Friday, September 15, 2023

Where is Your Head?

 Often when parents send their children off into the fracas of life, they dispatch them with the warning: “Be careful and use your head.” But isn’t that advice all rhetoric and trite? What else would we use to engage life? Our toes? Our elbows? It is only as we grow older that we realize what we once deemed as a parental platitude is wisdom that no sophist can equal. For even though the head sits as the crown of the body, for most people it is every other body part that actually rules. Our palates salivate, so we grab for the extra cookie; our eyes desire, so we spend beyond our means; our desires flare, so we reach for the forbidden; our legs grow weary, so we abandon the treadmill; our tongues grow restless, and so we unfurl gossip. Day in and day out we respond to the dictates of the body, but the head, the supposed capitol of our resolve, our will, our better judgment, well, it seems to be a silent partner. But as the New Year approaches that farewell warning our mothers and fathers gave us while standing by the front gate should echo with solemnity: USE YOUR HEAD!

On Rosh Hashanah, too, we stand before a gate, the Heavenly Gate of God, which is wide open to hear our prayers of repentance and our beseeching for health, wealth and life. We have big plans for the year ahead and we supplicate our Maker until the holy gate closes. Then we pivot back to our lives, and as we are ushered out of the synagogue God tells all his children: “Use your head.”

Rosh Hashanah, is not translated as “New Year” for really there is nothing “new” about it if tomorrow we behave the same as we did yesterday. But rather, it is translated as “head” of the year; for just as the head is the command center that directs the rest of the body so, too, Rosh Hashanah can be the command center that will tell the rest of the year what to do. On no other day are Jews more humble, afraid, repentant, well-intentioned, resolved, regretful, hopeful, beneficent and primed for change. The year ahead is replete with potential. But it depends on one thing. Will you take the potency of Rosh Hashanah with you into the New Year or will you, like so many children, leave your head at home and go into the New Year with just your feet? (In fact the Hebrew word for foot, regel, has the same root word as the Hebrew word ragil, which means “like usual.”) And the lesson is we can’t let our feet lead as usual if we want to do be a victor of habit instead of its victim.

Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah may effectively bleach your sins and failings, but they cannot correct why you faltered to begin with. Unless we take a reckoning with the “whys?” we will forge forward not with a clean slate but rather with a tie-dyed start.

And so, on these auspicious days, we are provided with a God-blessed opportunity and responsibility to assess ourselves with diligence. You see, yesterday is not something to run away from like a mugger trying to take something from you, rather it’s a guru with something great to give you and teach you if you are ready to learn. And tomorrow is not something to run toward while wearing yesterday’s muddy shoes, while consorting with yesterday’s bad friends, while going to yesterday’s bad hangouts, while sticking to yesterday’s unhealthy schedule, and while pursuing yesterday’s noxious entertainment.

We start out with good intentions and yet we are told that God doesn't recognize the Jewish people from one Yom Kippur to the next. The pure souls that left the synagogue a year earlier have returned in a blemished state one year later. And I cannot help but think of the fish heads and goat heads which symbolically grace Rosh Hashanah tables around the world and wonder at what point did we too lose our heads along the way? Our parents’ words echo once again: “If your head wouldn’t be screwed on, would you lose that too?”

Friends, now is the time to barge into our own lives screaming like a dissatisfied customer and demand to know: Who is in charge here, our head or our feet? And I just pray that in one year from now, when God greets us once again at His Gates of Judgment, He will say, "Children, I’m so proud of you. You really have a head on your shoulders.”

Shabbat Shalom. Shanah Tovah!

Friday, September 8, 2023

Where Are You Looking?

"Why am I here?" and "What's my purpose in life?" These questions resonate with many, especially during moments of uncertainty and introspection. They are fundamentally spiritual questions, yet some remain unsatisfied with the simple, spiritual response: serving God and elevating the world is your purpose.

"Nah, it has to be more than that," is a common refrain, often heard from those reluctant to embrace religious duties that might disrupt their daily routines or necessitate a change of menu. In an attempt to soothe empty hearts and weary souls, they fill their lives with material possessions, vacations, external adornments, sometimes drugs and alcohol, or illicit relationships. Yet, these are mere band-aids on wounds that are seeking deeper and more poignant remedies.

The epitome of such lives can be found in the entertainment world where the beautiful people seem to have it all, yet their lives are marked by divorce, depression, addiction, and often untimely ends. These glaring examples should teach us that the shallow pursuit of more and abundance will never provide satisfactory answers to life's profound questions. Instead, it often exacerbates our frustration, leaving us with gold in our hands but empty hearts.

Perhaps the most wasteful question we can ask is, "What does God want from us?" The answer is not elusive; it is plainly written in God's Torah. Yet, we often place more trust in influencers and gurus than in God's own word. We view God's rules as an inconvenience, searching for quicker paths to happiness, akin to golden calves. How has that approach been working out?

We are indeed a generation adept at asking questions but often resistant to listening to the answers, especially when they require change. It's akin to someone asking, "How can I lose weight?" and becoming frustrated upon hearing that it involves eating less and exercising. They may seek alternative solutions like diet pills, mouth braces, or surgery, all while watching themselves gain weight each year. In matters of truth, there is only one answer, and that is the word of God. Even the American dollar wisely acknowledges, "In God we trust."

It is a law of nature that every empty space beckons to be filled—crevices with dirt or water, blank walls with artwork, buckets with rain, chairs with sitters, and hearts and souls with purpose. The choice of what to fill the emptiness with has always been ours to make.

While some people travel the world seeking answers and to find themselves, we can set aside the travel brochures. What we seek requires no frequent flyer miles or suitcases. The truth we seek is already within us; we just need to reconnect with it. Every quest is ultimately a search for God, but often misplaced and in the wrong destinations.

This week's Torah reading, Nitzavim-Vayelech, reminds us that God's word is not distant; it is close, within our grasp, and nestled in our hearts, waiting for us to heed its guidance. The Torah is the DNA of reality, and to subvert or ignore it only serves to expand our emptiness.

In our relentless search for meaning, let us not forget that the answers are closer than we think. We need only to be honest enough and strong enough to accept the answers. The Torah explicitly states that if a person flouts God's will and says, "I will have peace, even if I follow my heart's desires," he will be punished. We were given the choice between blessings and curses. God advised us to choose life. 

In our everyday lives, when a person nearby sneezes, we usually say "Bless you," even to a stranger standing in line near us or at the next table. However, if the person is far away, we typically won't. Similarly, in our relationship with God, those who stand close will be blessed. Those who are far, it's time to come back. As the Jewish New Year is upon us, it's a perfect time to turn inward, embrace the truth, and reconnect with the purpose that has always resided within us: to serve God and become the best version of ourselves through His Word. Shabbat Shalom

Friday, September 1, 2023

Change Your Mind; Change Your Find

f you ask people to express what they want most  in life, the majority will say: Happiness.

I just want to be happy” is a mantra that echoes in the longing hearts of so many individuals. And yet, this seemingly simple goal seems to evade so many of us. Gurus and self-help books offer much advice on how to grasp this elusive objective. They make their millions and as for us, well, recent statistics show that only 19 percent of Americans are “very happy.” Twenty four percent indicated they were "not very happy." The remaining respondents labelled themselves as "fairly happy.”

The ancient Jewish teachings of the Mishna teach us the way to achieve happiness in one sentence, which in Jewish fashion, starts with a question: “Who is rich[contented]? One who is happy with his lot.” Happiness, my friends, is a state of mind that is reached through one thing alone: Gratitude. As Jordan Peterson says, “Gratitude is the best antidote to bitterness.”

Click to watch Aliza's Torah  videos on YouTube 

Gratitude is the means through which we discipline ourselves to appreciate what we have now and in the moment. Gratitude is our testament of faith whereby we acknowledge that things are happening FOR us, not TO us. Instead, most of us grumble as we go and imagine all the things we think we need, with the uncorroborated hopes that they will make us happier. When we live in gratitude instead of “baditude,” we focus on what we have, we value our lot, instead of pouring destructive energy into what we lack. As the expression goes: “Where focus goes, energy flows.”

Unfortunately, an even more popular sentence starts with, “I’m grateful, don’t get me wrong, BUT….” There is always a "but." In Hebrew, the word aval, BUT, is spelled the same as the word mourning. The but allows us to pivot to sadness and complaints.

When we live with gratitude, there are no “ifs,” “ands,” or “buts”! And that is why the first thing a Jew says every morning before getting out of bed is, “Thank You.”  This 12-word Hebrew prayer “Modeh Ani” inverts normal syntax and loosely translated starts with, “Thank You, I.” The “thanks” comes before the “I.” Living in gratitude is living in faith and it is transformative.

Modern studies prove this to be true.  If we make sincere gratitude, ritual gratitude, a daily practice, we can increase our happiness and even improve our health. Gratitude reduces cortisol in the body, reduces depression, improves relationships, and improves productivity and loyalty in employees. It also has a pay-it-forward impact. Whereas misery loves company, gratitude is a creative force that illuminates the world and realigns it.

It’s interesting that in Hebrew the word for thank you is todah, when those same letters are permuted, they spell the word dotah which means “illness.” When we are unthankful, we are like an emotionally sick person and we separate ourselves from the Source of life and abundance. For certain the ungrateful among us eat themselves up alive and make themselves sick.

Being thankful and grateful is not only a state of mind; it has to be reflected in actions. We have to think thanks and also speak it and do it! And so, in this week’s Torah reading, Moses tells the Israelites that when they come to the Promised Land, they are to bring the first-ripened fruits and declare gratitude for all that G‑d has done for them. Giving thanks reminds us that we are not responsible for our success. Gratitude is a life-enhancing holy lens through which to view the world and the part we play in it.

Both personally and professionally, I’ve known too many people who have a “use them and abuse them” mentality. They take what they can from us, even from G-d, and when our usefulness expires, they kick us to the curb. These thankless people may regard themselves as geniuses in their game of life, but the Torah regards them as Pharaohs, as arrogant enemies of Hashem. People are the vessels through which G-d delivers His blessings. If you treat people badly, you treat G-d badly. 

In contrast, the Torah teaches us a very different lesson about gratitude. After all the suffering which the Egyptians caused the Israelites over their long years of slavery, the Torah commands us, “You shall not hate an Egyptian.” Why not?  We are not permitted to despise them because they once hosted us in a time of need. We were once sojourners in their land. If we are not permitted to hate those who tormented us because they were once good to us, imagine how much more we owe those who were good to us! And how much gratitude we owe to G-d most of all!

It is only when we are in a perpetual state of gratitude that our best blessings are yet to come. The Talmud teaches that the Divine presence will not rest on a person in a state of sadness. Gratitude is a fundamental of Judaism. In fact, the term "Yehudi"-- Jew, comes from the Hebrew name Yehuda, which means thanks and gratitude. It is thus from the tribe of Yehuda that the Mashiach will come. 

Change your mind, change your find! If you’re grateful you can be happy now. Put on your rose colored glasses and give life a new look!

Shabbat Shalom

Friday, August 25, 2023

A Lot on Your Plate?

A few years ago, someone told me about an all–you-can-eat restaurant that charges customers a fixed price no matter how much food they pack on their plates. But then, the establishment ALSO charges customers by weight for the food they leave on their plates, basically for the food they waste. What a clever idea to minimize squander!

 And since my mind is always steeped in Torah, I could not help but make the quick leap to our relationship with the Almighty and our purpose in life: When our time comes, how much of our life’s purpose will be actualized and how much will still be left on the “plate” and wasted?

Click to watch Aliza's Torah  videos on YouTube 

Indeed, all of us have things for which we need to repent and have regrets for things we’ve done. We pray, we’re contrite and beg G-d to forgive us.  But few of us realize that on Judgment Day, we will also have to account for all the things we failed to do.

We have only one life in which to partake and utilize the beautiful “smorgasbord” of opportunities and talents with which we were blessed. Yet, sadly, so many of us waste our lives. We starve our potential and feed our fears. But that is no healthy regimen.


As the famous quote goes: “Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!” Why are we starving? Because we satisfy ourselves with artificial sweeteners instead of harvesting our talents and potential. We get lost in a world of distractions and amuse ourselves with frippery to pass the time. We let all that life has to offer us and all that we have to offer life, rot and grow cold on the table. We forget that we are here for a reason, a G-dly reason.

Click to watch Aliza's Torah  videos on YouTube 


And that is a shame, a travesty, and a tragedy because each one of us is special and has something unique to offer the world.


Do you recall the old General Electric motto? “We Bring Good Things to Life”  Well, if GE brings good things to life, just imagine what G-d brings to life! For certain, remarkable things and necessary things. G-d indeed created ex nihilo, i.e., something from nothing. But He doesn’t create something for nothing. He made man and fashioned us in His image. And each of us has a Divine and moral obligation to fulfill our unique potential. G-d said, “Let us make man,” in the plural. We must be partners in our own creation.


If you’ll oblige me a moment of levity this reminds me of a joke: “Why did the patient fire his therapist after eating a buffet-style meal at his doctor's house? Because when the patient arrived his therapist told him, ‘Help yourself!’”


What stops us from helping ourselves and activating our potential? The answer can be found in this week’s Parasha, Ki Teitzei, which prohibits us from plowing a field with an ox and donkey together. There are many explanations for this prohibition, but the one relevant to us now is that the ox represents the elevated part in us that strives for spiritual greatness, while the donkey represents materialism with its earthly, gravitational pull. We cannot cultivate our Divine potential and greatness while tethered to the disruptive forces of the donkey. In fact, if you rearrange the Hebrew letters of chamor, meaning donkey, it becomes machar --“tomorrow.”  We have the ability to activate our purpose now, but too often we put it off until tomorrow. And as we all well know, tomorrow never comes.

Click to watch Aliza's Torah  videos on YouTube 


And so this week’s Torah  reading starts with the words: “When you go out to war on your enemies, the L‑rd, your G‑d, shall deliver them into your hands….”


The sages teach that this is not just a physical war, but also a spiritual war against the evil inclination, the Satan. Playing on our fears, he is the one who advocates for tomorrow and distracts us from doing things now! He stalls us and makes us afraid to try positing possibilities of failure. In fact, he is procrastination’s best PR "person."


But he is an enemy we must and can fight. We must live in faith, not fear! Imagine a seed that was afraid to change, so it never became a flower; imagine an acorn that was afraid to change, so it never became an oak tree; imagine a caterpillar that was afraid to change, so it never became a butterfly;  imagine an embryo afraid to become a fetus and a baby afraid to leave its mother’s womb.


People equate change with loss. But the loss is in NOT changing, in not becoming, in not growing, in not developing and in not maximizing our talents to add value to the world and to serve G-d’s will.

 Click to watch Aliza's Torah  videos on YouTube 

There is an old but sad joke about Brazil: "Brazil has great potential and it always will." In other words, the potential is never fulfilled. Don't be Brazil!


G-d promises us that if we go to war against this enemy, which I call the naysayer, the propagator of fear and self-doubt, G-d will help us. G-d helps those who help themselves. So don’t be afraid to fail. You cannot become a great juggler without first dropping a lot of balls.


To quote Winston Churchill: “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” 


It’s been said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”  What’s true in a geo-political historical context is true for us personally as well. The evil inclination triumphs when we, good men, good women, do nothing with our lives and squander our potential.

Click to watch Aliza's Torah  videos on YouTube 


How many gifts and blessings has G-d put on our figurative plates? Many more than we can digest in a lifetime. Yet how many of our gifts and talents do we really use and develop to better the world, to serve G-d, to help humankind, and to help ourselves? 


With the High Holidays before us, it would serve us well to home in on our unique purpose and talents and start taking stock of our unused and untapped potential. Waste not, want not! Know that G-d will weigh our figurative plates and each of us will be asked a simple question: Why weren’t you as fruitful as you could be? And then, of course, there is always a price to pay.                                                                                             Shabbat Shalom

Friday, August 18, 2023

So That's What You're Thinking?

In this week’s Parasha, Shoftim, we are reminded of G-d’s warning to the Israelites after leaving Egypt: “You shall not return that way anymore." Some people fear freedom because it comes with great responsibility. Breaking the chains of a slave mentality is challenging. After their freedom from Egypt, many Israelites complained and advocated returning, with distorted recollections leading the way, “We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt free of charge, the cucumbers, the watermelons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.”

If you desire to meet the person you're capable of becoming, you must break the chains that control your thoughts and relinquish toxic and paralyzing beliefs about yourself. We've all heard the phrase "mind over matter." Physicist Max Planck, a pioneer of quantum theory, said, “I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness." G-d's consciousness created the world, and our thoughts shape our reality.

"Change your thoughts and you change your world." - Norman Vincent Peale

Click to watch Aliza's Torah  videos on YouTube 

Modern science and self-help gurus emphasize the power of positive thinking. But Judaism has been conveying this wisdom for millennia. It's not simply a call to be optimistic but an acknowledgment of the transformative power of thoughts.

The Tenth Commandment, “Thou shalt not covet,” speaks to a sin of the mind. It's considered perilous to violate because coveting can lead to transgressing other commandments. Such is the power of the mind. As the saying goes, "What you think, you become." Our mothers always told us to watch our steps, but monitoring our thoughts is even more vital, for they dictate our paths.

This month of Elul is a period of introspection and repentance before the Jewish High Holy Days. Yet, how can we hope for genuine change if we still cling to old, limiting beliefs? Einstein wisely noted, "We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them." Many Holocaust survivors endured due to their ability to visualize a life beyond the concentration camp fences.

If you wish to transform your life, reshape your thinking. Here is an example of why it’s not good to have a memory like an elephant. Consider a baby elephant which is tied by a rope to a stake in the ground. When he’s a baby he's not strong enough to pull the stake up. Eventually he becomes strong and is amply capable of doing so, but his mind has already been conditioned so he doesn’t even try.

Chabad Chasidism teaches, “Think good and it will be good.” A positive mindset amplifies the potential within. As it's often said, "A healthy mind is the best weapon."

In this week’s Torah reading, the Israelites are instructed to uphold truth. It's intuitive to avoid deceitful individuals, but we must remember that oftentimes, we deceive ourselves the most.

"We tell ourselves stories in order to live," says Joan Didion. But we need to be very selective about the stories we tell. Like any book, you carry the story with you to bed and think about it throughout your day.

Negative self-talk can be our downfall, making us believe we're inadequate or destined to fail. However, G-d promises a land of abundance and calls upon us to rise, to grow, and to look forward. “...For the L-rd said to you, ‘You shall not return that way anymore.’” Shabbat Shalom 

Friday, August 11, 2023

Who's Doing the Walking?

When we were children my brother had a distorted old pair of running shoes which he refused to throw away because they were so comfortable. My mother, to no avail, kept telling him that distorted shoes affect your walk and can misshape a growing foot. She also had her own theory for me too. She’d say, if you walk around in very baggy clothing all the time, you’ll grow into them and won’t feel yourself getting fat. Now this is no blog on orthopedics or weight, but the running shoe and sweatpants admonishments have become symbolic life lessons for me. Where she was a pragmatist, I was a philosopher.

How often in life do we fall into what is comfortable for us instead of what is good for us? Too often! People are so reluctant to leave their comfort zones as though it was some exemplary state of being. My mother was right though, wearing more fitting clothes has kept me thin; as for the running shoes, they eventually got tossed. The comfort zone, dear readers, is not your friend. It’s a place where we lull ourselves with excuses, cower in fear and stop seeing who we are and what we are becoming. In the “bagginess” the details get lost and there is no valuable reference frame to measure our lives, our growth and G-d forbid our failures.

Click to watch Aliza's Torah  videos on YouTube 

How many of us have chosen friends because we feel “comfortable” to be “ourselves” instead of finding friends who are role models and who can teach us something. Motivational speakers say that we are the average of the five people with whom we spend the most time. As author Jim Kwik says, “If you hang out with nine broke people, be sure you’ll be the tenth one.” The Talmudic sages too have something to say on this matter: Firstly, “Distance [your]self from a bad neighbor [friend], and do not befriend an evil person.” As Rabbi Hanina said, “I have learned much from my teachers and even more from my friends….” Comfortable to be “ourselves?” We don’t even know who we are unless we’ve been tried and tested. Have courage to fail! Math teaches us that the more times you try, even if you fail, the more chances you have to succeed. Failure is not a death sentence--it’s a teacher.

It's sad; No, it’s tragic how many of us get too comfortable in jobs that are beneath us or “love” relationships that diminish us, or body sizes that inhibit us or habits that kill us? We even grow comfortable in our misery and the toxic voices in our head: “The whole world is bad,” “I’m the only good normal person left” and as such we disengage, stay in our bathrobe, eat a can of Pringles and watch YouTube.  

Click to watch Aliza's Torah  videos on YouTube 

A person has 70,000 thoughts a day. How are those thoughts feeding our choices? Are they poisonous thoughts or healthy? If someone would come up to anyone of us and say that we’re a big loser, a failure, a moron and an idiot etc., we’d tell them where to get off, maybe punch them in the nose. The reply would certainly not be G-dly. So why do we talk to ourselves that way? Judaism prohibits talking badly about people, that includes ourselves. Change your thoughts, change your life.

Yes, it’s intimidating to dip one’s toe in the big wide world because even as we get inspired, we really think everyone else is better than us, smarter than us, more capable than us. Basically, we are afraid of life. But as the book Outliers portrays via data, “geniuses” are made, not born. Few are greater than us naturally. The proof is that the self-help market is a multibillion-dollar market. Without ever opening a self-help book, merely acknowledging the size of that industry should be an instant cure for all our insecurities. It’s telling us, rather shouting at us, that everyone is in the same boat. Everyone is afraid or insecure on some level.

Yet, we fear to venture forth and the comfort zone sustains the status quo, we think. But it does not. Life is like a treadmill and it’s always moving; you are either going forward or being pulled backwards, sometimes imperceptibly slowly but going backwards just the same. We are afraid to know the truth about ourselves and prefer to remain legends in our own minds. But be sure, we were not assembled in China with substandard components; G-d created us and He’s the best manufacturer. When we connect with our G-dly purpose, there is no such thing as failure.

Click to watch Aliza's Torah  videos on YouTube 

We are soon entering the month of Elul on the Hebrew calendar, which is a month of introspection wherein people try to improve themselves prior to the oncoming high holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. But change can never really come if we don’t hone in on what needs to be changed. This week’s Parasha Re’eh opens with the words, “Behold, I set before you today a blessing and a curse.” We think the choice should be clear and easy. But the evil inclination starts blurring the lines between choices and we very often grab for the curse because it’s comfortable.

Friends, we have to start analyzing our lives, categorizing our behaviors and start choosing blessings. And we have to stop loving things, people, habits, foods, drugs and drinks, etc., that don’t love us back. There isn’t one among us who doesn’t want to adopt the American army slogan “Be all that you can be.” Many have just stopped acknowledging it. But it’s never too late or impossible.

We are told that G-d doesn't recognize the Jewish people from one Yom Kippur to the next. The pure souls that left the synagogue a year earlier have returned in a blemished state one year later. My prayer for all of us that next year G-d won’t recognize us once again but only because we are better, brighter, happier, healthier and holier than ever before.

And as my mother taught, stop falling into things that mask you faults or accommodate them, and start clinging to that which will fix them. 

                               Shabbat Shalom!