Sunday, January 24, 2010
Abracadabra--You’re a frog! You’re not? Ok, but I tried. Nonetheless, it is interesting to note that the magical incantation abracadabra originates from Aramaic and means “I create as I speak.” And though most of us can’t just cause rabbits to appear from top hats, our words do make a difference—if they didn’t then there would be no such thing as slander law. Our words, on many levels, make an impression on the universe, and our prayers do as well. The question is, when we pray, whom are we talking to? When people pray at the Western Wall are they just talking to a wall? If G-d has everything and needs nothing from us mortals why does He insist that in our prayers we praise and thank Him for all that He has blessed us with?
A possible answer is it’s not for Him or His needs, it’s for our own! Each time we pray we are moved to count our blessings and to express our appreciation for what we do have. Instead of depressing ourselves with our own words, we fortify ourselves and empower ourselves. We make contact with the god inside of us. I have always found it beautifully symbolic that in the Hollywood epic The Ten Commandments, the voice of G-d was Charlton Heston’s, the actor who also played Moses; for, if the voice of G-d is our own voice, then we have the power within to heal our lives and access happiness and success.
But praying is not enough. When the Jews panicked upon confronting the Red Sea with no way to escape the pursuing Egyptian army, how odd it is that after making such a big production of His ability to free the slaves, God says to Moses, “Wherefore thou criest unto me?” [Exodus 14:15]. If Moishe Dayan had tried that answer after boxing in his Israeli troops they would have scratched out his other eye.
G-d is teaching the Israelites an important thing here about faith: G-d helps those who help themselves. G-d surely knows what His job is, but do we know ours? It says in this week’s Bible portion that when Moses raised his arms and prayed for the Israelites, they succeeded in fighting against Amalek, when his arms and prayers wearied, Amalek was stronger. So we learn two things here. Yes, we have to pray but we have to take up arms against the challenges in our lives as well. In 1948, when the fledgling State of Israel was attacked by five Arab armies, Jews didn’t only pray as did the Six Millions murdered Jews of the Holocaust, this time they also fought back. The Jews in Israel at the time could have cried out as did the Jews who were liberated from Egypt and said, “Were there no graves in Egypt [or Auschwitz] hast thou taken us to die in the wilderness [Israel]? This time they not only prayed to G-d but supplemented their words with action. Both are necessary. You don’t lose weight, make money, or meet the man of your dreams by sitting and doing nothing and just praying, so what makes you think that miracles happen just because you have faith alone. You must be an equal active partner with faith.
There have been studies that showed sick people who were prayed for faired better than those individuals who were not prayed for. Although there is no substantive scientific proof that prayer works, I have found it fascinating that a Japanese doctor named Dr. Masaru Emoto, through Magnetic Resonance Analysis technology, provided factual evidence that human vibrational energy—thoughts, words, ideas and music—affect the molecular structure of water. To extrapolate on his finding, it may very well be possible that prayers can change reality on a microscopic level and thus influence how things evolve.
Yet, biblical scholars say that the waters did not part for the Jews despite their crying, until one individual by the name of Nachshon jumped into the sea neck deep. Upon his action AND faith, the waters opened. If you want a miracle dear friends, work it baby, work it. G-d knows his job description. As for all of us, while we are “crying” let’s do a little trying.
Sunday, January 17, 2010
I remember my favorite childhood song from Sesame Street, where they flashed four pictures and sang: “One of these things is not like the other; one of these things just doesn't belong.” It was up to discerning children to figure out that the picture of the vegetable didn’t belong in the group of fruits, or that a letter didn’t belong in the group of numbers. Children are smart you know!
But are we? Can we still discern when something is just not right and just doesn’t fit? It is the trend these days in reality TV to redo everything we don’t like, thus the barrage of makeover programs, such as What Not to Wear, The Biggest Loser, Queer Eye For The Straight Guy, Supernanny, Nanny 911, Restaurant Makeover, From G's to Gents and Extreme Makeover, just to name a few. So should we be surprised when filmmaker Oliver Stone announces that he, too, is going to make a makeover series and do a Nip and Tuck on history and give Hitler and Stalin a whole new look? The famed director has decided to put Hitler “into context” in an upcoming Showtime documentary called, “Secret History of America.”
Stone has been quoted as saying, "I've been able to walk in Stalin's shoes and Hitler's shoes; to understand their point of view.” Perhaps Stone would have done better to walk in the pile of hundreds of shoes on display at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum. They are the shoes of murdered men, women and children that have long outlasted their owners. Perhaps he should have walked on one of the death marches from Nazi concentration camps, where prisoners were forced to walk half-naked and shoeless over long distances--with death often coming as a mercy.
Stone may also want to travel in the shoes of people who were just like you and me-- living their lives, laughing, enjoying, paying bills, kissing, and loving, who began their days as regular citizens and ended their days as lampshades or piles of hair and gold teeth. Let him walk in fields where Jews were stripped naked in front of their father’s, mothers, friends, neighbors and rabbis, humiliated, their heads shaven and forced to run around for Nazi entertainment before being shot to death. Let him walk the terrifying road where Jews trembled with fear as they were herded into buildings where they entered as mothers and children and exited as ash and smoke. Let him walk in the shoes of individuals who were the guinea pigs of Nazi medical experiments, all to advance the “Übermensch” ideal.
Until he does indeed wear those shoes, it seems so fitting for Stone to have said that "Hitler is an easy scapegoat throughout history,” conveniently forgetting that 6 million murdered Jews were a much easier scapegoat. How chilling it is in the face of such evil that Stone can rationalize and tell the Television Critics Association that, "We can't judge people as only 'bad' or 'good'. [Hitler] is the product of a series of actions. It’s cause and effect.”
It seems highly ironic that Stone’s announcement came out the same week that Miep Gies died. She was the woman who risked her life smuggling food and supplies to Anne Frank and her family and some others she hid from the Nazis in an attic in Amsterdam. Gies also preserved Anne Frank’s Diary as a testament to the evils Hitler perpetrated on innocent human beings.
In this week’s Bible portion Jews read about the “darkness” that came over Egypt. It was said that the darkness was so thick it was tangible. It is that same darkness that came over the world during WWII, when neighbors did nothing to stop the inhumanity of Hilter’s regime. Evil was not seen as evil and others did not wish to see at all and just closed their eyes to the suffering of their friends and neighbors.
We are now at a juncture where one who risked her life to shed light has died and one who wants to give evil a makeover is about to arise. We have already given the war on terror a makeover by calling it "overseas contingency operations" and changing terrorist acts to "man-made disasters." Now it's time to give Hitler a makeover too. While Stone is at it, in celebration of MLK Day, why doesn't he put slavery into "context" too? Or is that not a la mode yet? These revisionists of history scare me not only for what they are trying to erase, but for what they are planning.
We must not let the darkness spread again. It will begin with Stone’s remake and who knows where it can end. I urge you to take a stand against Showtime before they allow that series to air and to not go gently into that ever-darkening night! This is one makeover show that “just doesn’t belong,” for the day that it does, we will all be “the biggest losers.”
Sunday, January 10, 2010
It is our habits, not our wishes that shape our lives. How many of us are still keeping our New Year's resolutions? Are you? It is said that 90% of people break their New Year's Resolutions before Valentine's Day. We enter the new year with the best of intentions to access the better part of us--the svelte, more successful, smarter, happier version of ourselves. They are worthy goals, reachable goals, yet in the un-actualized state they feel like “from here to eternity.” And though we deem ourselves free men in the world's greatest democracy, we are rendered slaves not by taskmasters but by our own doing. We become the imprisoned victims of our habits and slaves to our passions, be they food, gambling, sex, materialism, anger, etc. Such indulgences which we deem as self expressions of freedom are really shackles and leashes on liberty.
Habits seem so benign. Even phonetically the word is soft and subtle unlike such words that grate on our ears and sensibilities like cancer, Al Qaeda, foreclosure. But habits, though they be silent infiltrators, wreak more havoc into our lives than the aforementioned. That glass of Scotch is ever so comforting as we go through our divorce, our financial troubles, our rough patches. And, as with all bad habits, it enters one’s life like a guest but it proceeds like the host. What’s one small piece of cake, cookie, potato chip? They are the momentary appeasers that wear away your will. If one cookie didn’t kill you, neither will two. Well, then, how can a third? Then your mindset changes: Well I already had so many what’s the difference now if I have more. Bad habits, my friends, are little devils chaining you to the past and murdering your future. They try and please you and appease you as they steal your life away.
For how many years have you been trying to lose weight, quit smoking, cut down on alcohol, learn Spanish? As I’ve written before, we must learn to be masters of the moment and not succumb to them, for the aggregate of these moments is your life. The distance between our wishes and goals seems like “the longest yard” because we are not focusing on the immediate step in front of us but on the entire conquest--exhausting us by its magnitude even before we get started. You must learn to say a decisive “NO” when a bad habit offers you an invitation--not a taste, not a sip, not another single lazy minute in bed.
In this week’s Torah portion we read about the seven of the ten plagues and how Pharaoh hardened his heart against freeing the Hebrew slaves. The question has often arisen whether Pharaoh ever had free choice as to what he would do because it says on some occasions that it was God who hardened Pharaoh’s heart. But Maimonides teaches that the Egyptian ruler was himself responsible because he used his free will to “deal wisely with the children of Israel” and refused to let them go. He developed some pretty bad habits and the more a person engages in wrongdoing the harder it is to do good. He became a victim of his own actions. His lash may have enslaved the Jews, but the repetition of his own misdeeds enslaved himself and prevented him from repenting. Turning one’s back on God is hard the first time. It gets easier every time one does it. Pharaoh was caught in his own cycle of abuse. The initial performance of a wrong doing may arouse serious guilt, but when a person repeats it over and over again one eventually comes to deem it as permissible and soon elevates it to the status of a good deed: “If I didn’t have that drink, I’d go crazy”; “If I didn’t sleep with that other girl, my marriage would have never survived”; “If I didn’t eat that chocolate bar, I’d have no energy.” We are masters at manufacturing excuses for our weaknesses. But the prosecutor has the winning argument-- Exhibit “A”: Let the results speak for themselves.
My friends, tomorrow, later, the first of the month, New Years are all false starting dates. There is nothing magical on those days that will transform you from what you are to who you want to be. The magic is in the current moment. It is up to you whether you will be its master or its slave.
Sunday, January 3, 2010
I got really nervous when I heard Rush Limbaugh was rushed to the hospital last week. All kinds of thoughts started running through my mind. On a personal level I would have been greatly saddened if anything had happened to him. On a national level I said, “Oh, oh. Who will be the voice of conservatism in this country if Limbaugh never wakes up?” Then I started to realize how dangerous it is to vest all our hopes and confidence in one individual as we did with President Obama who cannot walk on water after all. We all know rationally it’s not wise to put all our eggs in one basket or all the bets on one horse. Yet we do it over and over again.
Our tendency to deify individuals has two serious traps, either they die and leave us at a loss of what to do next, or maybe they let us down by the mere fact of being human. Then we are left without role models and the things we can believe in become evermore tenuous when the mighty fall. We are always looking outward for external saviors instead of searching within and cultivating what we have to offer. When the eyes of a younger generation look upon you to find leadership, to learn from your example, what have you taught them? Your nieces, nephews, kids, the people who know you, when they walk away from interacting with you, how have they been improved? Did you know that today's youth spend approximately six hours a day in front of a screen, either the TV, the computer, video games, iPhones, etc.? So, who is filling the moral gap for them, the leadership? Tiger Woods? Tom Daschle? Rod Blagojevich? Michael Vick? Timothy Geithner? Britney Spears? Can you imagine taking the morality of all these individuals, putting them in a blender and then pouring this slimy smoothie into an impressionable youth? You'd end up with an adulterous alleged mother-beating dog-killer who doesn't wear underwear while shafting the country as he auctions off a Senate seat for which he refuses to pay taxes while playing golf. Just add a splash of vermouth to the mix and you have a future congressman.
But it’s our fault when we feel let down because we keep investing too much hope in individuals and deferring responsibility instead of assuming some ourselves. Glenn Beck alone cannot re-found America, and frankly it’s fraught with danger to empower him so.
The desert Jews made the same error when Moses went up to the mountain to receive God’s laws and because his return was delayed they speedily turned to sin and built the Golden Calf. Indeed, there are many great leaders appointed and empowered by God but they alone cannot sustain the world in which we live. We are continually looking for someone to bless or blame instead of assuming the role of responsible leadership ourselves.
This week in synagogues around the world we begin the second book of the Bible and read about the birth of Moses. Yet the book is not named in his honor, but rather in Hebrew is called “Shmot” which means “names”-- a dedication to all of us because the life we live is all of our stories, not just one man’s.
It’s fascinating to know that as Moses was on his initial journey to save the Jews from slavery “God countered him and sought to kill him,” [Exodus 4:24] because he was negligent in fulfilling the commandment of circumcision on his son. Even Moses was dispensable to God, as there are many agents who can fulfill His will.
So my friends, as we travel through our days let’s never forget that we are the custodians of the moments. We each must be leaders for the young eyes that watch us, even as we follow. And instead of seeking external saviors out there we must learn to save ourselves and make ourselves worthy of the final redemption.
 Rabbi Elie Munk, The Call of the Torah, Mesorrah Publications, 1994.
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