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.