Friday, April 16, 2021

Every Breath You Take


Life is so expensive, but we took some comfort for a long time in thinking that at least the air we breathe is free. And then came along the Coronavirus and slapped a price on that too making even our “Listerined” breathes potentially lethal. But, you see my friends, breathing was never really a freebie to do with as we please; it comes with great responsibility and accountability. For certain, man cannot count his every breath, like he does his assets, to display his appreciation of them. But how one uses one’s 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 we been talking about? Have we made talk cheap? The First Amendment guarantees “the freedom of speech”— but have we abused our freedoms? 

The power of speech is so mighty, that long before the First Amendment, God created the world with it: “And G-d said, ‘Let there be light,” etc. Then G-d breathed life into our mouths and gave man alone the ability to speak. Yet with that very same vessel we spew hate, mischief, curses, gossip and falsehoods. The very tools He used to build the world, we use 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 just as energy never disappears as teaches The First Law of Thermodynamics. And when we are in times of danger those words prosecute us in the Heavenly court. And we pay the price. It’s expensive. So please tell me, with the stakes so high, from all the role models in the Torah, from King David to Queen Esther, why we would want to emulate the snake whose venomous tongue brought down mankind?  

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. One that also involved quarantines. Interestingly, the duty falls to 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. “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! Perhaps the mandatory masks are reminders to watch our mouths in more ways than one. 

Watching our words is not just a nice recommendation from our local rabbis. It’s a Torah commandment. “You shall not go around as a gossip monger amidst your people (Leviticus 19:16). We must use our breaths as if our life depended on them, because it does. If we don’t believe that words have power, then why bother praying on Yom Kippur or anytime for that matter?  And if we do believe, then certainly we wouldn’t use our finest crystal glasses to gather a urine sample; so why use the same mouth we use to pray and bless our loved ones for despicable, undignified and sinful speech? 

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 our friendships revolve around gossiping about others, perhaps it’s time to question who our friends are. If today they yap about others be sure that tomorrow they will talk about us. When’s the last time you walked away from a conversation smarter than when you started, more inspired and healthily motivated? Do your friends make you better people? 

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. Shabbat Shalom!

 # Tazria-Metzora

Friday, April 9, 2021

A Zantac for My Soul

any 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 you’ve been eating by the case will kill you in an hour.  

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 and radiant, but HOLY--a diet very unlike the ones offered by spandex-wearing fitness gurus who are fitly dressed to stretch the truth and to contort science for commercial purposes. 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. “In addition, the kosher manner of slaughtering animals obviates their sense of impending death and is not accompanied by pain and or suffering” all conditions that adversely affect the livestock and undoubtedly the eater. (Rabbi Zamir Cohen) Eating non-kosher also makes it ever harder to keep the Torah's commandments. If your building blocks are not kosher, how can you expect your ensuing actions to be? After all, you are what you eat--right?

For an animal to be kosher it MUST 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.

The Torah admonishes that not only eating certain foods is problematic but even touching the carcass of some has an effect on us and contaminates us. 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 put patches on our skin to stop smoking, to avoid pregnancy, to mitigate menopausal symptoms, proving again that what we touch resonates deep on every level. Try the “kosher patch”--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. And FYI, here’s a beauty tip: Adam was the most gorgeous man that ever lived, but by eating what he should not have, his stature and beauty were diminished. 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.

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. Review your life "menus," my friends. For sin is grossly malabsorbed and even Zantac cannot cure  “acid reflux” of the soul.    Bon App├ętit!

Friday, April 2, 2021

URL not Found: What Are You Linked To?

It’s hard not to think about Moses when we think of Passover. Even if we want to forget, advertisements for Cecil B. Demille’s great production, The Ten Commandments, frequent our TV screens as constant reminders this time of year. And yet, as we sat down for our seders and read through the Haggadah which recounts the great miracles that God performed for us, we realize that there is one name that is conspicuously missing, the name of Moses. He is mentioned only once in the entire book. Why? It is meant to teach us something very important: rescue comes only from God Himself. All else, i.e., humans, money, vaccines and even Moses, are mere intermediaries serving His will, no matter what role they play in our lives. There is one God and thus we must stop deifying everything and everyone else: The L‑rd took us out of Egypt," not through an angel, not through a seraph and not through a messenger. The Holy One, blessed be He, did it in His glory by Himself!”

You see 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, to flatten our egos and to acknowledge the role that God plays in our lives. God did not just create the world and walk away. He’s a personal God; One that went down into Egypt Himself to deliver us from slavery. What are you doing with your freedom? Do you prove yourself worthy?

We can think of our relationship to God like a computer link. If you click on a link and it does not open, then all the advertising that leads to that link, and all the beautiful pictures that lead to that link, and all the hoopla that leads to that link, well they're basically meaningless and useless. When our lives are just surface but they don't link to the greater good, when they don't link to the content-- God and His Torah-- then all we are is surface, 2D creations that take up time and space. To live a life in all the dimensions, 3D, we must link to the Source, to the spirit that animates us. Passover is a perfect time to relink the surface of our life with the purpose of our life by reconnecting directly with He who created the entire program and knows best how it all works. 

    Shabbat Shalom. Happy Passover!


Friday, March 19, 2021


For many years I hadn’t heard about Ted Talks. Once I did, I soon realized many people talk too much and often for no good reason at all. A couple of years ago an article came out based on a TED Talks series “How to Be a Better Human” which postulated that we say “sorry” way too often. It reasoned 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 article posited that even 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. Once again it was to assume a momentous duty. So important is this new duty 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 who’s sorry now?

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 from whom we’ve stolen (which includes stealing time, reputation, manipulating, etc.) Until we make good, God won’t forgive us. 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 our own imagined greatness will bring us to sin. The word for “I” in Hebrew is “ani”;  when the 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 and in a profound unfathomable way he lived beyond the “I.”  That made him the worthy recipient and teacher of God’s Torah.

In this generation of selfies and excessive self-love, the challenge for us all is ever harder. The “I” has been exponentially fortified, digitized, glamorized and monetized, but scantily spiritualized. 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. 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 "proud" and 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.

Forget about all the self-help books which expire like old medicine and the Ted Talks promising to make you the best YOU; God’s eternal book will make you the best JEW and therein you’ll find the best you. In that destined role you will truly find who you are. "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 very sorry to tell you, you weren’t all that much to begin with.   Shabbat Shalom!

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