Friday, December 27, 2019

Chanukah: A Message of Darkness

The flickering flames were dancing in the clear Lucite menorah cups. The flames were not in sync tonight, each striving for its own direction. I always wished I could read the flames like the kabbalists could and know what they are trying to say. But their lights remain ever a mystery, and they dance and dance until they are no more. And what remains is the wax coating of melted candles which take much effort to remove. Hot water and Windex, more hot water and Windex and several days of wiping before all traces of the holiday are gone altogether. What happens to the light that envelops our homes with warmth and inspiration and sets our hearts aglow with something otherworldly? I always feel lonely at the end of Chanukah; I miss the candles that keep me company. I look at them. They look at me. For a few days after it feels like something is missing from my life. Life feels darker. And then I realize that the torch has been passed to us; we ourselves are the lights that must live on once the festive candelabras are placed back up on the high shelf. We are the flames that must burn radiantly with our faith in G-d.

From one dark winter day to the next we mope along as the lights extinguish and take with them their warmth and certainty only to be replaced by chilly intimidating shadows. The only remaining place we can find to warm our spirits is over the roaring fire called faith, without which the darkness becomes a gravitational abyss from which we cannot extricate ourselves.

Interestingly, it is at this time of year when the nights are longest and darkness seems to prevail that we read about the story of Joseph, who found himself in the darkness of a snake-filled pit into which his brother’s had cast him and then later in the darkness of Pharaoh’s dungeon. What truly did he have to live for? One day he was living a comfortable life as the beloved favorite son of Jacob; the next day his brothers sold him into slavery.

Joseph had grown up on the inspiration of his own dreams, which saw him ruling over his brothers. But from the purview of the pit he saw no “happily- ever-after” ending for himself. They had stripped him of his coat of many colors, also taking from him his pride, his innocence, and the years he could have been living peacefully by his father’s side. In some measure they killed everything about him, except faith and the light of G-d that burned inside him. Luckily, faith knows not shackles nor taskmasters nor pits or self pity—it sees only the light. The Bible teaches us something very interesting about Joseph’s attitude throughout his great suffering. The dungeon to which he is condemned is called Beit Hasohar, the “house of light.” Even in the depths of a dark dungeon, Joseph maintained his faith in God, he remained optimistic and hopeful and he created his own “light.” It was a house of light because he himself shone. 

We must learn to do the same as we go through our own trials and tribulations. With laser-like intensity keep faith shining until it cuts right through the “dungeon” wall. It is a sin to succumb to despair and it is idol worship to believe that life is only worth living when we are riding high. In the story of Chanukah we learn how the golden Temple menorah had been stolen and there was only enough pure olive oil to last one day. The Maccabees didn’t sit around lamenting the darkness of their circumstance. They made a cheaper metal menorah. And the one day’s worth of oil miraculously lasted eight days. If only we would stoke our souls and refine our faith like pure olive oil, the miraculous light of Chanukah would be with us 365 days a year. For the soul of man is a lamp of G‑d.

All the above is beautiful and inspiring but also useless if we only have faith in Hashem but give Him  no reason to have faith in us. Joseph did not survive Egypt simply because he had faith; that would just make him a positive thinker. He survived and triumphed because G-d had reason to have faith in him. Despite all the perverse influences around him, he behaved like a Jew is commanded to behave and maintained his unique identity. The most beautiful woman in the world made daily advances toward him and he did not succumb because his father’s face and all the moral teachings of his faith guided his conscience and his deeds. 

If a Jew really had faith in G-d he wouldn’t work on the Sabbath because he’d have faith G-d would provide. If he had faith he wouldn’t be scared to give charity because he’d be sure of G-d’s charity toward him.  If he had faith he would do everything so differently because a person of faith “lets go and lets G-d.” In all our worldly affairs we believe one hand washes the other, yet when it comes to G-d we are ready to collect with both hands and serve with neither. Yes, the soul of man is a lamp of G‑d but it also has a purpose in life and that is to illuminate the world with divine light. How does one do that? By living with faith and living faithfully. By showing up for active duty.By attaching oneself to the source of light, the Torah. The Torah is a flame, described as black fire written on white fire. “When the lamp [man] and flame [Torah] unite, they produce a light which fills the house--the world.” (Rabbi Elie Munk) Perfoming Torah commandments creates light for the entire world. Our faith mandates us to “shine” for all to see, just as the menorah’s lights must not be kept private, but rather placed in visible locations. We are not destined to be dim bulbs but rather a light among the nations. Jews, we are bearers of the light. That is not our calling card, that is our calling. “And the nations shall walk at your light, and the kings at the brightness of your rising. (Isaiah 60:3).

We should not be awed nor seasonally mesmerized by the lights of the Menorah. They should be humbled by the brightness of our souls. But they are not, because as Jews we are extinguishing our own lights and cutting off our own souls: intermarriage, Torah abandonment, assimilation, apathy, flickering, flickering, dying out.  Oh, woe Jewish souls. We dismiss the illuminating and preserving light of G-d’s Torah and choose artificial and ephemeral lighting instead and that’s why we are lost in darkness in a world upside down with darkening clouds gathering over our people, again. We dismiss the light of G-d and now we see the beacons of anti-Semitism flaring up and our menorahs are dying out.  No I cannot read the candles flames as I wish I could, but I can read the writing on the wall. Ashes, ashes we all fall down. But “Rejoice not against me, my enemy; although I have fallen, I will rise; although I will sit in darkness, the Lord is a light to me.” (Michah 7:8)

Sunday, December 22, 2019

When I'm up a Tree-Where Are You?

Just this week, I purchased some new mezuzahs to help someone change their luck for the better. I couldn’t help but think of all the high security systems people employ to protect their lives and belongings. Then I looked at the little bag swinging between my forefinger and thumb and was awed how these parchments inscribed with Judaism’s most well-known prayer, the Shema, have protected  the Jewish people for centuries.  

The mezuzahs are not mere nostalgic props to assert our identity and comfort us; they are Biblically commanded: “You shall love the L-rd your G‑d with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you today shall be upon your heart… And you shall write them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates.”  

And there upon the back of the rolled-up parchment are the three letters (shindaletyud)  that spell G-d’s name, Shaddai. This name is also an acronym for shomer dlatot Yisrael, "Guardian of the doors of Israel.” For who else would protect the Children of Israel? And the answer is, we protect each other.

The prayer contained speaks about loving G-d and following His commandments.  By doing so properly and genuinely, we learn to love each other, respect each other, and treat each other as if we each reflect a spark of G-d. Because we do. We are commanded to place His words upon our hearts. Not in our brains and not in our pockets.

The Rabbis teach that the instrument with which the mezuzah, Torah and tefillin are written should teach us how to behave: A person should always be soft like a reed and not be stiff like a cedar, as one who is proud like a cedar is likely to sin. And therefore, due to its gentle qualities, the reed [today the feather] merited that a quill is taken from it to write a Torah scroll, phylacteries, and mezuzot. (Taanit, 20b) Our hearts must be soft and flexible not hard and stubborn.  For when a mezuzah marks a doorway it is not merely to whisper, “A Jew lives here.” It’s meant to shout that those who BEHAVE like Jews live here. If home is where the heart is — then where’s your heart?

The problem today is that we’ve become hard-hearted like Pharaohs. Our greed, our selfishness our jealousy, our apathy have hardened our hearts so much that they’ve become tough and inflexible like cedar wood.

The great Biblical commentator, Rashi, points out that “the cedar tree’s height represents haughtiness and arrogance”; it stands so high above the rest that it cannot beat heart in heart with its fellow Jew, sister, friend or neighbor..

So said the Lord: Perform justice and charity, and rescue the robbed from the hand of the robber, and to a stranger, an orphan, and a widow do no wrong.…”(Jeremiah 22:3)

We cannot be aloof and conveniently mind our own business when others are flailing either financially, spiritually, emotionally or in other ways. And the prophet Jeremiah warns the King of Judah about his heartlessness and abandonment of the Torah while he built homes of cedar: “And I will prepare for you destroyers, each one with his weapons, and they will cut your choice cedars and cast them upon the fire.” (Ibid 22:7)

 Be certain that every time we Jews forget that we are one family, anti-Semitism will remind us. We are one people, with one destiny, responsible for each other. Often we can’t stand each other or have so little tolerance because we are from another sect, or economic background. We are racist among ourselves. The ironic thing about Gentile -Jew hatred is that it doesn’t discriminate: It hates us all equally. What a shame that we have to come together as ashes in Auschwitz or on the killing fields of violent anti-Semitic slaughters.

We see in this week’s Torah reading that after Joseph’s brothers’ jealousy toward him could no longer be curbed, they threw him into a pit. If that’s not bad enough, they then sat down to eat while their brother suffered. It’s a callousness that is certainly prevalent in our days as well.   When our lives are going well, we are able to shut out the sufferings of others. It’s not my problem!  Here is a simple example: How often on Facebook do we see people asking to be included in our prayers because they are sick or going through difficult times? How often do we really write down their names, friends or strangers, and actually insert their pleas into our daily prayers?  Having our own problems is no excuse for closing our hearts to the problems of others. Going through difficult  economic  times is no excuse for stopping to give  charity.

The funny thing about giving charity at first is when you drop a coin into an empty can, it makes a lot of noise. But as you fill up the can, your heart softens; it gets used to giving and not being so selfish. Soon enough, the inserted coins make no sound at all. Giving charity properly has infinite positive repercussions in the universe but the giving is silent. The givers don’t brag or advertise; We don’t lament over each “dime.” The coins soon don’t make any clang at all. But the heart becomes a new heart, not one of cedar. It becomes a Jewish heart.  

The other side of the leaf is being happy for your neighbor when he is doing well. Don’t be like Joseph’s brothers who couldn’t even speak peacefully with him because of their hate and jealousy. Learn from his brothers that digging a pit for someone you are jealous of doesn’t make you any better.  It makes you despicably worse. To sabotage others behind their backs because you are jealous or can’t compete with them is a very big sin which will not satisfy your objective.   Joseph’s brothers exerted their delusory power and threw him into the pit to aggrandize themselves at his expense, but G-d had other plans. In the end, they all had to bow before him and serve him.  The very person they wanted to destroy was the one they needed most for their survival.   

And I can’t end this by slandering cedar trees. They are otherwise spoken of favorably in Judaism as long as they remember their roots and where they came from, the same earth as the humble lowly hyssop.   If you want to be a cedar, then grow on your own merit, grow in good deeds and with achievements and not by cutting down the competition. You strike only at yourself. Joseph grew to be like a cedar but despite his meteoric rise to power and everything he went through, he still had a heart for his brothers. He remembered who he was and from where he came. He had love and compassion and forgiveness. His heart was soft.

Joseph and his brothers make up the 12 tribes of Israel. They are all represented by precious stones upon the priestly breastplate which is worn over the kohen’s heart. We are one people, one nation, one heart. Each of us is a precious stone in our own right, thus precluding the need for jealousy or feelings of superiority or inferiority. 

The Hebrew word for love and the Hebrew word for ONE both have the same numerical value. So, friends, let’s do the simple math. Open our hearts to each other, in good times and in bad, and undoubtedly in all this random chaos of fractured friendships and families, things will finally and beautifully add up to ONE!

Friday, December 13, 2019

Do You Really Have A Leg To Stand On?

I sit alone at the end of the long wood dining room table. The amber glow of the dimmed chandelier and the smell of fresh coffee wafting from the steaming ceramic cup by my side are welcoming settings for my early morning routine of Torah study. Outside is still dark. Before me lies a leather-bound book, very large and heavy, of ancient Jewish and mystical teachings. I search for the red satin string that marks the page where yesterday’s lesson ended and where today’s must begin. I open the holy book and always feel awed and comforted by merely looking at the beautiful letters of the aleph beit that spill open before me.  The concepts are complex and not always easily absorbed. I look away to ponder the teaching and search my brain for familiar understanding, for a point of reference. I stare and stare into the cozy glow and low and behold, a devil is looking back at me. Yes it is a devil, I’m sure of it. There are not one now, but four.  I jump up from my seat to investigate. I’m in shock. Why have I never noticed this before. Here in the dining room of my childhood home, my mother’s home, stands a beautiful ornate expensive mantelpiece clock which has four devil heads that serve as its feet. I was quite certain, even for art’s sake, that this was not permitted in a Jewish house. The devils were multiplying. For I then noticed that two matching candelabras were also supported by these horned heads. I now had 12 devils to deal with.  And so I do what I do best, I bother a very busy respected rabbi with the likes of questions that only Aliza can have.  “Dear Rabbi, I have an odd question, but I guess in Judaism there are no odd questions. Here goes…… Is that idol worship? Should I and can I remove just the legs and throw them away or have I created an issue where there is none?”  
Friends, for 30 years, those items decorated our home, neither I nor my mother, the acquirer, ever noticed that an idol was in our midst.  I think of the years we celebrated holidays in that room, the years my father prayed there and donned his tefillin, all the years I studied Torah in that room and then I think of the devil holding up “time,” i.e., that clock, and I’m not pleased. The rabbi replied. My “odd” question indeed had an answer. The faces had to be smoothed down to destroy the semblance of a graven image or alternately they could be removed altogether. As the Second Commandment states: “You shall not make for yourself a graven image, nor any manner of likeness of anything that is in heaven above, that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”  G-d’s law is pretty clear, “You shall have no other gods before Me.”
Judaism teaches, however, that idols are not just statues and graven images. Idols are anything that we worship that comes between man and G-d.  Materialism, beauty, fitness, money, the government, politics, the army, physicians, etc. can all be considered idols if we empower them with the belief that they are what sustain us and not the Will of G-d.  Idol worship does not preclude belief in G-d but assumes that some things exist in their own right apart and separate from God’s holiness. Judaism teaches there is nothing but Him, ein od milvado. If we relegate Him as merely G-d of the synagogue, no wonder many are no longer afraid of Him nor serve Him in the other buildings of our lives. i.e., the courthouse, the bank, the hospital, our living rooms, our offices.  In addition, how often do we really examine our  environs and take a good look at what is “decorating” our lives and whether we are surrounded by idols both physically and perceptually?  What is coming between you and G-d? Greed? Laziness? Ego? Jealousy? Hedonism? Apathy? I can’t help but think how even the American dollar, the idol of idols that many revere as a god, is smarter than we are, for even the mighty buck itself declares “In G-d we trust.” 
In this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, we learn that in exacting revenge upon the people of Shechem for the rape of their sister, two sons of Jacob kill every man in the city, rescue their sister and then plunder the city of its riches, including items of idolatry. Jacob demands of his sons, “Discard the alien gods that are in your midst… And they gave Jacob all the deities of the nations that were in their possession and the earrings that were in their ears, and Jacob buried them.…”  Rabbi Norman Lamm describes this as a cathartic and important episode worthy of replicating in our own lives. Imagine we too stand before a huge pit and are asked to throw in our idols. Would you even recognize them? Look at your life and examine what is not Jewish in it, what you have picked up from foreign cultures and ideologies and what is disruptive as regards  your service to G-d and thus a priori to your better self.  Your artwork, your vanity, your technology, your wardrobe, your food, your sexual behavior, your conversations, your compulsion control, your gym, your habits and more, where do they all stand in relationship to the G-d that mandated, “You shall have no other gods before Me”?  Would you be like Jacob’s sons and be able to cast off the “idols” that feign favor and friendship but slaughter like a foe. Do you worship foreign gods to fit into a society only to discover through anti-Semitism that you were not meant to fit in. "Be holy to Me…. I will thus make you separated for Me, to be mine from amongst the nations." (Lev. 20:26)

Truly a case of eyes wide shut as 30 years later I notice what was before me all this time. I couldn’t help but think of Abraham, the father of monotheism who smashed all the idols in his father’s shop. It was my turn now.  Friends, countrymen, lend me your ears. I come to bury idols, not to praise them: What are the devils that are serving as legs in your life and where are they leading you? All that surrounds us has an impact on our souls. When we muffle G-d, the source of life, with the idols of our times, how can anything in our life have clarity or blessing? Our task is to identify the idols in our life and destroy them. Don’t give them a leg to stand on! 

Friday, December 6, 2019

The Gathering Storm

My ears have increasingly become audience to heart-wrenching dramas over the past few years. More distressing is that these tragedies are not fiction. Almost everyone I know is more troubled now than ever before, (even countries) and trapped in intractable situations that appear a little too paralyzing to be entirely manmade. Like never before we are unable to extricate ourselves from the mess we find ourselves in.
I cannot help but fall into the mindset that perhaps we really are in pre-Messianic times about which it is written that humanity will be beset by prodigious problems. (Some of the pre-Messianic conditions the Talmud lists are that sin-fearing people will be detested; truth will be missing; unbridled irresponsibility on the part of authorities; family-breakup with mutual recriminations; it will be hard to know who to trust; the young will insult the old; money problems, sickness, there will be no pity or compassion, etc.) And so, when all the escape routes we’ve always counted on become inaccessible, we are driven to become philosophers. We finally want the truth. We find ourselves asking as we face the nagging darkness that has become our lives, “What’s it all really about? “Why am I here?” and “What’s the purpose of life?” These popular questions are spiritually-driven questions, yet the askers never seem satisfied with the spiritual answer: Serving G-d and elevating the world through Torah is our purpose.
Nah, has to be more than that,” is a reply I’ve often heard by those attempting to shirk off any religious duty that would interrupt their daily schedules. As palliatives to empty hearts and flagging souls, these searchers fill their lives with materialistic things, sexual escapades, Botox, yoga, body sculpting, shopping, golfing and all kinds of external decorations and distractions, to no avail. Happiness evades them and another day dies. The shallow pursuit of more and plenty will never satisfactorily answer the questions above but will even further exasperate us as our hands are filled with “gold” but are our hearts empty of peace. It is true for people; it is true for nations.
I find the question, “What does G-d want from us?” an odd question. When we read Atkin’s book on low-carb dieting, we knew what he wanted: When we read self-help books, we also know what the authors recommend for better lives. Not sure why then, when reading G-d’s book we all become illiterates and can’t seem to understand our native tongue. We have the Torah for over 3000 years and we still don’t understand what G-d wants from us? Hhhhmmm? That doesn’t sound honest. He has given us His Book filled with directives. It’s there in black and white. Yet we are more inclined to believe the print in the National Enquirer than G-d’s own word. G-d and all his rules are such an inconvenience; there must be a quicker fix to happiness than that burdensome book. And so mankind builds its golden calves....How’s that been working out? When it comes down to TRUTH, you can’t go shopping for answers that you like. The Torah and its directives are the only truth. If you don’t subscribe to it, it’s your prerogative. But then don’t seek for truth in the world of lies. Don’t search for bread crumbs in a matzah factory.
It is the law of nature that every empty space calls to be filled--crevices get filled with dirt or water, blank walls cry out for artwork, a bucket, a chair, a heart and a bowl all desire to be filled. But the choice has always been ours with what we fill emptiness. The rabbis teach us to fill our voids and pain with prayers. We learn from the story of Noah wherein G-d destroyed the whole world, a corrupt and disgustingly depraved world, conditions with which we ourselves have become all too familiar, that Noah was saved by an ark. But it wasn’t simply a boat. Our rabbis teach that the Hebrew word for Ark, teivah also mean “word.” Rabbi Nachman of Breslov teaches that “the construction of the ark itself alludes directly to prayer.” When we pray to G-d with all our hearts and all our souls and all our might, we can change nature itself. The rains first fell in a natural fashion as G-d gave mankind the chance to repent and pray. The people of the time, like us, ignored the warnings and chose other hopes to hang onto. They didn’t board the ark of prayer, being too confident the storms would pass. They were destroyed. In fact Rabbi Nachman further points out that the dimensions of the ark written in the Torah, 300 X 50 X 30 cubits, parallels the Hebrew word for speech/tongue “lashon” of which its root letters are also valued at 300, 50 and 30. Praying and reopening a relationship with G-d is the ark of our survival.
In this week’s Torah reading of Vayeitzei, we read about Jacob’s now famous dream of a ladder set in the earth and its top reaching heavenward. G-d’s angels were ascending and descending. Here too the rabbinic sages teach that the angels represent the ascent of man’s prayers toward the celestial sphere. The ascending angels bring up the supplications of man to the celestial throne and then descend back down laden with heavenly blessings. The Rambam teaches that the ladder had four rungs which correspond to the four stages through which man must pass through to reach G-d (Rabbi Elie Munk, “The Call of the Torah”). G-d is just waiting to hear from us, just as parents anxiously wait and are so happy to hear from their own children. But just as we hate when someone talks to us while texting and playing with their phones, G-d too wants our undivided attention. Pray like you actually care about the relationship and not with burden-inspired impatience to get it over with. Open a book of Psalms (Tehillim) or a siddur (prayer book) and pray! Savour the words, invest heart and honesty into them. You want to know what G-d wants from you? Stop asking everyone who can't answer you. Ask Him! Start talking, start praying and start building your ark to survive the gathering storm.

Friday, November 29, 2019

Not for Sale

My cleanliness phobia has arrested any potential I’d have to purchase second-hand things. However, that doesn’t diminish my affinity for antiques and my propensity to quickly peek at such items being sold on Facebook Marketplace. The resulting feeling is always the same: A waft of sadness overtakes me.  Items once cherished,  inanimate witnesses to lives now gone, are being sold off by next of kin who couldn’t care less. How meaningless it all is, the summation of a life that can be auctioned off on Facebook or eBay. I can’t help but think of the long lines that form for Black Friday and the enthusiasm and lust for the latest “things,” and, contrastingly, I think about the musty smell of estate sales where both the items and their one-time owners have become obsolete.  I’m compelled to examine the life that lies between. What’s it all really about in the end? What’s it all really about all along? 

In this week’s Torah portion called Toldot, we read about the birth of twin brothers, Esav and Jacob, who were so opposite in their view of life that they began fighting while still in their mother Rivkah’s womb. Their respective affinities were clear: When she passed places of idol worship, Esav would struggle to come out and when she passed a place of Torah study, Jacob would struggle to come out. Esav lived only for this material world and all it has to offer and Jacob lived for God, for family and the world to come. Esav was so carnally invested in the physicality of this world that for food he sold his firstborn birthright to his younger twin brother in order to satisfy a life-sapping hunger born from his exhaustive and exhausting sins. That birthright involved the priesthood and obedient behavior, and thus it meant nothing to him. It was just a potential burden to him. Even without FB Marketplace he successfully disposed of the divine values and divine mission for which both his grandfather and father had lived and risked their lives. And for those self-excusing Jews who tend to believe that the Almighty loves all his children regardless of their behavior, let G-d’s stance on these two brother be unequivocal: God says, “...I loved Jacob. And I hated Esau.” (Milachi 1:2-3). 

Often people who eschew the commandments, like Esav, tend to believe that doing what G-d wants is tiring. And yet, the first words we ever hear about Esav in the Torah are that he’s “exhausted” (Genesis 25:30). The rabbis teach that he was exhausted because he was so busy living for the pleasures of the moment that his energy was depleted in the service of himself. And make  no mistake about it, Esav was not 100 years old and burned out from his “party animal” lifestyle when both he and the Torah tell us that he was “exhausted.” Nor was he 60 or 40 or 20. He was 15. By then he had already been sleeping with betrothed women, was hunting, killing, manipulating, etc. He was already a stalwart example of what NOT to do.

How often in our own lives have we said and hear people say, “I’m tired and burned out,” and “I’m not what I use to be.” Observing some people’s lives can be like watching the battery bars on a cell phone. Slowly, slowly we watch the life force draining away.  And they are always far from the charger just when it’s needed most. But in truth, we only decline and drain away when we attach ourselves to false gods, when we spurn morality and vacate religion from our lives and unplug ourselves from the ONE true "charger": G-d. The love of money, the fancy cars, the toxic quest for perpetual beauty, the food fixes, the fame, the gadgets, the unbridled promiscuity, the mind dulling entertainments are all false “insulin spikes” that temporarily thrill us and ultimately drain us of our life energy. Yet, I have never heard a Torah scholar or truly religious person complain that he is upset that he is not what he used to be. For now, he is even better than he was. He never longs for the days when he had less good deeds or knew less Torah. With G-dly vitality, his eye is on tomorrow, not yesterday. And that is why Esau was so tired, even in his youth. While continually pursuing his passions he was unplugged from his spiritual outlet. He was the antithesis of G-d, hence he created darkness from light.

All of our forefathers were very wealthy. Where are their riches now? In the dust with all things that don’t matter. Their last will and testaments did not bequeath us ornate trinkets or mahogany chairs that need slight refurbishing. Their legacy is eternal; it is the Torah and its life affirming light that illuminates our lives in the darkest moments, that energizes us with G-d’s own life force when haSatan tries to deplete us and depress us. When G-d is our “charger” we don’t burn out and fade away; we become like the Chanukah miracle where the light lasts longer than nature expects. We become like the burning bush that is aflame and yet not consumed. We become the radiant light unto the nations that no Nazi’s black boot can stomp out.

Yes, I think about Black Friday aptly named for a dark mindset that sucks us into believing that we need “stuff” and more stuff. Gadgets rendered into gods until they become obsolete, until they end up on an online marketplace, until a stranger with a pickup truck hauls away a life once treasured. Then I think about Friday, my Friday, our Friday. Tonight is erev Shabbat. It starts with light, it’s filled with light and it ends with the light of the havdalah prayer and candle. I plug into the source of all light. I am energized. And through Jacob unto his children, and my father unto me an eternal legacy of light lives on. No, I will not sell my Jewish “birthright” for the fickle and ephemeral fancies and deceptions of this world. The chairs you can have--but some things are just not for sale!

Friday, November 22, 2019

Another Conquest--as Rome Burns!

Far from being a Genghis Khan or an Alexander the Great, when I set out to New York from Montreal over 25 years ago I was ready to conquer the world. Like a military general with a pushpin cork board, I too plotted who I wanted to meet, often via ambush, along with the implementation strategies to secure an interview with them. Today, with wiser eyes, ever enwisened by my continual Torah study and some abrasive life experiences, I question why I even cared at all.
What does it really mean to conquer? Historically speaking, both the conquered and the conquerors now lay in the dust, revived only by history teachers as their students doze off in classrooms across the globe. My cover stories of famous people, are now more ancient and irrelevant than a Roman war chariot, for in today’s speedy world yesterday’s news dies and decomposes while still in the telling. And yet so often, I look to the contents of my weekly Torah blogs from prior years for ideas and they spring eternal. Over 3000 years of enemies and the Torah can never be conquered for it is the Tree of Life and all who cling to it shall live.
And then I think about the conquering spirit that possesses most of us at some point in our life, whether one wants to be the richest, the best looking, the most fit, the most popular, or the most famous. And I have to ask the same question I have often asked my interviewees: Have you paid a price for your success? And the answer is invariably, “Yes.” As we aim to conquer the worlds we respectively find ourselves in, more often than not it is we who take the beating. There is always a price to pay. A war of attrition is launched against our values, our upbringing, our religion, our innocence, our idealism. With the skills of the best defense attorneys, we justify our dirty deeds and those “deeds” become our army--and then it kills us.
The conqueror is but a metaphor for our life’s journey. G-d 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. No moment is trivial. Life is like a fish with many bones, if you don’t pay attention, you will choke. If a person doesn’t conquer the moment by making the right choice, the moment conquers him spiritually. “Do not trust in yourself until the day of your death,” Perkei Avot teaches.
Each moment also offers not only the opportunity to avert doing wrong but also to do good. Instead of throwing coins into a wishing well, give charity. Instead of putting all your extra money in stocks, give charity, the ultimate return is much greater. Instead of watching a marathon of Netflix episodes, watch a Torah video. Instead of gossiping and complaining endlessly, pray and bless. Instead of being hateful and fuming over what the world owes you, be loving and question when’s the last time you did something for someone other than yourself, not when it was easy to do, but when it was hard and an inconvenience. Conquer yourself. Be a light. Be a role model.
We have only to look at both the political situations in America and Israel now to recognize that attempts to “conquer” the opponent are uglier than we’ve ever seen. But is leadership not a manifestation of those they lead? Are we not looking at a mirror image of what type of world we’ve become? Two great countries representing the might and light among the nations are now reduced to a political extremism that has diseased both of them. Regardless which side one is on, it has become an ugly sham, a cannibalism festival in which we are feeding upon ourselves. Surely this is a diet that leads to extinction. We are watching the ruination of the civilized world with popcorn in hand as if it’s an Amazon Prime special. Just yesterday Israel’s president said the country has to do some soul searching, a very tragic sentence for the biblical Holy Land which should be leading by the soul, not looking for it.
I’ve often questioned whether life is about becoming what we are meant to be or guarding who we are. In this week’s Torah reading we read about the death of our matriarch, Sarah. It is written that she was as free from sin at the age of 100 as she was at 20. Although she was exposed to many challenges and problems in life, she never used them as excuses to spiral downward in life. She was very beautiful and was abducted by both a Pharaoh and a king. She escaped both situations unscathed. Sarah was the conqueror, strong and certain in her service of G-d. She lived a life purely dedicated to Hashem and He protected her. “...When the perceptions of the soul permeates the body and all its actions, one’s physical nature is not suppressed but transformed, and the whole being partakes of the timelessness of the spirit in its relations with G-d. The possibility of sin does not arise.” (Torah Studies, Discourses by the Lubavitcher Rebbe).
The life of Abraham too serves as a perfect paradigm of behavior. G-d instructed him to get up and go away from his place of birth. But the Hebrew words used translate as “go to yourself.” Indeed, upon the physical journey, there were challenges to conquer, but they were all whetting stones for the internal journey. How will you conduct yourself upon the road? What will you jettison to reach your destination: dignity, honesty, etc. How will you affect the people who come across your path? How will you make this place a better world because you were in it? In what way do you reflect an aspect of G-d? If you can count the mitzvot and good deeds you’ve done, then you are not doing enough.
Be like Abraham who passed all his tests. He rose to the occasion instead of letting them bring him down. “Be perfect.” We try and achieve perfection at gyms, salons, plastic surgeons and Photoshop while, like Dorian Gray, the inside is rotting. G-d instructed us how to be perfect. Conquer your evil inclination, your ego, your excuses, you jealousy, your hate, your passions, your laziness, your appetites and your toxic resistance to Torah and then and only then will you come into true possession of yourself. Leave not wreckage in your wake as you set out to conquer the world. Be like Sarah whose tent was always aglow with her greatness and moral perfection; be like Abraham who actively brought people to serve G-d and never compromised his beliefs regardless of the price. You want to be a conqueror?-- Start with yourself and you will find great riches within.

Saturday, November 16, 2019


Unlike giraffes, we live in a generation where no one will stick their neck out for you. And if evolutionists are correct that giraffes’ necks elongated over time to meet the needs of its survival, then perhaps we humans are just a generation away from having one arm a foot longer than the other. As personal and societal narcissism expands with viral speed and existential toxicity alongside the erumpent technological platforms to broadcast that narcissism, then 12 more inches of arm will possibly accommodate the need to take “selfies” and glorify the “I.”
Yes, “ME,” “MYSELF,” and “I” are celebrities in this age of narcissism. The echoes and clamoring of “It’s all about me” drown out the needs and cries of others and mutes the voice of God. Whereas once pagans killed people to worship gods, today we’ve killed God to worship people--OURSELVES. Consistently, upon the altar of self-deification, we have sacrificed the better part of us: compassion, morality, integrity, courage, charity and family, religious obligations, our history, the present and the future. And it is not the sweet odor of incense that hovers in the air as decency burns, but the stench of corruption, greed and mercilessness.
By deductive reasoning, if I am better and more important than you, then my problems and distresses are more important than yours. But that is not the world God wanted. The Talmud teaches that if we petition God for our needs and wants, first pray for another. For God cannot reside in an egotistical arrogant person. Get yourself out of your own way. You want to throw something on the sacrificial altar to get results (other than scapegoats), start with your ego. By further deduction we must recognize how very far away we are from God and truth by looking to Moses as the paradigm of behavior. Because he was the most humble person to walk the earth, he was worthy and able to be God’s messenger. He didn’t mistakenly drop the Divine Tablets to take a selfie and have his name written in a bestselling book. Conversely, he told God to blot his name out of His book if He destroyed the Israelites. Thus, if God was so close to Moses due to his humility and self-effacing behavior, imagine how bad we look in God's eyes because of our selfishness. We are polar opposites. Selfishness is an antithesis to the five senses with which God created and blessed man, for it has no eyes for the suffering of its sister, has no ears for the cries of its brother, it smells not its own stench, it has no parched tongue to know another’s thirst and it has no heart to feel or hand to touch another in comfort. It has only an extra-long arm to take a selfie, an extra-long arm that will lead to self-strangulation.
It is little wonder then that the world in which we find ourselves is falling apart due to its fragmented nature wherein each person thinks the world revolves around them instead of realizing that the whole world depends upon them. There is an apropos rabbinic allegory about heaven and hell. “In each location, the inhabitants are sitting at a long table but the utensils are too unwieldy to serve oneself. In hell, the people keep trying to stuff their own faces but can’t get the food into their mouths and so they starve. In heaven, the people help each other and feed one another across the table and are sated.”
Far from heaven, as congressmen and senators serve special interests for self-aggrandizement, cash and political survival, as corporate technology is steeped in an ever-growing surveillance culture so as to ultimately control us, as the news media panders to agenda and become lapdogs instead of watchdogs, the building blocks of our civilization are crumbling. Every day it becomes evermore easy to say, “Who cares about anyone else? I have to look out for myself.”
In this week’s Torah reading, Vayera, we read about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, societies where people cared only for themselves and were heartless and callous towards others. Being charitable was a crime. Their profound egotism and lust for easy gratification led, as it always will, to self-destruction. As the Talmud says, “He who is affected by a voracious hunger finally eats his own flesh.” Yes, man is made of earth which is the most selfish of creations as it is surrounded by a gravitational field that pulls everything toward itself. Yet even the earth is not so selfish that it begrudges the flower and the tree to grow upward and the seedlings to sprout. In the final analysis, the earth gives much more than it takes. Do we?
In the center of the biblical account of Sodom and Gomorrah stands the Patriarch Abraham, who asks God to spare the city if even fifty righteous people could be found. God said he would. Abraham slowly tweaks the number down to ten in case fifty could not be found. God consents. Not even ten could be found. But we learn here not only about the failings of Sodom and Gomorrah, but also about Abraham’s, and Noah’s too. When God told Noah he was going to destroy humanity, Noah didn’t say a peep, he just built an Ark. When God told Abraham he would destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham’s best was to suggest that God should spare the righteous. But, when God told Moses that he was going to wipe out Israel because of the sin of the Golden Calf, Moses said, “Please forgive their sin—but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written.”
It is said that in the Messianic Age everyone will be beset by intractable problems. As today’s crises escalate personally and globally, we too cannot merely ask, “Will it be okay for me?” We are our brother’s keepers. Like those in the allegory, we too each have a long spoon in our hand with which we can “serve” another and the other can serve us. On our own initiative let’s grow “longer arms” to give each other a helping hand and not contrastingly to pickpocket each other of our dignity and humanity by our mere self-absorption. If only ten righteous people could have been found, Sodom and Gomorrah would not have been destroyed. The question to ourselves is, “Would we count among them?”

Sunday, November 10, 2019

The Light Inside (Lech Lecha)

To this day the people closest to me question how I can sleep with so many books in my bed, biblical commentaries piled neatly beside me barely an arm-reach away. My reply is usually the same, “At least I don‘t wake up, like some, with a stranger in my bed or with a horse’s head like in the movie the Godfather.” For I am a strong believer that the way you make your bed is the way you will lie in it.
Actually a person’s grave and a bed have something in common in Judaism, in each a person dies and is judged. While asleep a person is 1/60th dead, the Talmud teaches. And just as in death, one’s deeds are examined, judged and recorded. That is why upon waking in the morning the first thing a Jew must do before even getting out of bed is to thank God for returning his soul and for having faith in him despite yesterday’s failings. We are given another chance to make our beds anew.
When a Jewish person dies it is customarily said that he has gone to “his world.” Why “his world” and not the next world? It is because one's life after death is comprised of what man creates for himself while he is alive. Rabbi Akiva Tatz emphasizes that in the next world a person exists alone with his actions; everything that you are or are not is blatantly in your face. If you are a liar, a manipulator, a thief, an adulterer, a fraud, a phony, an impostor or plain out pompous idiot, well, you’ll find yourself in the the company you created.
As such, when people turn to me for advice, my first question to them is what end result do you want? Usually, when the bigger picture is taken into account, the steps one takes are modified. Being reactionary in all aspects of our life may put out little fires and may pacify our egos from incident to incident, but such behavior tabulates to a very petty uninspired life.
The question stands: So what do you really want? And luckily for those who hate having to decide, the choice was never really ours to begin with. A Jew has only one mission in life and that is to create light from darkness. In every single choice we face in life there is a hidden spark of Godliness, of light that is waiting for you to uncover it. In this week’s Torah portion we read how Abraham tells his nephew Lot, “Please part from me; if [you go] left, I will go right, and if [you go] right, I will go left.” One lesson we can learn from this is that even though the direction of our life can be offset by circumstances or the actions of others (in our limited perspective), whether we are deflected left or right, it is how we travel that road that remains in our control. Do we further bury the sparks with our hate, jealousy, anger and bitterness or seek the ember among our smoldering dreams. We often keep looking for a guiding light to lead the way, but the light is hidden in the challenges and the heartaches. They can be accessed and released through how we behave. In essence we are the light. So light up! In Hebrew, the language wherein there are no coincidences, the word for "test"—nisayon–also means to be “lifted up.”
Many of us are going through painful times and our life’s compass has us spinning in circles. We are bored by our routines and feel like we are going nowhere and as stuck as a tire spinning uselessly in eight inches of icy snow. There’s just no traction. We often believe that physical motion will extract us from the traps we are caught in and just want to escape to anywhere. But the truth is we are never in the same place twice even if we are going in circles. We are rather on a spiral either going up or going down. We may go from point A to point B a thousand times, but how have we released the sparks along the way or not is the crux.
How many mitzvahs have you done between the two points? Do you walk around with a miserable disposition and bring everyone down or do you make everyone smile? (In Judaism, one’s face is public property and we have to keep a smile on it and greet people kindly). Do you give charity between your two points? Do you actively search for mitzvot to do with acts of kindness when you set out from your door? If we find ourselves trapped in darkness it’s usually because we have yet to release the inner light in the areas we repetitively confront. If you are trapped in yourself, it simply means you are selfish.
Often in life I hear people say I wish my father or mother were still around as they would tell me what to do. Luckily the lessons of Abraham our forefather are eternal for us, his children. He went through ten trials of faith that we can’t even fathom from being thrown into a fiery furnace to having to sacrifice his son on an altar (which the angel stopped), from his wife being taken by Pharaoh to warring against four kings with his small band of men. Those are only 4 of his ten tests. Whatever our problems, his were worse. As a result of his faith nonetheless, it is to him that God says, "...And you will be a blessing. I shall bless those who bless you and curse whoever curses you; and all the families of the earth will be blessed through you." (Genesis 12:2-3).
When God told Abraham, “Go,” He didn’t even tell him where he was going. Like us, he too had no clear path. But he taught us that when you walk with God and with faith in Him you are never walking into the darkness. Although Abraham’s wanderings reflect an aspect of God’s telling him to “go” physically, the journey was also an inner one: “Go to yourself.” Go toward the light. A beautiful analogy can be found in the Lubavitcher Rebbe's writings which cites the Yad Malachi in regard to studying the Babylonian Talmud, "[It] never reaches its decisions directly but arrives at them through digressions and dialectics which shed, in their apparent meandering, more light than a direct path could." 
People often try and find themselves in their job titles, their assets, their looks, their haughty affiliations, all for naught, for they are finite “treasures.” As King David writes in Psalms, “To every goal I have seen an end, but Your commandment is exceedingly broad.” It is only in God’s Torah, the Tree of Life, the eternal light, where you can truly go to yourself. Every Jew is a letter in the Torah. That is where you are. The Talmud teaches that the Torah is not in Heaven. It is not some distant philosophy for wise people to contemplate. It is here on earth for every person to apply in every decision he makes in order to liberate the light.
Thus, before we go into the darkness of the night and die a little, review the day and question how your deeds and words brought light to this world and to your own world, the one you’re creating for yourself. Don't be regretful of the "life" that lies beside you. No we are not angels. It’s not easy. But remember angels leave no footprints; man, however, was meant to make his mark.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Fools of THOUGHT

Perhaps the “likes” on Facebook and other such electronic validations further encourages us to say things or do things we believe will please others. But the desire to be liked to be accepted starts early on in life. Often the price for admission is our individuality. We suppress what is different about us either in opinions, morality, stance or proclivities because we don’t want to stand out or be laughed at or disliked. How often in social settings or on Facebook or other blogging sites do you find yourself among fellow conservatives or liberals pandering to the conversation with trepidation that if you say something out of the accepted norm of your “clan” you will have your head ripped off for having your own mind?
Just a few days ago with the impeachment inquiry vote we saw how the vote was divided along strict party lines. But it is such unanimity that brings destruction to the world. Where are the dissenting voices, voices such as Abraham’s which bravely go against everyone else’s when they are wrong? Our potential dear friends, both personally and collectively, lies not in sublimating what is unique about us and in squelching our voice but rather speaking boldly, come what may. A herd mentality is a dangerous thing no matter which part of the political, social or religious spectrum you may be on. It suffocates justice and truth. Its progeny is toxic.
In this week’s Biblical portion we read about the Tower of Babel wherein God looked down upon those who set to build a tower into the sky and said: "Lo! [they are] one people, and they all have one language.” So what’s wrong with that? It’s not like they were committing murder. What is wrong is that they were so single-minded, so much in lockstep, so much of “one language” that no one questioned the other or challenged the other as to whether their actions were correct or not. Such uniformity in mind and action is a dangerous thing as it is bound to succeed, as did communism and fascism to a great extent.
Interestingly, in American jurisprudence, in order for a person to be found guilty all the jurors must agree on the same verdict. Judaism and its teachings have a different view. In the days of the Sanhedrin, the rabbinical courts which were officiated by brilliant men, if the majority found someone guilty they were deemed guilty--but if ALL the judges were unanimous in finding a person guilty, the accused was to be set free. One of the rationales was that because of the superior composition of the judicial body at least one judge should have been able to contrive a scenario where the accused was not guilty. Solid consensus revealed something was wrong with the court. Being of ONE mindset does have murderous implications. It begins with murdering ideas, then kills freedom of speech and soon enough blood flows.
No, it is not easy to stand against the establishment; it is not easy to be that only voice that speaks out against wrong or injustice, I recall how many people scoffed at me when I ripped up my masters diploma from Columbia University years ago in protest of its invitation to Iran’s President Ahmadinejad. One blogger wrote that I ripped all proof of having any brains at all. Throughout, I kept in mind the famous quote, “It doesn’t matter what they call you, it’s what you answer to!” And more importantly it is WHO you answer to and for me that is God alone. It’s incredible how it bothers people when you serve God because it disempowers them. Thus history has shown us many leaders and philosophies which have aimed to provoke God and force people away from serving Him. Indeed the people of Babel were attempting to seize control of the world away from God. So how did He punish them? He confounded them and “confuse[d] their language, so that one will not understand the language of his companion.”
I urge you all to be that voice that rings out in the silent halls of consent, the one to make a ruckus when something is not right whether it’s on a national scale or an old lady being mistreated by a checkout clerk at the supermarket. Let’s not pretend we like to mind our own business while every other second of the day we are on information overload seeking out what’s going on in every dark place in the world from celebrity to gossip to local riffs and tiffs.
Learn from the story of Noah. In a world of complete depravity, he had the courage to be the sole voice of decency, to walk a righteous path. For certain he wasn’t winning any popularity contests as he was hardly speaking “the language” of the times. Both he and his ark were oddities to deride, and then it began to rain.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Totally Their Fault?

Many of us at some point in our lives feel disgusted with our yesterdays, with last year, with life the way we lived it. We want a different today and a different tomorrow. Our fitness efforts, our academic pursuits, our religious strivings, our attempts to find the proper mate, to be responsible, less lazy, etc., all fall short of our envisioned glory. Healthy-minded people are always wanting to “turn over a new leaf,” which literally means we want a fresh blank page to start anew. We think that the new page has some magic that the page before lacked. As a student, I always loved the first page of my notebook. It was always so neat. However, by day three the pages looked like an ink-dipped drunken chicken had danced across the ruled paper. We all strive for new beginnings, but really we engage in “old” beginnings. We use yesterday’s pen filled with yesterday’s excuses and find that the fresh page onto which we spill all our hopes is soon filled with inkblots resembling a Rorschach test reflecting our crippling psychological dramas. When we fail, very simply,  it’s everyone else’s fault; all our demons become our alibis: My parents were too easy; my parents were too tough; it’s my wife’s cooking, my bosses attitude, it’s the scale, it’s God’s fault, my cousin’s fault, my sister’s, my brother’s, my partner’s, the dog’s,  etc., la la la la la la. Adam and Eve sang that very same song, the self-expunging, self-pacifying one that serenaded them right out of Eden.

In this week’s Bible reading, we too start again from the beginning with the reading of Genesis. One can’t get a fresher start than creation. The first words God says are, “Let there be light.” This is not merely the Almighty calling into existence “physical” light, but as the Lubavitcher Rebbe teaches,  it was a mandate to mankind. Your thoughts, deeds and words should bring light to this world and reveal the godliness implicit in each thing and each encounter. Where there is light, there can be no lies. As our politicians like to say, sunlight is the best disinfectant. And as the polls indicate, most of us have an aversion to politicians because  lying is their forte. We hate being lied to. The problem is we lie to ourselves most of all, as mentioned above in the form of transferring blame. But as long as we prefer to be legends in our own minds and live in the darkness where our own culpability can’t find us, as long as we continue to blame the person to our left for our failures, we will perpetuate those failures and continue to entertain ourselves with false fresh starts. Nothing grows or thrives in the dark but mushrooms and fungus. You want to succeed? First “Let there be light.” After the first man and woman sinned and ate of the forbidden fruit, instead of taking responsibility and deserved blame for transgressing the one commandment they had, Adam blamed Eve and God; Eve blamed the snake. And the fruit didn’t fall far from the forbidden tree. After Cain kills his brother and God takes him to task, the rabbis teach that Cain blamed God. Cain reasons that if God had accepted his (lackluster) sacrifice, then Cain wouldn’t have been driven to jealousy and fratricide.

The All-knowing God asks Adam and Eve a very important question, “Ayeka?”-- “Where are you?” Certainly He knew where they were, the same way he knew where Abel was when He questioned Cain as to his brother’s whereabouts. The question is one meant to incite self-introspection, not geographical coordinates. The question is to give man a chance to repent and say, “I’m sorry. I messed up. It was me and all me. It’s my fault. I want to do better.”

Throughout many synagogues in the world above the arc harboring the Torah, there is a sign in Hebrew that  reads, “Know before whom you stand.” It’s not just knowing that you are before God that counts; you have to know yourself too: The real you. Big deal if your search reveals you are not that superstar, hot- shot, business genius that you fancied yourself to be, Pirkei Avot reminds us that from a putrid drop we came and to a place of dust and worms and maggots we go (Pirkei Avot, 3:1). Being honest is the biggest aid to advancing yourself in life. Because Adam and Eve chose to hide among the trees in the shadows of their sin instead of embracing the purpose of creation--“Let there be light”--they were punished and expelled from the Garden of Eden. Had they answered honestly to God, He would have forgiven them. Interesting that the same letters in Hebrew that spell the word ayeka, also start the Book of Lamentations authored by Jeremiah, “lamenting the destruction of the Holy Temple, the suffering of the Jews of that time, and the ensuing exile.” But there the letters are pronounced differently and introduce great tragedy. The relationship is self-evident. If we don’t answer the first ayeka honestly and give a true accounting as to where we are in life and why, then we will awake to woeful mournful lamentations about our lives.

Adam was supposed to live a 1000 years. King David was supposed to live only 3 hours. Adam asked God to give 70 years of his life to David and so Adam lived until 930. Adam’s was a gift to all mankind because King David taught us something we didn’t learn from Adam when he had the chance. David taught us how to take the blame we deserve, to beg for forgiveness and to not try and hide our sins from God or ourselves. God loved King David not because he was perfect, but because he knew when he was wrong, when it was his fault and he strove to improve his life’s journey on a real “fresh page” with God as his GPS. Hence it is through him that the Moshiach will come.

There will always be hurdles before us. That’s life. It’s all a big test to bring out the best in us. Whether others are entirely wrong, you BE right! Don’t wallow in the shadows of the Valley of Excuses. Let there be light! 

Friday, September 6, 2019

Shabbat Message

A friend of mine recently 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 ALSO charges them by weight for the food they leave on their plates. How genius, I thought, to minimize waste. And of course with my mind always steeped in the Torah, I could not help but make the quick leap to our relationship with and duty to the Almighty.

How many gifts and blessings God has put on our figurative plates: food to eat, clothes to wear, good health, family and friends, beauty, strength, talents, business and personal connections, cars, cell phones, social networking, etc. So many things on our golden plates, much more than we can digest in a lifetime and enough to give the less lucky acid reflux. And yet how much of what we have do we really use to better the world we live in, to serve God, to help others and to help ourselves? Most of us turn to God and pray for what we feel we are missing, but what if He would answer us by asking for an accounting of what we’ve done with all He gave us so far? How much of your talents and strengths which He gifted you have you used for selfish purposes only? How much of your money have you used to give charity? Have you used your God-given charms to brighten life and spread God’s word or to cause mischief and to be skillfully deceitful? In addition, instead of always asking for more and nurturing your perspective from a famished-filled suckling cup, look at your current plate with appreciation and wisdom and you will find it much fuller than your gratitude. God gave every species and animal what it needs to survive—just look at nature. Does God love us less than the ant or bird?

We live in times where we are all spoiled, where everything is instant, where knock-offs and originals are indistinguishable. We are in an all-you-can-eat restaurant all year long but know that as we are busy stuffing our own selfish faces, we are really here to be serving God. And so as Judgment Day, Rosh Hashanah approaches, know that God will weigh our plates. How much of what He gave have we wasted and misused? Waste not, want not! There is no free lunch and with Godly precision our deeds will be weighed before Him and He will extract His price. And we will pay!

Monday, August 5, 2019

Message in a Bottle

Last week my creative eye took interest in a cute, small bottle of makeup that I own forever but have never used--an impulse purchase never returned. In my mind’s eye I imagined that if I’d just empty out the contents, I could transform it into something decorative and pretty, and fill it with something artistic and sparkly.  A two-inch bottle, how hard could it be? Maximum, it would be a 20-minute effort which would suit my patience quota for such projects. How could have I anticipated that the makeup content inside was not only waterproof and sun proof, but also boiling-water proof, soap proof, Windex proof, vinegar proof, oil proof, acetone proof and, two hours later, I suspected even nuclear proof as well. Its tiny, narrow neck offered limited maneuverability and access to clean it. I wasn’t giving up. I couldn’t help but laugh through my frustration and have mercy on this little bottle screaming with artistic potential and all that I put it through. But for potential to go in, the muck had to come out. And so, I tackled each smear until the bottle was clear--crystal clear. The only residue that remained upon the battle-weary glass was my lingering question, “Why does everything have to be so hard?” And the answer to that became clear after reading last week’s Torah portion.

So many of us in our lives are going through such difficult times—crushing times. It is rare I speak to someone lately, including myself, who doesn’t feel their problems are unprecedentedly huge and seemingly insurmountable. And we suffer great sorrow. And more often than not, we question, “Where is God?," rather than question ourselves, “Where am I in relation to God’s Will?” “What does He want from me that I’m not doing?”  And then I think back to Operation Clean-the-Bottle, and therein, I recognize you and me. The sages teach us that sin sullies our souls and blocks us from being vessels for the Godly light. We become so veiled and dirtied by sin that we can neither be, nor see, the light. Nothing beautiful can radiate in or out becomes we are such a mucky mess.

Before Adam sinned “man was enveloped in a halo of light…But after the sin, the halo of glory which illuminated man’s spirit disappeared” (Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, Via Rabbi Elie Munk). The garment of “light” which cloaked man and also radiated through his body was diminished and replaced by garments of skin.  “When man sinned he reduced his soul to a state of opaqueness and concealment making it ever harder to recognize itself and its relationship to God.”[i] 

What is our job, great nobility that we are? We are the cleanup crew. But bleach won’t do the job to raise the shattered holy sparks which became dispersed in all things in this world through creation and Adam’s sin (Rabbi Isaac Luria Ashkenazi ). God gave us the directives on how to clean our souls and bring the light (sparks) out of the dark places if we follow His Torah and make it our Torah. Each of the 613 commandments cleanses us and elevates us and makes us worthy receptacles of God’s blessings and Light. Clean the bottle and prepare it for beautiful things. The kabbalist known as Or ha-Ḥayyim teaches that, “When God turned the skin of Moses' face into a source of light, He demonstrated that the process which had once turned light into skin was reversible and that man could be rehabilitated to the spiritual level he once enjoyed prior to the sin.”

But if we don’t change our ways, repent, clean ourselves up on our own, then God will clean us up and it usually takes the form of punishment. In this past week’s Torah reading we read of all the 42 encampments (and backtracking) the Israelites set up and broke down during their 40 years of wandering. Not an easy, smoothly-paved road. But they created many of the bumps and hurdles by themselves by continually sinning and rebelling against God and Moses and failing the many tests God set before them. When we are haughty and happy we feel we don’t need God and when we suffer we don’t believe He is there. How foolish  is mankind?  The rabbinic sage,  Sfas Emes, says that each hardship and encampment through which the Israelites journeyed was a cleansing and served as a preparation for the gift of the Land of Israel. Do you personally really want to figuratively wander blindly for 40 years and wonder why your life resembles a man-made disaster zone that only God can repair? Or would you prefer to take matters into your own hands? Start keeping kosher, lighting Sabbath candles, pick up a book of Judaism, stop sinning and spinning in circles like a misguided dog chasing his own tail…just start cleaning up somewhere in your spiritual house.

Or you can wait and if He loves you and has faith in your potential, He will clean you Himself, but often His way hurts!  Sickness, financial woes, betrayals, humiliations, the list is long.

Further proof that God cleans what He loves is that the Israelites are not commanded to merely meander into town and make friends with their new Canaanite neighbors, but they are commanded to drive them all out of the land and destroy their structures of worship and idols. Before something Godly can enter, before blessings can enter, “the bottle” has to be thoroughly cleaned. The filth had to be demolished before God’s holy nation with their holy mission could settle in the Land. The Israelites are also warned, “And let the land not vomit you out for having defiled it, as it vomited out the nation that preceded you.” You can’t be holy and unholy at the same time. Which do you choose to be?

Imagine you are a crystal-clear bottle. Each time you sin, (i.e., violate the Torah) the bottle gets filled with black coal. When you follow God’s Torah it gets filled with luminous gems. Now stand back and look at the bottle and judge. Have you made room for the light? Are you sparkling? Or is your bottle 3D: dense, dark and dastardly? Perhaps it’s time to polish your own soul before God brings in the pressure washer.  To thine own self be true, and never underestimate the message in a bottle.

[i] Lecture by Rabbi Kessin, Mendel, June, 1991