Friday, July 26, 2019

The Blank Page

As I’ve written before, there is nothing harder for a writer to face than a blank white page. Somehow, its nothingness, its emptiness, its void seems to be more powerful than all the wisdom and words we have inside of us. For me, it’s Satan dangling not a red cape engaging me to charge forward with wit and words--the Taurus that I am--but rather an immobilizing blank stare that aims to paralyze me with doubt that I even speak English at all. I return to my old blogs but  they nor my voluminous file of articles nor the books that I’ve written give me the assurance, “Don’t worry we too all started with a blank page.”  I question sometimes why I should even bother writing. After all, I don’t get paid for it, plus the non-religious think I’m moralizing and the more religious are certain they have nothing to learn from me. And then I think about how important it is in Judaism to save even a single life, even if that single life is mine.

But saving a life is not just about keeping a person breathing, it is also about creating and recreating ourselves to be better people, better servants of God to earn our way to everlasting life. If you are the same person you were yesterday, you are dying. If I have to recycle an old blog, then I’m “dying” too. I question too, “Why does it all have to be so hard? Why is it such a struggle?” I know the answer. Slowly my fear dissipates because the page is not as blank as at first and I realize that my struggle every week is also all our life’s struggle and the struggle of the Jewish people and all those who strive toward God.

It has been asked why from all the Torah’s great men from Abraham to Moses, why the Jewish nation has come to be called Israel, the name given to our Patriarch Jacob after wrestling with an angel who ultimately blesses him: "Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, because you have striven with [an angel of] God and with men, and you have prevailed." It’s actually rather simple. The life of a living, breathing Jew is a constant struggle with God and for God. It is that struggle that makes us Israel; it is the struggle that makes us shine. It is that struggle that makes everything we never dreamed we could be or were destined to be, possible. But sadly, too many of us are stuck in our comfort zones:
  “I’m Jewish enough; I give at the office; at home we keep kosher; I listen to YouTube videos about religion….” Not enough. If you are not struggling daily to increase your relationship with God, to refine your character and to bring His light into the world with your unique gifts, you are not living, you are merely existing and slowly dying. Don’t be a comfort-zone-Jew. The number one reason people bungee jump is because they want to step out of their comfort zones and feel alive. Ironic that people are ready to jump to near death, but not to life. Judaism and Torah offer you a jump up and an eternal life, not a cheap thrill. Have faith Hashem will catch you. Stop getting caught up in the secularism and materialism of this world and forsaking your Jewish identity for it. How sad it would be if your designer shoes will outlive your soul. Struggle for God. Be a Jew. No statistic can show you more convincingly that we are doing something very wrong more than the fact we are losing more Jews to intermarriage than to any enemy. It’s time to redefine the enemy. The Torah tells us over and over again that God punishes the Israelites for theirs sins; beloved Jews, it’s time to redefine the enemy.

In last week’s Torah reading we learned that the Jewish nation could not be cursed by their enemies because they were keeping all of God’s laws. And much to the dismay of Israel’s enemies the curses were turned to blessings. Yet we must remain forever vigilant as a people. For those who seek to destroy us come not only with guns and hatchets but also with miniskirts and smiles, with flattery and with false comforts.

Friends, the beautiful thing about the blank page and your life is that they can be whatever you want them to be and read how you want them to read. Every day you have the opportunity to rewrite the story of your life.  Just because you were not brought up religious or you were brought up very religious, don’t believe the GPS, you have not reached your destination. It  also applies to all areas of our lives. The only definitions that will define our life are the ones by which we live.

In this week’s Torah reading of Pinchas we are introduced to four situations where people were born into a “situation” but it didn’t dictate or assure their journey in life. Pinchas, in an act of zealotry and against his more docile and peace-loving nature as a grandson of Aharon, killed an Israelite prince and his Midianite paramour in honor of God Who prohibited such a union. The act curbed God’s wrath against the nation, stopped a plague and as a result Pinchas and his offspring who were not supposed to receive it, were awarded priesthood by God. “There were eighty Kohanim Gedolim in the time of the First Temple and three hundred during the Second Temple, all descendants of Pinchas. (Via Rabbi Eli Munk, Tosafos to Zevuchim 101b). See how one man made a difference.

The next example we see is that of the five daughters of Tzelafchad who petition Moses that they be granted the portion of the land belonging to their father, who died without sons. Their petition is successful and is incorporated into the Torah’s laws of inheritance. What is important to learn here is a lesson we learn in Ethics of Our Fathers, where it is written: “In a place where there is no man, strive to be a man.” On a practical level yes, they stood in for sons. But on a deeper level, though they did not have the power to conquer the land as did men, there are many ways to conquer: Sometimes it is with sweetness, kindness, love and integrity. There are many ways to transform and conquer a land, or any task, to serve God’s will. And further it is incumbent on each one of us to stand up in a situation to do the right thing, to point out wrongs and to be “a man,” not a wimp, in God’s service.

In this parasha we are also briefly reminded of Korach's fate, one which had no precedent nor ever occured again. The earth opened up and swallowed him and his cohorts for rebelling against Moses' leadership, and then immediately closed up. (Ramban) But we are also reminded that, "Korach's sons did not die." Why? Because they separated themselves from their father's evil ways and repented. As such, "they merited that Samuel the Prophet would be one of their descendants." (Chabad)  We can cast off the "sins" of our "fathers" by being children of Hashem and keeping His Torah. Where there are no men, strive to be one!

And the final example in this Torah portion is the transference of Moses’ leadership to Joshua. Moses had sons, why didn’t one of them get the job? Because being a Jew isn’t about nepotism; not your father, or yesterday’s victories, our last year’s articles or all your connections in the world are going to make you the person you need to be, only you can do that yourself by living day to day from struggle to struggle, by recognizing you are not struggling alone and that the power of God is with you. And if you live in faith instead of fear you just might find you have invented the struggle altogether. YOU are Israel! You may struggle with God and man, but you can prevail--SO PREVAIL!

Friday, July 12, 2019

Is God Ignoring You?

Mann tracht, un Gott lacht” is an old Yiddish adage meaning, “Man plans, and God laughs.” Despite our best efforts and sometimes extreme manipulations to direct and control our life’s course, only the Almighty knows all the hurdles and twists and turns our journey will take. For most of us, our life’s destination scarcely resembles the idyllic imaginings we’ve conjured in our youth as if life was a travel brochure and all stops along the way were meant to be pleasurable and to serve us. But then divorce and sickness come, bankruptcy and betrayals, opportunities lost or stolen, anguish, death and deep, deep disappointment. And as we travel this highway through hell, at each of its toll booths we pay a heavy price: We toss away our faith, our kindness, our trust, our mercy, our honesty. After a road long traveled, what is left of who we used to be? Very little if you don’t believe that all of life is a God-given test to fortify us and elevate us. There is only one audience in life and it is not your neighbors, your boss, your family, or your Facebook or social networking audience—they perhaps are the provocateurs or the elaborate ways through which the Lord will work His way—but the sole audience is God. Have you walked with grace along your path? Have you walked in faith? Does God like the “show” He is seeing or will your review be a shameful embarrassment?
The space between “what we want” and “what we have” is HOLY ground, and how we walk upon that space tells God who we are. We teach children from day one that they can’t always get what they want, mostly because we know it’s not good for them. And yet as adults we throw the worst of tantrums when things don’t go according to the wills and wants of our self-inflated egos. We resort to cheating, stealing, lying, coveting, slandering, cursing, conniving, stepping on people, hurting people, using people, working on the Sabbath, scoffing beggars and ridiculing the religious all in our efforts to self-pacify but with the result of enraging God. And so you say you prayed to God but He  ignored you. You must realize, however, that this waiting time is in fact the incubation period for our character. When we are left languishing, it is not God ignoring us, but God watching us closer than ever.  And sometimes we are just hard of hearing:  God does answer us but we just don’t like the answer, because His answer is “No!”-- What kind of person will you be when God says “No”?
For forty years the desert Jews were tested and punished because they lashed out against God and Moses. All they saw in their mind’s-eye life-destination brochure was a land flowing with milk and honey. But almost every time a hurdle was set before them they cried to return to Egypt. How quickly we forget when God wants to open seas for us to traverse, He does; when He wants to smite our enemies with plagues He does; when He wants food (manna) to fall from the heavens, it does. After all the trials and tribulations that Job went through and all the strong instigations around him to curse and forsake God for his profound suffering, Job says, “Shall we also accept the good from God, and not accept the evil?" And it is written, “Despite all this, Job did not sin with his lips.
In this week’s Torah reading, Chukat, we read that God was so angry at Moses for hitting the rock twice to bring forth water, instead of SPEAKING to it as he was instructed to do, that Moses was prevented from entering the Promised Land.  Why was God so mad? Because a man of Moses’ stature and greatness had no right to show anger or lose control (none of us do). The Talmud links anger to conceit and teaches that it shows complete lack of faith and is tantamount to idol worship. But the sad twist is that God doesn’t really laugh, He cries and he goes down into the darkness with us when we spiritually stumble and fall. Unfortunately we recurrently fail to learn that if we won’t fall on our knees in His worship, He will bring us to our knees in other more bruising ways.
Friends, how we behave while we are waiting says a lot about us,  even if we wait a lifetime. We must cross over our hardships and disappointments with dignity and morality, by figuratively taking off our shoes, for where we walk is holy ground.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

I Remember Father: David Davidovit

As a young girl, I recall how lucky I felt every time I had to leave the synagogue sanctuary while those who had lost parents remained to say the memorial prayer, “Yizkor.” There was always a sad heaviness that enveloped the room like a gray, damp, low-hanging cloud while the “still-carefree” siphoned out from the pews row after row. I would look over the “mechitza,” the barrier that separates men from women, and catch my father’s eye. He’d blow me a reassuring kiss that no barrier could impede. His own mother had died when he was only 4 in a war-torn Europe that had no mercy for the dead or the living. My heart would fill with anxiety as I exited toward the lobby with the other "lucky ones.' For even at a young age, like him, I’ve always been a worrier and I knew, one day, I too would have to stay. That one day came all too soon. I will never forget the night that my father smelled a fire in the house. We all jumped out of bed. He smelled it the next night too and the one after that. At age 62, my father died of a brain tumor, a glioblastoma whose deadly tentacles spread out like Hitler’s conquering murderous Luftwaffe. At 29, I would be among those who stayed. I too would hold a thin, 8-paged “Yizkor” pamphlet that weighed a thousand pounds, saturated with tears, grief and regrets.

I had never understood why it was necessary to formalize personal memorials, to put my grief on a schedule. Why should someone be all but commanded to remember someone they have loved and lost? What else could they ever think about? I could never understand it until the day God took you away from us forever. Losing a father like you who never let a day go by without saying how much you loved us and how proud you were of your family, a father who had endless patience to advise and listen, a father who paced the house and popped Tums after Tums until I came home safely from a date, a father who would stop any business meeting, no matter who sat before him, and say, “I’m never too busy for my daughter,”-- losing a father who was larger than life to me, an Israeli war veteran and my own personal hero, crushed my heart and soul and took my breath away. I often still can’t catch my breath when I think back on your last day. How ironic life is that you were there to celebrate my first breath and I was their to mourn your last.

The only way to numb the pain, I thought, was to try and forget and to block out the memories. You truly were a “Melech” David, a King David. Your every way and wisdom, your strength of character and dignity, all bespoke the manner of a king, and your crowning glory was the kindness and generosity of your heart. You really are the only person I’ve ever known who would leave a room when there was gossip. You entered every room with class and a smile and left it evermore lit and elevated because of your integrity and warmth. You were among very few men whom others wouldn’t sign a contract with because your word was more than good enough.

Remembering all you were was too painful. Life went dark. For years when my world was filled with questions and I needed to hear your voice in the consuming silence, I tried to forget you. When my heart was aching with grief, I longed to forget you. When my mind despaired for your wisdom, I ached to forget you. In trying so hard to forget, I didn’t realize that your voice and your wisdom, your love and your guidance, your arms and your essence have been around me all this time. They were also inside of me. It was not you who left me, but me who left you. I’m so sorry daddy for trying so hard to forget all that was taken from me when you died, that I forgot to remember what you left behind. I have succeeded only to bury you twice and miss you all the more.

I remember, daddy. I remember. I see you clearly before me now, your sweet deep dimples, your kind blue eyes, your large beautiful hands; I see you eating an extra bagel when you think no one's looking; I see you falling asleep while telling me a bedtime story when I was child. I see you speaking in Hebrew with pride and nostalgically reminiscing about the beaches in Haifa and of the Jewish Homeland you fought for and so adored; I see you coming home from a business trip with a bag full of gifts and a ton of tales to tell. I see you in the kitchen always hugging mummy and dancing with her and our little dog, Papoush, barking with jealousy; I see you walking to shul with your tallit bag under your arm and peace on your face. I see you holding your grandson during his bris and beaming with pride. I see you clinging to your golf tournament trophy with great enthusiasm for being the textile industry’s worst golfer. I see you at the head of the Shabbat table saying the prayers slightly out of tune but with all your heart and soul. I see you coming through the front door every evening after work with a huge smile and simply happy to be home. I remember, daddy. I see you, I hear you, I feel you.  I remember you telling me when I started to become religious that before anything be sure that you’re mensch. I remember every single thing about you, daddy. And in remembering all you were, I'm reminded too of all that I must be. With the loss of you, I got lost in the shadows not realizing soon enough that you left me a legacy of light!