Friday, March 29, 2019

The Perfect Blend

Good thing my juicer can’t sue me for blender abuse,  as every second day another media-proclaimed health guru raises his or her glass to toast to a new concoction that promises to be the cure to everything from the plague to plaque from phlebitis to arthritis. Who wouldn’t be on board? And so, it was not too long ago that I was ready to put down my book of Psalms and take up celery juice instead as the new savior for all my ills, including bone density. (Although Rav Nachman teaches that one’s sins are engraved on one’s bones and I wondered how my green drink would help with that.) Nonetheless, my Ninja and Bullet have been spinning overtime trying to keep up with the latest crazes. Some have even dropped dead from over usage and so I’m back to praying that the flavor of the month will have better results on me than on my electric assistants now resting in appliance heaven.

Many years ago, my long-time friend, comedian Jackie Mason, had a poignant routine on health trends brilliantly baring man’s foibles. He exposed the sad hilarity as to how every other day another food item is deified and glorified until a study comes out a week later conclusively proving that the healthful item your about to ingest will kill you in an hour.  That’s the devil of our day: The desire for the quick fix. The insatiable hunger for magic tonics or potions that will obviate all the responsibilities that go along with being healthy (or being religious.) 

I have some obvious conclusions to draw from the fact that health crazes and diet books are so popular: We fundamentally believe that we are what we eat, that healthy items make us healthy and that we want to be healthy. And yet God has given his people a “diet book” that ensures that they will be not merely healthy, but HOLY; a diet very unlike my liquidizers whose warranties have long expired, but rather one that has endured through the millennia. Yet we flout God and prefer to believe the spandex-wearing fitness gurus who are fitly dressed to stretch the truth. The sages teach that the food we eat affects much more than our bodies; By eating not kosher we sully our souls, distance ourselves from the Almighty and bring on sicknesses. The kabbalists teach that our soul is in our blood and seeing that food feeds our blood it affects our souls as well. The more we learn the depths of our commandments, the more we realize that God is the best diet guru even if He doesn’t have an infomercial. 

The Jewish people are allowed to eat only ten animals, none of which hunt for prey. They are docile and peaceful. Our sages have taught that  eating animals that lust for blood and go for the kill affects our characters and personalities. If eating an energy bar gives you energy, then how hard is it to believe that eating violent and aggressive animals can transform your energy as well making it ever harder to keep the Torah's commandments, all meant to elevate our animal soul? 

For an animal to be kosher it has to possess two traits: It has to chew its own cud and must have split hooves. The Torah lists four animals that can fool you because they possess one out of the two requirements: the camel (chews its cud, no split hooves), the hare (chews its cud, no split hooves), the hyrax (chews its cud, no split hooves) and the pig (has split hooves but does not chew its cud). The Torah was written thousands of years ago, before National Geographic and The Animal Planet, and still unto this day no other animal has manifested other than these four tricky ones itemized in the Torah that possess these characteristics. As for food that comes from the water, fish is all that is permitted and it must have both fins and scales to be kosher. Before I became kosher, a lifetime ago, I used to eat shrimp and other foods the Torah calls abominable. If I can give it up, you can too. Today, I’m repulsed that they ever entered my mouth. As for creepy crawly things, okay gross, but if that’s your craving, know that they too are not allowed. The Torah admonishes that not only eating certain foods renders us impure but even touching the carcass of some has an effect on us and contaminates us. But there is no Purell antibacterial sanitizer to counter the effects on our soul. Interesting how we are afraid to shake hands, touch doors knobs, use public bathrooms, etc. because we fear to be physically contaminated, but the Torah, which predates our modern-day microbe germaphobia, takes this concern even deeper. What we touch, who we touch and how we touch also results in spiritual contamination. We must work harder to guard our souls and feed our souls. Pandering to and feeding our other appetites will destroy us and distance us from our Creator. We often wonder why God doesn’t do what we beg of Him. A blatant simple answer comes in Jewish style, in the form of a question: Do we do what He asks of us? As with every relationship it demands mutual respect. Keep kosher, purify yourself, be holy--watch miracles happen.

People will often ask if God really cares what I eat for lunch? And the answer is a resounding thunderous, YES. So much so that Adam and Eve were thrown out of the Garden of Eden for eating the forbidden fruit. The first sin revolved around eating and brought about the fall of mankind. It is said of Adam that he was the most gorgeous man that ever lived, but by eating what he should not have, his stature and beauty were diminished. Simply because God said so, food affects us profoundly. When we sin with food, and in general, our inner light is diminished and it shows in the spiritual realm as well as on the earthly plains. No coincidence that the Hebrew word for skin (or) and the Hebrew word for light (or) are homonyms. I hate to push kosher as a beauty remedy, but if you want to “glow” you should probably forsake your beauty serums and try eating kosher instead and keeping the commandments.

Eating kosher doesn’t just mean avoiding pig and its non-kosher cohorts, it also means not eating “like” a pig. Be a mensch in all your appetites. Have restraint and limitations. Don’t listen to the slithering snake offering you the “forbidden flavors” of an artificial and ephemeral paradise. Eat healthily, take care of the body that God gave you (it's just on loan) but also guard your soul. Body and soul are partners in time, crime and the sublime. One day we will have to give an accounting for our vast intake not just as regards our fitness but before the Eternal Witness who gave us His menu along with the commandment that we not contaminate ourselves: “For I am the Lord your God, and you shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, because I am holy, and you shall not defile yourselves ... For I am the Lord Who has brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your God. Thus, you shall be holy, because I am holy.” Bon App├ętit!

Friday, March 15, 2019

Sorry! Sorry! Sorry!

Forgive me if the mere mention of the title will inspire last song syndrome and you’ll be humming all day because of it, but with Elton John now on an international tour, his song “Sorry seems to be the hardest word” seems to be at the tip of my pen. And yet, ever ironically, an article came out this past week based on a TED Talks series “How to Be a Better Human” which postulates that we say “sorry” way too often. It reasons, according to Canadian sociologist Maja Jovanovic, that apologies “make us appear smaller and more timid than we really are, and they can undercut our confidence.” And of course in a society where everything revolves around how the “I” feels, why should one walk around feeling like a small “i” so that you can feel like a big YOU? The only problem with that way of living life is that it is Godless. In the preservation of the “I” and in our mania to foster it, everything and everyone becomes a casualty. The aforementioned sociologist even posits that apologizing for bumping into someone, is one sorry too many. However, that entire philosophy most certainly steps on God’s foot, which leads to this week’s Parasha, Vayikra and many reasons to be sorry.

Without having to ask “Can you hear Me now?,” for the third time in the Torah it is written that God “called” Moses, and once again it was to assume a momentous duty. So important is this new duty that God is to impart to him that the entire book of Leviticus is titled Vayikra, which means, “He called.” Leviticus opens with God instructing Moses how the Israelites should “say sorry” to atone for their sins through sacrificial service. They were to atone not only for sins against God, but for sins against each other. They were to atone not only for sins they did, but also for  their sinful thoughts. They were to atone not only for clear violations of the commandments, but for sins they were not certain they even violated. They were to atone not only for sins they did on purpose, but for ones they committed accidentally. Why? Because God takes “sorry” very seriously. Yes Moses got the “call,” but have we dropped it?

The sages teach that thought, speech and action are garments of the soul. We need to clean those garments when they become sullied by sin. The sacrifices provided the remedy to purify those “garments.” And let’s not keep this so sterile. The act of sacrificing involves slaughtering a living animal, cutting it into pieces and sprinkling blood, etc.; It’s gory even if it is for a holy end. But be sure that those who brought sacrifices were cognizant of one thing: that the animal before them was dying in their stead. Since it is the animal soul of man that causes him to sin, “atonement comes about only through blood” (Zevachim 26b).

But there is one thing that even sacrifices cannot do for us, and that is to say sorry to one we have wronged, hurt, lied to or stolen from. Until we make good, God won’t forgive us. For the wise among us know that nothing really belongs to us. Everything belongs to God, and so when you wrong a person, steal from them, lie to them you are in essence violating God. If you feel diminished or embarrassed by extending an apology, it’s good for you; it’s part of the atonement. Even our fasting on Yom Kippur absolves only our sins toward God not those perpetrated against others. When we try and preserve the “I”, our ego makes no room for God, for goodness, for apologies or forgiveness. And luxuriating in your own imagined greatness will bring you to sin. The word for “I” in Hebrew is “ani”, spelled with the letters alep, nun and yud. When those same letters are rearranged they spell the Hebrew word “ayin," which means nothingness. Moses was the most humble person in history because he rearranged the letters, perceived his nothingness, he knew there was no reality beyond God’s Will and in a profound unfathomable way he lived beyond the “I.”  That made him the worthy recipient and teacher of God’s Torah. Interestingly, the Hebrew word for poor (ani) has the same pronunciation as the Hebrew word for "I"--ani. Homonyms are no mere coincidence in God's holy language. For certain the person who lives only for himself and feeds the "I"  as if he's catering a banquet, no matter how "rich" he may become, is nonetheless, very poor indeed. 

In this generation of selfies and excessive self-love, the challenge for us all is ever harder. We question why we should do anything for anyone, even our own people. Unfortunately, the third Temple has yet to be rebuilt and we can’t throw some poor sheep on the fire to atone for us. But saying sorry to God, to our neighbors and to ourselves is still possible through prayer, charity and repentance. We have to suffocate our egos and give breath to a new and more meaningful life.  If God loved Moses for being the most humble man on earth then we can deduce, even though we are no Sherlock Holmes, that God must hate the arrogant and prideful. And indeed it is written in the Talmud that where the arrogant reside, God cannot dwell. So don’t be too cool to wear a kippa and to ask for a kosher meal; don’t be too haughty to say I think I will stop working on Shabbat; don’t be too cosmopolitan to say I am a Jew and I love Israel.  To be a Jew means to make sacrifices and take risks in our lives for God, for our Homeland, for our people and for all humanity. It is a noble task and a worthy banner to carry. So many groups from gay rights activists, to Black Lives Matter, to neo-Nazis proudly wave their flags, but Jews who have a Divine calling act as if they are embarrassed to be Jews. Take advice from Moses, try being humble with other things, but be proud to serve God and keep His Torah and Commandments. Be the bright light among the nations that you were destined to be, not a dim watt.

Forget about all those self-help books and Ted Talks promising to make you the best YOU; God’s book will make you the best JEW. In that destined role you will truly find who you are and your talents and your purpose will rise to the top and anoint you like the oil used to anoint kings and high priests. "Just as physical light influences plants to grow, spiritual and intellectual light [Torah] prods man to achieve his potential." (Rabbi Michael L. Munk). So, yes, be sorry. Be very very sorry if tomorrow you are not a better person and better Jew than you were today. And if you think saying sorry to God or to man makes you “small”, then I’m sorry to tell you, you weren’t all that much to begin with.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Maybe Just This Once

So many  repair people were scheduled to come by Friday that I anticipated I wouldn't have much chance to even close the door before it would be time to reopen it. Who could focus amidst the whirlwind of servicemen and their noise producing gear? For certain, the evil inclination woke up early that morning and started producing many legitimate convincing reasons why I should not write a blog on the week’s Torah reading.  Sometimes I wonder who is more creative, Aliza the Writer, or the demonic eloquent orators in my brain eschewing my will to do what I should and to abjure my service to God. After all, I’d already written a blog every week on the Torah readings, big deal if I just skipped one, that one, the very last one in the Book of Exodus. 

But then I asked myself, what if God never finished the Book of Exodus. When we started reading it a few months ago the Jews had just become slaves in Egypt and suffered greatly under their cruel oppressors. The End! No, thank goodness it didn’t end there. The Israelites’ cries reached up to Heaven and their story was just set to begin. And indeed, last week’s parasha was truly a grand finale to the second book of Moses and worth waiting for as the Israelites were  now a freed and forgiven  people ready to worship their Gracious God in a Divinely designed Tabernacle. And for a wonderful change, they were blessed by Moses instead of being reproved by him and to top it all off, “…The cloud of the Lord was upon the Mishkan by day, and there was fire within it at night, before the eyes of the entire house of Israel in all their journeys.”

For the past several parashas we read about the construction of the Tabernacle. Now that it was complete, the blessings descended. Blessings are most potent in things that are completed and whole, not started. Imagine a pilot who takes off great but forgets to land. Interesting to note in Hebrew the word Shalom, which means peace and is also one of God's names also contains the word shalem, which means complete—implying that where there is peace and completion God can reside. How many things in our lives do we begin but never complete? Most things we start, other than chocolate cookies, remain unfinished: diets, educational books, language courses, our vows to be better Jews, better people, etc. One of the main reasons is we let Satan take the helm. He caters to our weakness: “Just stay in bed and sleep more, you work hard”; “Just eat it, you’ll start your diet tomorrow”; “Don’t go to synagogue or give charity, you’re nice enough as is,” etc. The evil inclination succeeds when you fail. 

The threat of Amalek (from which hales the notorious Haman of Purim)--the nation perpetually set to destroy the Jews through the generations--is not only a physical enemy but an inner enemy as well. It attempts to cool our religious fervor, our spiritual aspirations and our yearning for self-improvement. And in the beginning of any effort, just as in the beginning of Exodus, we are slaves to our routines, our whims and wants, our cozy comforts. So Amalek wins and we never leave our figurative Egypt. Thus it is our job seven days a week to give ourselves the extra Godly push and not be lazy or distracted and to snatch victory from the insatiable demonic jaws salivating in anticipation of our defeat. It’s interesting that the word Mitzrayim is not merely the Hebrew name for Egypt, but also means "limitations" and "boundaries.” Sometimes fear or laziness--our own self-imposed limitations-- are the hardest chains to cast off. The esteemed Rabbi Alon Anava teaches that it is written that there were not gates or walls surrounding Egypt and that the Israelites could have fled anytime. But rather there were talking dogs along the outer perimeters who would convince the Jews not to leave exalting Egypt as the best place for them and disparaging the desert and the future therein as a dangerous unknown. That is why with the 10th plague, when God’s determination became decisively clear, it is written: “But against all the Children of Israel, no dog shall sharpen his tongue.” Lesson for us: Pay heed to what and who is whispering in your ear. Mute the naysayers and the specious soothsayers and obey only your Godly voice, the one that wishes you well. 

In addition, we can never rely on laurels of the past. Even if we did  good yesterday, it can’t sustain us forever. We learn in this week’s Bible reading how Moses had to disassemble and reconstruct the Tabernacle every single day. Each one of us is like a Tabernacle. It is only through the continual building and deconstructing of ourselves that we really come to terms and become aware of the components that make us who we are. “Every time Moses went through the process of erecting and dismantling, he invested us with the strength to rebuild ourselves: to learn from our failures and to reinvent ourselves so that we might reach our spiritual potential.” (Rabbis Yisroel and Osher Anshel Jungreis). The one thing we must never be afraid to do is to get started and even more so, don’t be petrified to finish nor to transform yourself physically and spiritually into a holy vessel through which God can work His way. Dash the excuses that begin with "Just this once I won't," and "Just this once I can't." Or soon enough your entire life story will read "Once upon a time, I wanted to be much more than I am." The END!