Friday, December 28, 2018

It's Time--Do You Know Where Your Children Are?

I’ve often been told throughout my life that I’m an old soul, that my wisdom exceeded my years. True or not, I don’t know. But if I am an old soul as they claimed—which would explain my affinity for all things ancient and antique—perhaps it is because my most cherished friends were older than me. Much older. Throughout most of my life, my mother owned a nursing home for the elderly. It is there where I spent much of my youth.  Having never known my grandparents, my last surviving grandmother died when I was a toddler, as a little girl I was afraid of old people.  I couldn’t understand why they were wrinkled, bent, broken and gnarled. As a child one tends to think old people were born that way. In innocence we think that we will never be old and that the old were never once young, strong or beautiful. 

But as the years went by and my maturity set in, I found among my mother’s elderly patients some of the best friends I ever had. I used to look forward to my after school visits there and would more often than  not  dodge the mall and ditch my friends and head straight to Babbi David’s Golden Age Home.  Listening to their war and life survival stories, their tales of love and loss intrigued me and surely enwisened me. As if hearing the Tales of Scheherazade, I’d return every day to hear their narratives. Sometimes my elderly friends would no longer be there. Sadly, the death knell sometimes rang before the school bell and the Angel of Death would arrive before me.  Even then I knew with each death a great treasure was lost.

Yes, perhaps I grew up quickly reared in such environs. And though my mother’s senior residence was beautiful, spotless, warm, loving and highly recommended, I couldn’t understand how any child could place his/her parents in what I regarded as a luxurious home for the unwanted. Today, I better understand that in some cases home care is not feasible--I get that! But very often it is. And it is then that I truly question at what point does a parent become unvalued, unwanted and a burden. At what point does their usefulness expire? In this cold-hearted, self-centered “Me Me Me” generation, I observe that it’s way too soon--perhaps once the assets are securely transferred.  Or when parents need help and there is no more gain or benefit to help them. 

For one reason or another, I have walked the halls of many senior institutions in my life, not just my mother’s. I’ve heard the cries of the elderly grievously calling the names of loved ones. It’s haunting. More powerful than some cries are the smells of feces and urine that elderly patients sit in for hours until attendants get to them. I’ve looked into the eyes of the sad and soulless who died in spirit long ago and I ask myself, “Where are their children? Are they not ashamed?” I’ve seen people make better arrangements for their dogs than they do for their parents while they themselves travel.
Does it not dawn on civilized people, who by instinct have appreciation for the Ten Commandments, that among those very same rules that protect their own well-being, such as “Thou shalt not steal” and “Thou shalt not kill,” it is also written “Thou shalt honor your father and mother.”  So important is the obligation to honor our parents that it is included on the first tablet which lists our duties to God.[i] Each of us is a product of a tripartite partnership, and that is not to be forgotten. When you disrespect your parents, God takes it personally. Snub them, deal with Him.

Perhaps if the wonderful benefit of obeying this commandment would be recognized by our self-serving generation, it would be obeyed. It is actually one of the few commandments that comes along with an incentive package with options for renewal: “Honor your father and your mother as the Lord your God commanded you, in order that your days be lengthened, and that it may go well with you….”

In last week’s Torah reading we witness a sad but also very powerful and beautiful scene. As Jacob, our patriarch, is about to die at the age of 147, all his sons—the future twelve tribes of Israel gather around him to receive the most valued gifts he could ever bequeath them, not gold pocket watches or shares in a company, but rather blessings—“shares” in the future based on their potential and their divine mission. So valuable was a blessing to each one of them that Joseph got upset when he thought his father mixed up his children and blessed the youngest with a blessing he thought destined for the eldest. In today’s world if kids inherited just a blessing, the lawsuits would begin before the burial.  But don’t worry, our kids are watching; this next generation having an aversion to work, to patience and respect will bury its parents alive for their inheritance and will be sure to YouTube it at that.  Even Esau, an adulterer and killer about whom it is written in the book of Malachi that God hated him, sobs when his blessing was given to his brother. "Have you only one blessing, my father?" sobs Esau. "Bless me too, my father!"

Whose fault it is, I can’t say. Perhaps some parents of our times were so busy giving their kids what they didn’t have money, status, comfort, etc., that they forgot to give them what they did have: a Jewish heritage, a moral compass, a heart, respect, a sense of duty toward our ancestors and Jewish Homeland.

I’m lucky. I know. I had great parents growing up and loving them was easy. But nowhere in the Torah does it tell you to love your parents. It says to love your neighbor, to love the stranger, but for parents it commands you to honor them and to fear them[ii]. The Hebrew word for “honor” is kaved. The same Hebrew word also means heavy and burdensome. God knows some parents are impossible to love, some easy to hate. But as burdensome as honor is, it is doable. So do it.  Dr. Freud made it very easy for people to vent against their parents and blame them for the world’s ills. You have a psychological problem with your parents that needs fixing, seek a doctor. But talking bad about a parent, as bad as they may be, is a sin. We never see in the Bible any of the Patriarchs speaking ill of their parents. Abraham, the father of monotheism and Judaism, the father of many nations, was the son of an idol manufacturer. We never hear a word about it from Abraham. “Ah my father was *&%$@; if it wasn’t for him, blah, blah….” We never hear Cain blame his parents for eating the forbidden fruit and bringing troubles to the world. Who made up such excuses or blamed their parents in the Bible? If your mission and desire is to be better than those who came before you, then be better, but stop trashing them around town and using them as excuses for failures. It’s a sin. A big one. My mother, who was not religious, used to always tell me two things: A person who violates Shabbat and who doesn’t honor his/her parents will have no luck in life. In later years, the Bible told me the same thing: “Cursed be he that dishonors his father or mother.”

There is no statute of limitations on honoring one’s parents.  A person is bound to honor his parents forevermore even after the tombstone is erected. Every action and behavior in this life reflects on those who raised you and the God that breathed life into you. When you behave arrogantly, cruelly, immorally, lasciviously, or disrespectfully, you dishonor all your creators: Mother, Father and God! No coincidence that in crude modern vernacular you will be called a son of a _____ when your ego, attitude and self-entitlement rule your behavior. Know that everything you do, for the good or the bad, affects the souls of your departed parents— either raising them to higher levels of peace and paradise or lowering them into deeper depths of suffering. Are you behaving with integrity in all facets of your life, are you carrying and increasing the torch of your Jewish destiny, or are you whimpering and wimping out like a dying toxic flame and letting their memory go up in smoke?

Remember your children are watching you. Show them the value of loving and honoring a parent. Maybe read the Bible with your kids once a week; have them visit their grandparents as a reminder to them and to all that there is more to life than the mall and money. And maybe, just maybe, they will remember you too one day. Teach them that life is a mission with a purpose, instead of a day-to-day survival campaign where it matters not who you drag to the gutter to justify failures, success, anger or pain. Don’t talk bad about your own parents to them, or soon you will find yourself the victim of their vilification.  What fruit is so dumb that it rebels against its own tree? Walk your course with grace and dignity. Behave like a mensch so that your days will be long and that you will be a blessing for those who are looking down on you and be blessed by those who are looking up to you.

[i] The second tablet deals with laws between man and man
[ii]Every man shall fear his mother and his father.” (Leviticus 19:3)

Friday, December 14, 2018

Identity Theft and The Green-eyed Monster

 " Jealousy, lust and the [pursuit of] honor remove a person from the world.” (Pirkei Avot 4:21)

I don’t anticipate much resistance to the claim that we all talk incessantly about our lives.  But I don’t expect such ease of acceptance when I posit that our lives talk a lot about us too. In fact, everything that happens to us is actually our lives talking back.  Some call it karma; in Judaism we call it middah kneged middah, meaning measure-for-measure, a precise spiritual retribution that manifests itself in the physical realm. However, seeing that there is nary a prophet among us, we can’t always really know why certain events happen to us. But that doesn’t mean we can’t engage in introspection or seek council from learned rabbis. And so, when I was informed by the superintendent in my building that my entire bookshelf collapsed while I was out of town, my heart sunk. I felt as if my life was talking to me, for those bookshelves were not hosting romances and intrigue novels, but all my holy Jewish books. Odd, from all the things that could go wrong in an apartment left unattended for so long--plumbing, leaks, infestations--that was the only thing wrong. My first instinct, being the self-recriminator that I am and finding this out just after Yom Kippur, was to ask, “What have I done wrong?”  My own search populated too many answers and too many excuses, so I decided to turn to one of the many rabbis I admire.

Here was his answer: “There’s a lot to be said regarding such holy books that fall. For one, is anyone really using them or have they become a furniture piece? And second, are we following all the things we know about which are stated in them? One way or the other, the Torah doesn’t fall unless HaShem is allowing it to happen in order to get a person to do teshuva.”

The rabbi was right. For one, since my mother became sick and her wellbeing became my priority, my books had become “furniture.” I hadn’t lost faith, but I lost energy. Her sickness knocked the wind out of me perhaps making room for an upgraded spirit. Prior to her illness, I had been writing blogs about the weekly Torah portion since my university days where they were often published in the Chabad newspaper and later online.  Perhaps they helped no one--I pray they did--but they always refined me. So undoubtedly, my books, my sources of inspiration and I missed each other. And so, if my hand was not reaching for them as in days gone by, then by God’s mercy, they had reached out to me.

When I returned home to a restored bookshelf and books which looked none the worse for scare, I was relieved that all were intact and undamaged--except for one. The very book that inspired me to begin writing over 30 years ago, one I had received as a gift and never looked at until years later. I remember a line from the movie The Hurricane which I saw a long time ago wherein one of the main characters says, “You don’t find books, they find you.” After being found by this book, I always felt it to be true.

I was grateful that the only injury my book sustained was that the hard cover separated from its spine. The pages were very soft and almost unmanageable like melted butter in my hands. The name of the book: The Call of the Torah. My life wasn’t just talking—it was calling. For the next few Shabbats I read the Torah portion from that book always intending to fix it, but somehow as the week passed, I kept forgetting until the next Shabbat when it melted in my hands once again. (It cannot be repaired on Shabbat.) Then one day, abruptly out of nowhere, with no chain of events to give it cause, I developed an excruciating backache that kept me in bed for days and had me walking with a seriously humbling posture. I had a strong feeling I knew the source.  Immediately I contacted a Torah scribe I know and asked if any glue was permissible to fix my book, or if it had to be kosher. I fixed the book and within a day my own spine too was better.  Following that, I began to write my Torah blogs again.

Yes, I believe my books were talking to me. God gave me a talent to use in His service and to squander that talent is to defy God and the faith He has in me. And the same goes for you and your talents. Every morning upon waking, before taking a single step out of bed, we say a prayer to God thanking Him for restoring our souls and for having great faith in us. So please make no mistake, I’m not posturing myself as a chosen one, we are all chosen, you with your strengths and me with mine. And in today’s times, where antisemitism is rampant, and Jews are abandoning Torah like a ship going under--not realizing that its teachings are the very life vests themselves--I heard the call of the Torah as clear as the horn that will sound with the coming of the Messiah.
So, this will be my third blog after a long hiatus and that is why I am having such a hard time getting to the point. Satan knows that permanence is established when an event repeats itself three times. That is why I am well over 900 words and I have not yet told you what this article is all about. It’s about jealousy. It’s about all of us trying to be what we are not because we are jealous of others. We try to live “their” lives instead of our own. By feigning such postures we become like failed Queen Esthers who flout our opportunities and decide not to use everything God gave us to fulfill our own purpose and His will, and so we perish.[i]

Maybe we don’t literally drop dead on the spot, and maybe we will, God forbid, but we in essence kill off who we are as unique souls with unique missions. We are so busy with identity theft in the sense that we want to live the lives of others, look like another, walk and talk like them, dress like them, spend like them, that we become impostors, when our real very special selves are being smothered to death. In effect, we are really committing suicide and like aliens assuming others' identities. But make no mistake about it. We will always be the cheap wannabee knock off. All the while we feign living their life, thinking we’re living the “high life,” when in fact we are just a “lowlife”; for coveting is the biggest sin of all the Ten Commandments because it leads to the violation of all the others. If you envy you will eventually lie, cheat, steal, kill, betray, etc.... 

The rabbis teach that the only thing we are allowed to envy in another is their knowledge of Torah. Every other thing they have is uniquely theirs by Divine design. To covet is your way of telling God He doesn’t know what He’s doing? And I take it you know better. Certainly you have your long list of why you are more deserving of having that which you covet. Your smarter, better looking, nicer, know what to do with it, need it more, etc. I promise you that getting what you covet can often be a curse. As they say, "Be careful what you wish for." Your envious eye glamorizes the objects of your desire. You covet your neighbor because your view is framed by ignorance. Know his full lot, understand his full package and you may soon find yourself pitying your neighbor instead. But most importantly, just mind your own business and be busy being you.

Jealousy/coveting never ends well. In fact, the Talmud teaches, “That anyone who places his eyes on that which is not his is not given what he desires, and that which he had is taken from him.”  The rabbis teach that upon creation, the moon was envious of the sun and questioned why the sky needed two great luminaries, and so God diminished the light of the moon; Cain envied Abel’s sacrifice to God and as a result he was cursed by God; the primordial snake which once talked and walked, envied Adam’s relationship with Eve, with the result that God punished him and made him crawl the earth, eat dirt and caused hatred between him and the woman; Korach, Moses’s cousin, envied Moses and Aharon and struck up a rebellion; the earth opened and swallowed him. And make no mistake about it, the moon, Cain, the snake and Korach each had tremendous potential and talents and each had great destinies of their own if they would have been busy being the best versions of themselves instead of trying to be someone else.  

Green is not a flattering color for a complexion and jealousy is plain out unhealthy: You eat yourself up alive in this life and it "rots your bones" in the next, says The Book of Proverbs.

Put your ear to YOUR life and hear your own calling.  When you do you will find that you have less to grumble about regarding your life and your life will only have words of praise to say about you. Keep in mind that upon judgment day we will not be asked why we weren’t as good as Moses, or Abraham or Isaac (or your neighbor) but rather we will be asked, “Why weren’t you as good as YOU could have  been?” Enough with identity theft! It will be pretty sad when one day your own life story will be played before your eyes and you are not even in it.

[i] For if you remain silent at this time, relief and rescue will arise for the Jews from elsewhere, and you and your father's household will perish….” (Book of Esther 4:14)

Thursday, December 6, 2018

The Fountain of Truth

My ever-so-elegant mother was born in France. Thus, perhaps it’s in my blood to like all things trimmed with ostrich feathers? And so, when I saw a bedazzling-golden-gilded-masquerade mask further embellished by burgundy plumage, I thought there was no better decorative accessory to hang on the bare narrow wall in my office.  I couldn’t get back fast enough to hang it up.  Yet, all my creative efforts to affix it and angle it so as to maximize its beauty failed-- nails, glue, hooks, all for naught. It didn’t fit and that was it. For the first time in a long time I wasn’t talking to the walls, they were talking to me.  But what were they saying? I speak three languages but Sheetrock isn’t one of them. Nonetheless, that blank wall, at which I often stare unwittingly when turning away from my blank computer screen and as a reprieve from writer’s block, was demanding something else.  Did it even know what or was I supposed to know?  Three days later, with great ease I hung upon my narrow wall in vertical fashion, the antidote to the mask and all its duplicitous implications--three 12X12 paintings each bearing a bold Hebrew letter Aleph, Mem & Tav. Together they spell the word emet /“truth.” My wall seems very happy now, my soul too, my wallet not so much. But I have learned long ago that in the long run the price of truth is cheaper than its competitors and very often recompensed beyond measure. 

The problem with most of us is that we are seduced and charmed by masks and false veneers, even our own. They seem easier to wear when interfacing with the world and even with ourselves. It’s ironic that Moses used to wear a mask to temper the light and Godliness that emanated from his face and we wear figurative masks to hide the lies and darkness of who we are.  We hide behind our titles, money, fashion labels, and some even behind religious garb. Truth takes a lot of guts, both to dish it out and to receive it. We’ve heard it said, “The truth hurts.” Like the famous line in the movie A Few Good Men: “You can’t handle the truth.”  But then our lives are beset with problems and we turn to God and ask, “Why is this happening to me?”   We can tolerate the truth only when life hurts more than the truth.  When our tears burn like acid. 

Truth involves accountability. It involves the whole story, A-Z, not just the details you want to include. And that is why the three-letter word for truth in Hebrew is comprised of the very first, the middle and the very last letter of the Aleph Bet. It is ALL encompassing.  The truth, unlike me, does not need an editor to polish it up and to cut out extraneous words. And so, we see in this week’s Torah reading how Joseph’s brothers who seemed to live without much conscience all those years for having sold their brother, only dared to face the truth when they had terrible troubles of their own. The truth was not extraneous to them, it was in them. “They said one to another:  Indeed, we’re guilty concerning our brother in that we saw the anguish of his soul when he entreated us and we would not hear; therefore is this anguish come upon us.”  

We read in the Torah that Yehuda, Joseph’s brother, buried two sons of his own. Rabbinical exegetes explain that it was punishment for the pain he cast on his own father by his involvement in Joseph’s disappearance. Yet even then, he did not say his misfortunes were a result of his misdeeds.  And so, his troubles didn’t cease until he professed culpability along with his brothers. In our own lives too, when we attribute the source of our troubles to everything and everyone instead of pointing the finger at ourselves, our suffering will continue.  Firstly, because we will never change, repent or make good. And secondly, because God will keep reminding us through further tribulations. The Talmud says that God hates liars. And something tells me it’s not a good thing when God hates you.

The Hebrew word aval (indeed) which comes before the brothers’ long repressed confession is interesting because it can mean many things. The manner in which they use it is honest and free of excuses: “INDEED we are guilty.” Except this same Hebrew word, aval, also means BUT. Ah, the word “but,” the famous pivot upon which the best excuses swivel: But, I wouldn’t have cheated on her if she lost weight; but I wouldn’t have stolen a few bucks from the petty cash if they paid me more; but I did it because they deserved it.  Who said the manufacturing business is dead? We manufacture more excuses every day for the decisions we make than the Chinese manufacture knock-off fake designer wear.  We put in a lot of time and effort manufacturing phony, make-believe lives, producing semblances of decency, piety, importance and sophistication. Instead, we really should be ripping off the mask and taking our true selves to task.

Why? Because that same word aval which means both “indeed” and “but” in Hebrew, also spells another word and that word is MOURNING. Erase the Hebrew vowels under the letters and you have no idea if you are reading the word, “indeed,” “but” or “mourning.”

Three times a charm, right?  Wrong! Nothing’s a coincidence in God’s holy language. Mourning is the common denominator for the two roads we can travel. On one road mourning will heal us.On the other, it will bury us alive. We can mourn our misdeeds, pull off the self-deceptive mask, stop appeasing our conscience, toss out cheap excuses, retire all the “ifs and buts” as Joseph brother’s ultimately do. Or, we can perpetually mourn our troubles, continue to justify our misdeeds and invite further suffering upon ourselves--sometimes to the point of no return--simply because we are stubborn, arrogant or ignorant and look so much better with the mask on. With the mask on, it’s never your fault.  Now you not only have something in common with the mass producers of the phony and fake but also with Eden’s Primordial Snake. He too was a master at making excuses to justify wrong behavior and thus brought mankind down. Better to be like King Davidwhose greatness shines in both his ability to take responsibility for his actions and the humility of his admission and the repentance that follows. This is part of the reason that the ultimate redeemer of the Jewish people and the world will descend from David's line ― he will be ‘Messiah, son of David.’[1]
I look away from my computer and the “truth” is hanging before me. I really love it. Knowing my sensibilities, I’m not really sure how I could ever have contemplated hanging a mask to begin with. The only feather it seems I've really been bequeathed to pick up is my writing quill which I will continue to dip in God's Soul--the ultimate Fountain of Truth—and tell you everything you don’t want to hear.