantime, a vibrant rainbow has appeared in my window; it’s time to build my ark.