Sunday, December 12, 2010

Your Money or Your Life?

I’m stuck between two generations, my parents’ who emigrated from Europe and had $98 between them on their honeymoon and now their grandchildren’s who have every iPhone app and life enhancing accessory that the merchandising world has to offer. My family is just a microcosm of how so many Jewish families have evolved. Parents have become so obsessed with giving their children what they didn’t have growing up that they forgot to give them what they did have: appreciation for things, a work ethic, respect and sense of responsibility toward the greater Jewish community and mankind.

I cannot help but cry over the suicide of 46-year-old Mark Madoff who was found hanged yesterday by a dog’s leash attached to a ceiling pipe. The American dream has turned into a nightmare for many because of greed and a disconnect between what Judaism really has to say about money and how a new generation never inherited the right lessons along with their trust funds.

To start, there is nothing wrong with making money. In fact, the Jewish view of wealth is set forth in the first chapter of the Bible in a description of the Garden of Eden wherein it is said that the “gold of this land is good.” Materialism and wealth is validated from the onset. Even God promises Abraham great riches and many of the patriarchs and prophets were wealthy. But, money was always supposed to be a means to an end, not the end. It was never meant to be worshiped by Jews, but used to make this world a better place. The giving of charity is fundamental to the entire structure of Judaism: “You shall not harden your heart nor shut your hand to your needy brother.” It is also taught that he who turns his eyes from alms-giving is as if he worshiped idols...for if one values his money more than human lives, then he has undoubtedly turned his money into a god.

Still, it’s so hard not to get caught up in this world of plenty. This time of year is a perfect example. As we walk through the malls during the holiday season massive amount of “stuff” cries out to us “buy me, buy me.” We feel as if our own self-worth and happiness are measured by what we have instead of who we are. Our lives have become more ornamented than over-decorated Christmas trees as we smother our organic true selves with superficiality. It is thus no surprise that the moral spine of a nation would snap just as an overburdened branch.

In this week’s Bible portion we read how Joseph brings his brothers to Egypt where they could enjoy all its riches and survive the famine. But he does not let them live in its capital fearing they’d become tainted by the rampant idol worship there. He didn’t want them, especially their children, giving up God for gold. For life is not about living off the fat of the land, it’s about nurturing and cultivating the ground we walk on. Will your children reap in joy what you have planted?

There is a Talmudic story of a man who was passing along a road when he saw an old man planting a carob tree. “How long before that tree bears fruit?” asked the passerby.
“Seventy years,” replied the old man.
“Will you be alive in seventy years to enjoy the fruit?” the traveler asked.
To that the old man answered, “When I was born, this world was filled with carob trees planted by my ancestors. And likewise will I plant trees for my children.”

My dear friends, what proverbial fruit are you planting for your children's future? Will those fruit hang from the Tree of Life?

Madoff was the quintessential idol worshiper. Money and assets, boats and houses, fine dining and status, were more important to him than people and human lives. These status symbols meant to raise him above everyone helped dig his own son’s grave. The desolate and fatal field that he tilled should prove to us all how poor a fertilizer gold truly is.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

I Don't Want To Look Like Them!

Several years ago, a book came out entitled, When You Look Like Your Passport Photo, It’s Time To Go Home. Although the book was primarily about travel, the title struck me as a metaphor for life’s journey. The question is: What and who do we want to look like at our journey’s end?

When I first moved to New York, I often wondered why people were so mean and why it seemed impossible to ask anyone for a favor. Eventually, I began to deduce that maybe these people used to be nice, but after meeting so many obstacles, mean-spirited characters and "no's,” they learned to become as hard and heartless as the people they once despised.

It's hard to know what to do when people don't behave kindly towards you. Do you forgive them and move on? Do you hold a grudge? Do you seek revenge? Do you rub it in their face when you succeed, to spite their condescension and efforts to squelch your rise? Do you become like all those faces I've seen where the spirit of kindness has been replaced by godless Grinch-like frowns?

I have come to realize that the big city, too, is a metaphor for our life’s journey. God sends us to this earth with our talents, our desires and our ambitions. He also sends us tests along the way which we can use to refine us or to redefine us. And as we abandon ourselves and succumb to those who try and change us, the miles between us and where we came from become ever wider

And then there are those people who drove us away from home, the ones who saw us as small and insignificant (most likely because they were) and so we strove to prove them wrong and make it big. By hook or by crook, we made it our goal not to return home without a hero’s welcome.

But will you look like your passport photo when it’s time to go home?

I remember as a little girl my mother used to send me to school spotlessly clean with two ponytails which were so precisely divided as if measured by an engineer. I always returned looking as if I had ridden a roller coaster during a tsunami. “Can’t you ever come home the way I sent you?” she often asked me. Perhaps only now I’m really qualified to answer that philosophical question. Yes!

After so many years in NYC, I acknowledge that being nice is a wimpy survival tool. But on the other hand, if we start to become like all those people who wouldn’t give us the time of day or conspired so that we would fail then they won just the same. Either way they have controlled who we become. So should we be mean to people who were mean to us and become “bitches” in the making? I think, no. As tempting as it may be, I just won’t do it for the very simple reason that I just don’t want to look like them.

In this week’s Bible reading we read about Joseph’s reuniting with his brothers. Now as second-in-command to Pharaoh he could have easily gotten even with his brothers for selling him into slavery and nearly killing him. Instead of doing so, he cries before them and tells them not to feel bad about what they did to him as it was all part of God’s plan.

Interestingly, the Bible tells us that Joseph was very handsome and scholars teach that he looked very much like his father Jacob. Yet the Bible never speaks about Jacob’s looks. The answer is that Joseph’s beauty was a reflection of his pure soul and it was in that manner that he resembled his father. He never let anyone or anything diminish his light. He chose to forgive instead of hate; he chose to help instead of hurt; he chose to return “home” even better than God sent him out on his journey to the big city. How about you?