Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Gift of You!

I couldn’t reach a book this morning so I flipped over a hard plastic trash can nearby to step on which gave me the extra leverage I needed to grab the hardcover volume. Sure enough it also gave me the lead-in to this article which is always the hardest part. What makes the garbage can so poignant this morning is that I was actually reaching for a copy of the Torah and it took something “low” and “base” to allow me to reach up high.

It was upon that realization that this week’s Torah reading began to make ever more sense to me. How many of us are belabored in our lives because of lousy childhoods, or self-perceived flaws, or old-fashioned mindsets that seem to have no home in the "modern" world? For most of us there is always that ONE thing that seems to come between us and the life we’d rather be living. We all know what our one thing is: It’s the thing that has conditioned us to start our sentences/excuses with, “If I only…then I would….” And though that one thing seems to continually do us harm, we can’t let go of it because it’s like a little baby that we’ve nurtured for so long with great stubbornness and have become so attached to that it seems intrinsic to our very being even as it destroys us. But my friends, who says you have to get rid of it? Perhaps God has given it to you as a gift and you are misusing something that is really a blessing in your life.

In this week’s Torah reading, Miketz, we read about the story of Joseph and how his dreams of being honored by his brothers stoked their hatred against him. If only he wasn’t such a dreamer, then he could have had a normal life and avoided a pit, a dungeon, being sold into slavery and being estranged from his family for 22 years. Kenny Rogers was perhaps right to sing: “Don't fall in love with a dreamer/ 'cause he'll break you every time.”

But alas, “There’s the rub.” It was Joseph’s dreams and his ability to interpret them that launched him to great heights and to reign in Egypt side by side with the mighty Pharaoh. It was a pit that was his springboard to those heights. And the dungeon to which he is condemned is actually called a “house of light” in Hebrew.

What I am saying dear friends is that Joseph took the figurative garbage can that was his life, turned it over, and used the very same tool that brought him down to reach up high. God didn’t make us who we are so we can squash ourselves and crush our own spirits. He gave us our gifts and inclinations with the biblical recommendations that we direct them wisely and hone them for good use. When pop culture tries to turn us into clowns or when religion tries to turn us into clones, I say never let either of them destroy the gift that is YOU!

King David was known to have a bad temper, yet it is written about David that he executed justice and righteousness unto all his people,” (II Samuel VIII, 15). David didn't miraculously shed his temper, he redirected it and used it appropriately on the battlefield to kill God’s enemies, unlike Esau who killed for the sake of killing (Rabbah, 63). It was David's "one thing" that killed Goliath; it was Moses one thing--humility--that made him God's greatest prophet; it was Joseph's "one thing" that made a dreamer into one of the most powerful men in the world.

As we light our Chanukah menorahs and Christmas trees this week, perhaps in the romantic glow of their lights we should take another look at the ONE THING in our lives. And instead of letting it burn us out and leave us charred maybe we can all learn to use it as the miraculous drops of oil that will not only sustain us but also set our potential on fire. Hey, who would have ever thought that a garbage can could be a step up in life?

Sunday, October 23, 2011

I Want it and I Want it Now!

We live in a world that demands immediate gratification. In a super-speedy world somehow even our microwave ovens seem to be not fast enough anymore. We are used to giving voice commands and pressing buttons and getting what we want in quick time. People are sleeping together by the third date; Amazon orders are at your front door the next morning; basically the Internet can bring you anything you desire in a moment’s time. We have only to look at the young people occupying Wall Street who have just gotten out of university and are already incensed that they aren’t the CEO of a company. The spoiled brat mantra that seems to echo in all areas of our life is: “I want it, and I want it now.”

So I must admit in times like these where the bridge between a desire and its satisfaction is ever shortening, that it becomes ever harder to have patience with God. How many prayers I have made that remain unanswered. Do we have to invent an iPrayer app to get God to get busy doing His job, namely serving me and my every wish and desire? And that is really the crux of today’s problems both spiritually and in the chaotic self-centered world we live in: We have forgotten who is here to serve whom. And that forgetfulness has been coated with impudence and impatience. We act like we are entitled to everything and tend to be appreciative of so little.

I heard a great line a few months back that questioned: “What if you woke up tomorrow with only the things you thanked God for yesterday?” Personally, I would have awoken this morning with a great parking space. So often I hear from people that they don’t understand why God is being so hard on them or why they just can’t seem to get what they ordered from that big eBay in the sky. And I answer them the same way I answer myself: We are not here to give orders to God but rather to serve His purpose in all that we do--and that is to better ourselves and the world we live in. The point is not to be nice and content when you get what you want, the point is to elevate each terrain you walk upon until you reach your destination. In a sense I agree with Herman Cain who said that if you are not rich it is your OWN fault. No, sometimes God doesn’t bless our best efforts and not all of us can be financially rich regardless how hard we try, but the person we are inside and the world we engage along our journey can be enriched if we strive with dignity, kindness, mercy, compassion and generosity.

But we are so busy serving and overstuffing ourselves with our immediate wants and desires that we don’t realize that from a spiritual standpoint we look like blubbery busting corpulent Romans suckling on grapes of wrath. But the word of God, our spiritual trainer, is here to refine us and shape us into fit, beautiful appreciative souls. It’s in serving God in all our doings--in how we say “hello” to strangers; in how we talk to people who bug us; in how we treat those who need us, in how we plow through life with our strivings--that we become mensches and really fulfill the reason we were put on this earth.

So, as a journalist, when I attend events with very affluent people who are so used to getting what they want that they tend to be mean, rude and condescending to waiters and hired help, I cannot but think: No sir, you did not make it, you LOST it.

In the Torah there is a strict prohibition against cutting down fruit trees. Doing so can bring terrible luck, perhaps death. Even if a person has a valuable property and wants to erect a house in place of the fruit trees, NO CAN DO. It should make us realize that if we have to go to such lengths to build our lives around the living fruit tree, then how more do we have to guard the dignity of people while we strive forward in life? A take away lesson for me is clear: As we strive to make our way and stake our territory in personal relationships, in work and in our community, we cannot fell life to pave our way. People’s lives, feelings, time, money etc., cannot be collateral damage to fulfill our needs.

So to make full circle here, I’d say the biggest gift a human being can have in life is the ability to appreciate. When you have that gift, even if you have a little in life, it is as if you have a big treasure. On the other hand, though our spoiled generation may have every gimmick and gadget in the world, it is as if they have nothing at all because they don’t appreciate what is in their hands. And though our fast paced world and technology have the ability to take that gift of appreciation away from us, God in His great wisdom does everything in the right time. Yes Domino’s Pizza may get to your house quicker than God at times, but let’s never forget as we grumble and groan that we are here to serve Him and maybe he is waiting for us to deliver.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

How the Heck Do You Do This?

I spent the Jewish holidays with friends who are big into brain teasing gadgets of the Rubik's Cube kind. There is always a trick to these toys which is counter intuitive to logic, such as getting a ball out of a hole which is smaller than its circumference or a getting loop over a bar that is double its size. And though I was dead set on entering the New Year by leaving old problems behind, the masochist in me picked up these puzzling and mind boggling new ones that kept me enraptured for hours. What made matters even more frustrating was that others in the household were able to catch onto the trick and unlock these craftily engineered mysteries with ease and facility while I was nearing hysteria saying, “How the heck do you do this?; it’s impossible.” I think I even saw the family dog put his paws over his eyes because she couldn’t take watching me do the same motions over and over again and meet the same unsuccessful end. Finally, I did something I have never really done my whole life. No, I didn’t cheat and bust the games open with a hammer (though it did cross my mind). I just stopped trying to do it on my own and asked my gracious hostess, “How do you do it? What’s the trick?”

I believe that there are no coincidences in life. This episode was a symbolic lesson to me that perhaps what I needed to learn this New Year more than anything else was that the solution to untangling old problems once and for all may be to ASK! It happens so often in life that we have an issue we can’t resolve on our own but we keep pulling at it with both hands and instead of unraveling it, we keep tightening the knot. The sweat gathers on our brow but we won’t let it show. After all, we know it all, right? We are smarter than everyone we know, right? No one would understand my problem, right? It has to be my way, right? WRONG! Sometimes we just have to ask and we also have to listen. What point is there to reinvent the wheel when we can benefit from someone else’s wisdom and roll with it?

There was no greater imparter of wisdom to the world than Moses. He was privy to the mysteries of the universe, saw God face to face, and was shown the entire panorama of history from the beginning to the coming of the Messiah. And Moses bequeathed to mankind the key to this “gadget” we call life, and that key is the Torah. The question is: Do we want to listen once and for all or keep doing it our way?

Our world is growing ever darker and complex. We seem to be caught in an intractable mystery, a haunting labyrinth in which any hopeful pathway is blocked by a dooming encroaching wall upon which we knock our stubborn heads. How we are going to get out of the mess we're in is a brainteaser of the highest order. Did logic get us into it? Will logic get us out?

Perhaps the “key” to today’s mysteries is “to listen.” Our blessings and curses are just a breath apart when Moses speaks: “If you do not hearken to the voice of God…all these curses will come upon you and overtake you.” But if we do listen, “God will open for you His storehouse of goodness.” Just as those brain teasing toys come with instructions that facilely extricate an otherwise Gordian knot, so too our lives come with instructions and directions: the Bible.

Perhaps it’s time for all of us to start “listening” while God is still whispering--albeit pretty loudly. How many more frequencies will we tune out before we are awakened by a thunderous clang and God asks, “Can you hear me now?”

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Hug a Jew Day

It's so hard to feel love for another when their opinions and views of the world are antithetical to everything we believe in. So what is the alternative? To hate? What has that done for us lately?

I can't help but think of my very close friendship with my editor, my best friend. There is probably nothing we wouldn't do for each other. But when we talk about politics, I swear I want to hit him on the head with my T-Fal frying pan. Suddenly, a wall exists between us and it's fascinating to observe how our loving feelings take a dive as he slams my views and I slam his. It made realize, in a sense, how during WWII neighbor turned on neighbor and families turned on each other because of ideology.

I can’t help but think back to the destruction of the temple and the reason cited for its fall: The hatred Jews showed toward each other. Can any rational mind believe that hate can bring about a positive result? Please cite me an example where calling an opponent a shmuck has won any argument.

In this week's Bible portion we read about the breastplate worn by the kohanim, the priests, of the Temple. On its fa├žade were twelve precious stones, each representing a tribe of Israel. The high priest wore that breastplate over his heart and it symbolized the duty of Jews to love one another regardless of how different, diverse or disenfranchised they might be.

Jewish teachings tell us that when the "Patriarch Jacob left his parents’ house to start his own family, he rested on Mount Moriah, the future site of the Temple, for one night, and placed 12 stones under his head, a symbol of the twelve tribes that he would found. Those twelve stones then merged into one single entity."* Today, we are so fractured. The Kabbalah too, teaches, that there is no blessing on things that are broken, whether it be a cup or a people. In fact, it is in the crack where spiritual impurity enters, just as in the physical world bacteria can fester in a crevice.

Jewish unity is probably more necessary now than ever before. I'm not the one to invent the slogan "United we stand, divided fall." Do we need another Hitler, G-d forbid, to remind us that we are all Jews? With events unfolding in Egypt as they are, the Jewish State is in serious jeopardy. "A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph." (Exodus 1:8) History repeats itself. Will a new leadership in Egypt throw three decades of peace by the wayside?

My dear Jews, how can we be a light unto the nations when we can’t even be a spark of inspiration to each other? If, symbolically, we are each a stone that sustains the "temple," tell me which structure can stand when the stones fight among themselves, and won’t unite in common purpose?

I will make this short so as not to compete with a buffalo wing and the Super Bowl. But my suggestion is to start engaging our fellow Jews as if they were a lover that you want to get into bed. Talk sweetly, talk nicely, make your points wisely with facts and love. You can try and get lucky by screaming them into submission--good luck! Just a reminder--tomorrow is “Hug a Jew Day” (not to be confused with Madoff's “Mug a Jew Day”) My advice to all is "speak softly and don’t carry a big shtick."
Check out my new book: "The Words That Shaped Me"

* Rabbi Elie Munk, The Call of the Torah, 1994, p.402

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Journalist and Former Rabbi’s Wife Takes on 400 Rabbis and Glenn Beck Detractors

I’m very impressed that in such difficult economic times 400 rabbis were able to come together to raise $100K for a newspaper ad in the Wall Street Journal condemning Glenn Beck and what they deem as his improper “references” to the Holocaust.

What a shame that these same rabbis and their confreres who are so worried about the preservation of Jews didn’t read the January 19th article in Haaretz: “Israel’s greatest threat is not security, it's poverty” with 1,774,800 citizens living in destitution. They sure could have bought a lot of sandwiches for $100,000. And how many of them actually work on behalf of the impoverished Holocaust survivors still extant who barely make ends meet and have to beg at the doorstep of Federations, Jewish Family Services, and the Claims Conference?

I’d also like to know where Glenn Beck’s “thank you” note is from these same rabbis for being among the very few journalists/commentators who stood up for Israel during the Gaza Flotilla crisis when the whole world was against it. Couldn’t George Soros lend them 44 cents for a stamp? They may want to watch Beck’s show of 06/02/10 wherein he expounds upon Israel’s history and points to the facts legitimizing the Jewish Homeland when its very right of existence is being questioned and threatened at every bend. With sanctions, boycotts and divestments being the latest vitriolic war against the Jewish State, odd how Glenn Beck’s use of the word Holocaust is what’s ratcheting up their ire?

I’m sick and tired of Jews who keep sticking up for our enemies. And George Soros, at the center of this issue, is no friend to Jews or Israel. As one of the world's richest men, let his relatively sparse philanthropy toward Jewish causes speak for itself. Let his support for J Street with its alleged agenda to delegitimize Israel speak for itself. In 2003 the Jewish Telegraphic Agency ran a story saying, “George Soros says Jews and Israel cause anti-Semitism.” Wow, is there anything lower than blaming the rape victim for the rape.

Perhaps these same rabbis love watching CNN and the BBC where Israel seems to be blamed for all the world’s ills. Is it so hard for them to digest that Fox has been unbiased toward Israel from Operation Cast Lead to the flotilla fiasco?

Why don’t these rabbis take out ads against the United Nations whose Human Rights Council has adopted more resolutions against Israel —than any other country in the world, while terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah, who are fighting a proxy war for Iran, are given immunity by that scam of an international body.

Did these same rabbis write angry letters to Columbia University when it invited Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who denies the Holocaust ever happened, to speak to impressionable young students?

Did the same rabbis write letters to President Obama saying they were offended that he is forcing Israel to make peace with a Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Ph.D thesis was a blatant denial of the Holocaust? Or do they only know how to love those who hates us and hate those who love us?

Maybe these same rabbis are also part of the Goldstone fan club and prefer to gaze east from the gas chambers than from Mt. Scopus.

In addition, since when is there a copyright over the word Holocaust and how it can be used? All Jews are equal shareholders. I own the history too! But, moreover, since when has the word Holocaust become solely a Jewish fiefdom? Can only a Jew make such references with impunity? Or is this group no better that the Muslim fundamentalists who decry the use of the name of Mohammed by infidels—surely cause to exterminate the offender…not! Whether you like it or not, the Holocaust is just a word, just as is Nazi. What counts are the millions of people who were murdered--if these same rabbis want to honor the memory of the dead, let them behave like menschen and say thank you to today’s friends.

And so, I thank Glenn Beck for keeping not only the memory of the Holocaust alive but the evermore important lesson, how the Holocaust came to be to begin with. By teaching how history unfolded he is doing much more than simply reiterating the slogan “never again,” he is pointing to the incremental steps that eventually led to the Holocaust and alerting us to the signposts.

As an aside, I’d like to remind these rabbis about the Talmudic decree that it is a sin to embarrass a person in public which is regarded as tantamount to murder. If they have a problem with Glenn Beck or Fox, why not raise their complaints behind the scenes? Their act makes it obvious that there is a much bigger agenda at play here.

The Jewish state is in greater peril now than perhaps it has ever been since its coming into existence. Antisemitism, as well, is also on the rise. It would serve our people much better to galvanize around the common purpose of survival rather than posing centerfold in the Wall Street Journal. If they are looking for a word war let them play a crossword puzzle in the New York Times. They will find themselves at home there.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

How Quickly We Forget

How many of us have seen the movie Gone with the Wind and wished that Rhett Butler would make an about face and actually “give a damn?”

It is with that same remorse that I read about the Biblical Joseph’s death and how a new “Pharaoh arose over Egypt who knew not Joseph”--the very Joseph who made the country rich and saved it from ruin. And so the new Pharaoh showed his gratitude by enslaving Israel and murdering their firstborn. Talk about appreciation. A “Thank You” card would have sufficed for me.

But Bible experts say that the new Pharaoh was not a different person at all, but rather the very same Pharaoh arose with a NEW attitude. Once the bad times were over, he figured the Jews were expendable; he didn’t need them anymore and he didn’t want to owe them anything. After all, a lifetime of gratitude is a heavy debt to pay, no?

Boy oh boy, doesn’t this Biblical tale sound all too familiar? How many of us can think of all those times when we were there for people when they were down and out? But then one day, when they "made it," they forgot our name, forgot all we did for them, and offered begrudging hellos when they saw us? Once they walked through those doors of opportunity, they never turned back; they no longer seemed to “give a damn.” And poor us. We gave our hearts, our time, our money with the best of intentions and we are left standing there like epic idiots, depleted, hurt and bitter. And so the fundamental question is: Does gratitude have an expiration date?

And are we any different? It seems we often remember what we do for others, even the $5 we lent someone 20 years ago and insist we are only upset "on principle" that they didn’t pay us back. But when we owe others, we can manufacture excuses a mile a minute as to why the account has been settled.

It took the Jews less than five minutes to forget the Ten Plagues and the splitting of the sea and everything God did for them. Thus, it is no wonder that He had to command the Jews to remember that He took them out of bondage. Nonetheless, He still gave them the choice to remember, as it is our choice to fulfill the commandments or not. For the burden of feeling that we owe anybody anything may seem tantamount to slavery; we may feel that it shackles our pride and stride to drag along that weighty ball-and-chain of knowing that if it wasn’t for so-and-so, I’d still be a nothing and a nobody. Mankind does not want to be a slave, either to taskmasters, to favors, or to the past.

And so God freed the Jews from slavery and with their new freedom, He gave them a gift of sorts — the ability to forget. But along with that gift (batteries not included), came very important instructions: REMEMBER!!!

At the end of day, it all comes down to one thing. Are you a mensch? Are you a grateful person? Do you live your life in gratitude and appreciation? Do you think people are just rungs on a ladder that you can step on as you rise? I advise you to remember and to “be grateful to people on your way up because you will meet them on your way down.”

And for those of us who feel like the steps on the ladder, know that the Hebrew word for ladder (sulam)and Sinai (the host mountain where God gave His commandments) both have the same numerical value of 130. So, know you’ve done the right thing and you add up to decency. Be grateful that the Almighty endowed you with something to give. And know also that God has a long term memory, despite all those who quickly forget!