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.