Friday, January 24, 2020

I Found God in a Paper Bag

I can’t believe it is ten years since I became an American citizen and my passport is set to expire any day now.  My new passport photos are scarier than juddering turbulence over the Grand Canyon. How much has changed in a decade. I remember during the swearing-in ceremony they announced the countries of origin of their new citizens. When Israel was announced, everyone clapped. That was then. Today, I can just imagine.

Perhaps more than my country of origin, Canada, I love America. It’s been good to my people and me. But I’m also so proud to say that those of my faith have made great contributions to this country as well. I’m comfortable; I live in a really great apartment. But there is one nerve-racking flaw in it which I’ve eschewed fixing completely. The water temperature in my shower goes from extremely hot to extremely cold. No small annoyance because my shower, my haven, remains evermore the only place where nothing and no one bugs me. Yet, I refuse to fix it because the great sentimentalist and student of history that I am, it is a constant reminder of the perpetual state of the Jew. We dare never get too comfortable in any place we call home other than the Promised Land. Our diasporic history has taught us that sometimes the attitude toward us is cold — they just hate us quietly; sometimes it is hot, and they show it. Rarely have conditions been like America and Goldilocks’ porridge, just right. But now the temperature has changed and it’s getting a little too hot for my liking, even though I’m partial to hot porridge.

As we are about to commemorate International Holocaust day 75 years after the liberation of Auschwitz and the end of the war that was supposed to end all wars, we realize that the slogan “Never Again” is as cute as “they all lived happily ever after.” I know there are many who will never dare say that the Holocaust was a punishment from G-d, and so I won’t utter a sentence that will just invite ire. I, like you, only know what I was taught. But I will say, that it wasn’t a gift. If Jew hatred is so irrational, it behooves us to seek in the “irrational” realm to find an answer. Not that G-d is irrational, just that we can’t understand His rationale. "For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways," says the Lord. (Isaiah 5:8)  

Anyone who has actually read the Torah knows that G-d punishes those who betray His will. Adam and Eve are punished for eating the forbidden fruit; Noah’s generation is destroyed by the flood because of its sins; Sodom and Gemorrah are destroyed because of sin. Example after example the Torah recounts incidents where individuals are punished for their lack of obedience. We are the chosen people not to be braggarts and show offs but to lead the way with moral clarity and be stalwart examples of decency and ethics and integrity. But have we forgotten our calling in comfortable America and indeed around the world? The Torah tells us that, “Jeshurun became fat and rebelled... forsook the God Who made them, and spurned the [Mighty] Rock of their salvation.”  As I’ve said before, anti-Semitism is a spiritual calling, a national wake-up .

It is a Jewish belief that we are all responsible for one another and therefore the sin of one can drag down another. The good deed of a Jew in Arkansas can help a Jew living in Montreal, something like the Butterfly Effect. If energy never dies and doing mitzvahs involves exerting energy, what energy are you putting into the world? Are you a sustainer or destroyer of our people and humanity? The Torah cautions us that if we don’t behave our people will be slaughtered and vomited from the Land. It was no vain threat as we know the Jews were vomited from the land into exile. And once in exile, they kicked us too.

Take the German Jew, for example. The interesting thing about the German Jew is that many saw themselves as more German than Jewish. They served willingly in the German military, they spurned all symbols of  Judaism, separated themselves from their own kind, they denied what can  never be converted away, their Judaism. G-d’s quid pro quo: they were kicked out of the German army, out of their vaunted professions. They were forced to wear yellow stars to show their Jewishness and in squalor and ashes they were reunited with their brethren and reminded: You are a Jew. 

In this week’s parasha we read about how “the Israelites did not hearken to Moses because of [their] shortness of breath and because of [their] hard labor.” Some sages explain that “hard labor” included idol worship. They became so caught up in the Egyptian culture that they, like us, got caught up in the rat race. We work so hard for the mighty buck and all the false idols it affords us that we become exhausted from the whole phony insatiable hunger of finite “gods.” They were not just slaves to Pharaoh, they were slaves, as we are, to serving “false gods” that leave us nothing in the end but ulcers, arrhythmia and certainly shortness of breath. Yes, they couldn’t catch their breath from the hard work. But when else can’t we catch our breath in life? When we have no faith. Worried, worried all the time about money, bills, health, kids, business, peer pressure, perceived injustices. But who gives breath as a free gift? G-d! He breathed life into man. If you can’t breathe, you’ve disconnected from G-d. I remember a few years ago I had such a hard time breathing and with a Woody Allen-Larry David like paranoia, I thought I was dying of 72 diseases. I went to the doctor immediately. He sent me home with a paper bag. Now, as a woman, like most who likes to shop, I’ve come home with many bags that have treats at the bottom. In this bag, I found faith. “Go home and breathe into the bag,” the doctor said. “It’s all stress.” Where there is fear, there is no faith. Me, who never missed a meal my whole life, why was I so worried about tomorrow? Why? Because like the Jews in Egypt I put my faith in a lot of places and people and feared those securities would all implode. If I had proper faith in G-d, the breath, the basic of my life force, would come easy. Lamaze lesson 101: when bringing life into the world, breathe.

As world leaders congregate in Israel in commemoration of the Holocaust, let us remember once again, our destiny and fate are not in their hands unless we want it to be. Our fate is in G-d’s hands, unless we take it away from Him and hand it over to the nations of the world, the same ones who closed their doors to desperate Jews and held their noses as 6 million of my people went up in smoke. We have to stop exhausting ourselves serving foreign gods and bowing to foreign leaders, so much so that we spurn our faith in Hashem. Take a deep breath. Have faith that if we keep our side of the contract with G-d, he will keep His: 
“…you will return to the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul, and you will listen to His voice according to all that I am commanding you this day you and your children, then, the Lord, your God, will bring back your exiles, and He will have mercy upon the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, for the sake of your life. And the Lord, your God, will place all these curses upon your enemies and upon your adversaries, who pursued you.”

Yes perhaps my U.S. passport is set to expire, but I will be a Jew forever. I surrender: Let go and let G-d. Yes, I’m finally learning how to breathe! And you? Shabbat Shalom.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

How Quickly They Forget

Both personally and professionally, I’ve known too many people who have a “use them and abuse them” mentality. These egocentrics regard other people as cogs in a system whose sole raison d’etre is to revolve around their needs and ambitions. With aplomb, they believe the world was created to satisfy their desires. That selfish drive is the centripetal force that sets people and circumstances in motion. They care not about the damage they cause in the process. You are here to serve them and once you’ve done all you can, your usefulness is expired. They will find others to use and abuse. They may regard themselves as geniuses in their game of life, but the Torah regards them as Pharaohs, as arrogant enemies of Hashem.

We read in last week’s Torah portion, Shemot, about Joseph’s death and how “a new king arose over Egypt who knew not Joseph”-- the very Joseph who was the  only man who could interpret Pharaoh’s dreams and who was appointed viceroy, standing only second to Pharaoh. The Joseph who made the country  rich and saved it from ruin; The Joseph about whom  all of Egypt heard when his brothers had arrived. Yes, that famous Joseph, with a coat of many colors, who we all still know about thousands of years later, yet, somehow, Pharaoh just couldn’t seem to remember him.

After all, remembering comes with a heavy price - we might have to say “Thank you.” And so, the new Pharaoh showed his gratitude by enslaving Israel and murdering their firstborn. Talk about appreciation! Some of our sages explain that the “new Pharaoh” was not a different person at all, but rather the very same Pharaoh who arose with a NEW attitude. Once the bad times were over, he figured the Jews were expendable.  He thought himself a god and didn’t want to be outdone or overpowered by the people who made him successful. And he literally bathed himself in Jewish blood. 

The Torah teaches us a very different lesson about gratitude. After all the Egyptians did to the Israelites over hundreds of years of slave labor, killing their children and committing unspeakable cruelty,  the Torah commands us, “You shall not hate an Egyptian, for you were a sojourner in his land” (Deuteronomy 23:8). The Biblical commentator Rashi explains that we are not permitted to despise them  because they hosted us in a time of need. If we can’t hate those who tormented us because they were once good to us, imagine how much more we owe those who were good to us. We must appreciate and consider the efforts on their part which made our lives better sometimes at a great personal price to them.

Other examples in Judaism teach us about gratitude and our indebtedness to anyone or anything which helped us.  For instance, if we decide to change the mere casing of a mezuzah wherein a holy parchment was once contained, whether we change it to upgrade our decor or if the prior one was rotten or broken, it can’t just be thrown away in a garbage can. There is a respectful means of disposal. Even if a bag was used to carry holy objects and the bag is no longer needed, it can’t just be tossed away with the regular trash. Again there is a proper procedure to follow.  

That being said, if inanimate objects which helped us and served to holy ends can’t be dismissed irreverently, imagine how much more so are human beings to be treated with appreciation, dignity, respect and gratitude if they  helped us. When we are famished, it is easy to thank G-d for the sandwich in front of us. But Judaism teaches us to say thank you also when we finish satisfying our appetites. If you eat as quickly as I sometimes do, the thank-you prayer, Birkat Hamazon, takes longer to recite than the eating. And that's okay, lest we forget the Provider once our stomach is filled.

It is actually only when we are in a perpetual state of gratitude that our best blessings are yet to come. “King Hezekiah had great messianic potential. G-d made great miracles for him, smiting the armies of Sennacherib who surrounded Jerusalem. But because he did not sing a song of praise to G-d for the miracle, he was not appointed to be the Mashiach. (Sanhedrin 94a via Rabbi Avraham Arieh Trugman).  Gratitude is a fundamental of Judaism. In fact, the term "Yehudi"-- Jew, comes from the Hebrew name Yehuda, which means thanks and gratitude. It is thus from the tribe of Yehuda that the Messiah will come. Phonies, Pharaohs, forgetters take all the credit while real leaders, like Moses and King David,  give credit and thanks  where it is due. 

We may think we are clever and coy. But everything comes from G-d. When we are not grateful for all the people, circumstances, food, and money, etc. which He sent to help us, it is He too that we are snubbing. We saw what G-d did to Pharaoh. Pharaoh's power went to his head and he deemed himself a god. He would even pretend he had no bathroom needs and would do his business early in the morning in the Nile. But he was hardly "god" enough to save Egypt not from famine and not from G-d’s mighty Hand.

How many of us can think of all those times when we were there for people when they were down and out? But then one day, when they "made it," they forgot our name, forgot all we did for them, offer begrudging hellos and try and distance themselves from us? Once they walked through those doors of opportunity, they never turned back; they no longer seemed to care about us.  They greased the cogs with sweet phony oil and had us running in circles for them.

And are we any different? It seems we often remember what we do for others, even the $5 we lent someone 20 years ago, and insist we are only upset "on principle" that they didn’t pay us back. But when we owe others, we can manufacture excuses a mile a minute as to why the account has been settled. We overvalue ourselves in the giving and undervalue favors when we are taking.

At the end of the day, it all comes down to one thing. Are you a Pharaoh with a short term convenient memory? Are people as good as their last favor? Or are you a mensch? Are you a grateful person? Do you think people are just rungs on a ladder that you can step on as you rise? In fact, the higher one ascends on the ladder, the more grateful one should be for the "earth" that supports it. G-d punishes those who climb their way to lethe and become oblivious of those who launched their rise.

And for those of us who feel like the steps on the ladder, know that the Hebrew word for ladder (sulam) and Sinai (the host mountain where G-d gave His commandments) both have the same numerical value of 130. So, know you’ve done the right thing and your deeds add up to decency. Be grateful that the Almighty endowed you with something to give. And know that G-d has a long term memory, despite all those who quickly forget!

Friday, January 10, 2020

Imitation of Life

My whole life I always hated it  when people copied me. Those who love me know it well and hopefully don’t love me less because of it. But I always deemed it as a form of identity theft. I know some will say imitation is the highest form of praise. But for me, imitation is the highest form of irritation.  And I’ve often racked my brain as to why it bothers me so much. Was I afraid that if you wore the same hat and ring that I would mistake you for me? At what point do I risk losing my unique identity altogether? And then I think about it another way and question whether those things which are copyable are really me at all. Some advise and say if you’re being copied then you must be doing something right. But I’ve concluded that if I am copyable then I’m doing something very wrong. For each one of us is a unique soul and if I’d be truly pressing my soul to extricate what is uniquely me it would be as inimitable as a thumb print.  Not for the first time my grievance would become my teacher. Yesterday, it turns out, was also my teacher.

Yes, just yesterday, as I was out and about doing errands, a cashier complimented me on my shoes. The vanity in me was of course happy to hear it. After all, they are my favorite shoes. But were they Aliza?  What do they really have to do with me? The day I throw them away will there be less of me in the world? Of course such a compliment is nothing to write about. But I am because what came just before stood in beautiful contrast. 

As I had pulled into the parking lot, a woman just getting back into her car was looking suspiciously at something. The terror in me quickly rose. Oh no, what's behind me? A gunman? A cop? A mugger? I asked her what she was looking at and she pointed out that a blind man seemed to have lost his way.  I turned and saw he was headed right into a somewhat busy street. In my way-too-high shoes, I dashed over to him and asked him if he needed help. I thought I'd just be crossing the street and then I’d go back to shopping. No, he needed help getting to Citibank. For many weeks I'd been avoiding the Florida sunshine and the hateful freckles it leaves me as souvenirs. But here, mid-day, with the merciless sun beating on my head, I found myself walking half a mile; the blonde was leading the blind with me asking him for landmarks to know whether we were going in the right direction. It turned out he was Jewish and had been blind from birth. I just wish I would trust in G-d even more to lead me to the right place as the blind man trusted me. I can't help but think he was there to show stumbling, bumbling me the way to faith. Upon replay, I thank him now for two things. One, he gave me the chance to do a mitzvah and second, his blindness made me see clearly that the Aliza that is copyable is not Aliza at all. He couldn't see anything about me except who I really was. The hour I spent in front of the mirror getting ready was meaningless to him. I thought that yesterday my shoes really earned any compliment they ever got because they worked in the service of G-d. And that's life. It's all about who wears the shoes and how you walk in them. 

In this week’s parasha, Vayechi, the last in the book of Genesis, we read about the imminent death of Jacob who with foresight at the impending moment blessed his sons, the future tribes of Israel. His parting words were by no means a blanket blessing to wish his sons a one-size-fits-all good luck and farewell. Each son received a unique blessing which was intrinsic to his soul and his idiosyncratic and divine destiny. Each tribe would ultimately be represented by a precious stone embedded in the breastplate of the high priest when serving in the Holy Temple. Could the sapphire representing Issachar imitate the pearl which represented Zebulun? Could the emerald representing Judah imitate the turquoise representing Naphtali? Each gem has its own beauty and brilliance to reflect in the world.  Ultimately, scholars descended from Issachar, seafarers from Zebulun, leaders from Judah, judges from Dan, priests from Levi, etc.  Why even bother having 12 tribes if each was destined to be like the other.  Obviously, they were not. “All these are the twelve tribes of Israel...each man, according to his blessing, he blessed them.” (Genesis 49:28)

When we become the best and highest version of ourselves, no one can steal our thunder because we own the sky.  Don’t tell Cecil B DeMille, but the Sages teach that when the Jews left Egypt the Re[e]d Sea didn’t split into two, it actually split into twelve paths, providing a distinct path for each of the twelve tribes. Each one of us should to take an honest, deep look at ourselves and find the gem within that is distinctly us. It’s not only about living a purpose-driven life; it is about living, in heightened form, our own unique purpose. I walked away from the mirror and what I thought was me was no longer reflected. Here I am now at my laptop, writing only what I can write. It is my purpose, it is my soul, it is my thumbprint, it is Aliza. Who are you?

Friday, January 3, 2020

I Feel Like G-d--and You?

Sometimes I feel like G-d. Yes G-d. How powerful am I! No, don’t book me a room in a sanatorium just quite yet. I didn’t say I have a Napoleonic complex or think I’m Joan of Arc, just G-d. The last thing I did last night was command Amazon that I want a certain book today and with guaranteed delivery, I will get it today. This morning I commanded Alexa to play me songs by John Denver, and she took me home on a country road, although I did have to raise my voice because she didn’t obey at first. I also checked the security app on my Smartphone where I could check in on all the surveillance cameras watching my mother’s home. A car passed by in the front; an unidentified animal made prints in a fresh veil of white snow in the backyard and my mother’s health aid went down the stairs. Later I’ll be using Google map and it will take me exactly where I want to go. I’m just giddy with power. Who needs G-d, are we not G-ds?

Yes, I see my mother’s caregiver go down the stairs and I remember. Tomorrow, January 4th will be four years. I will never forget that day that made me know forevermore that we are not G-d but less than dust. All our feigned posturing and pretending, our grandstanding and grand entrances, our pride and prejudices, in a single second the One and only G-d can bring us down to our knees. “Oh dear G-d, why? Why?” But Alexa cannot answer. And Waze cannot give me direction now.

I flew to Montreal for one day with a pair of jeans and black suit to attend a family funeral. My mother looked so beautiful the evening I arrived. With her sparkling, mischievous brown eyes and blonde hair, she looked like a jewel. As always the house was aglow with her warmth, and the wafts of something delicious cooking in the kitchen greeted me at the bottom of the stairs by the garage door with my overnight bag. My mother stood on the top stair regal as always. This dynamic, vivacious, energetic, huge-hearted woman and a pillar of strength for my entire family standing there in her black jean jacket with rhinestones that sparkled when they caught the chandelier’s light.

The next day we went to the family funeral together, but my mother had a headache so we had to leave the shivah house. The headache started to get worse, and  the Tylenol didn’t help. Then she saw the bugs crawling all over her bedroom. But there were no bugs. And then her lip dropped a bit to one side. And then I called 911. In the ambulance my mother was losing consciousness quickly. I told her I loved her. She said, “Thank you.” I said that’s not good enough. She said, “I love you.” And then I heard from her no more. My mother had a major hemorrhagic stroke. The blood vessels in her brain exploded. The doctors told me she died that night. But they resuscitated her and rushed her into brain surgery. And the mother I knew, the life I had, the friends I thought were friends, the family I thought were family, all that altered in a seismic shift that night. The woman who awoke was half-paralyzed, ever dependent, couldn’t talk…I still thanked G-d for I had begged Him to send her back to me any which way, just please send her back. And He did, along with angels to carry us through. Nonetheless, it’s been four years of heartache and uncertainty with major strides forward and backwards. A life topsy-turvy. My best friend, that fiery, bedazzling woman, my yiddisheh mameh who stood sparkling at the top of the stairs, I’ve had to say goodbye to that version of her and it’s been the most painful heart-wrenching goodbye I have ever known. 

No, we are not G-ds. So funny how we try so hard to be in control of our lives and circumstances and get stressed, sick and mad when the ploys of the helm don’t respond to our directives. In just a moment’s time He above reminds us that there is a hidden hand that’s in charge of the traffic flow, and the course our life will take. And the question is, “How do we handle the darkness?” Do we have a right to be angry, accusatory and resentful of either G-d or the person to our left when we find ourselves in awful, nightmarish circumstances? I know that the new version of my mother has made a new version of me, forged through fire. And though Alexa has no answers the Book of Proverbs does: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not rely upon your understanding.” (3:5)   As Rabbi Shalom Arush writes, “At the point where the brain no longer understands how Hashem is doing everything for the very best, emuna [faith] begins. In other words, emuna kicks in when the brain kicks out.”

The Talmud teaches that there is no suffering without sin, either in this lifetime or a previous incarnation. So, I just pray the impurities and sins which have brought me to my knees have been purged from my soul. I know that if my uncle wouldn’t have died that day succumbing to his illness, my mother wouldn’t have lived. I would have never been at her home or in her country to save her life. All calculated by G-d’s invisible hand. Yes, as we amuse ourselves with apps and comic omnipotence, G-d is the one in control and we rarely know His purpose. Corrie ten Boom writes in her Holocaust memoir, “Every experience G-d gives the perfect preparation for the future only He can see.…” Einstein says, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” Either we believe or we don’t. It’s either all meant to be or none of it is. We can carry on kicking and screaming or with grace and faith.  If we can blindly trust a bus driver that he will take us to where we are supposed to go, how can we not trust G-d Almighty that He will take us just where we need to be? (Rabbi Arush)

In this week’s Bible reading we read about Joseph’s reuniting with his brothers. The brothers’ decision to sell Joseph into slavery was not without its repercussions. Their father was in mourning for 22 years; Joseph himself suffered from pit to dungeon, following false accusations against him. And though the Torah which avoids redundancy leaves out any description of the suffering that Joseph endured, it is understood. In all the darkness and pain, there was certainly enough blame, hatred, fear, accusations to swell in the pit of an acidic stomach that churns for revenge and justice. He had 22 years to fashion plots to repay his brothers’ misdeeds and also the power to effectuate them.  Instead of doing so, he cries before them and tells them not to feel bad about what they did to him as it was all part of G-d’s plan. It was the power of that type of faith that illuminated Joseph’s life through pitch-black years.  The Midrash tells us that Joseph was a “jumping man,” he would sing and dance all day long as an inmate (via Rabbi Arush). Instead of trying to wrap his mind around his circumstances, he wrapped his faith around them: “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways," says the Lord. (Isaiah 55:8)

I know all too well that I don’t have an exclusive on life’s hardships. And, in an inexplainable crescendo, I hear more stories of tragedy and suffering of late than ever before. A darkness is hovering. As a G-d fearing person I know when we suffer it is time to search our own souls, not everyone else’s. That applies to us as individuals and as a nation. Yes, tomorrow, I’m forced to remember what I can never forget: The endless hours, days and nights and months I sat in the ICU with my mother until she emerged from her coma. This was far from the halls of power where I interviewed the world’s most famous people. Month after month  listening to the nerve wracking bleeps of machines, watching people die, seeing families destroyed, processing the tears, choking them back and with a simple, “How are you?” they break like an irreparable dam. Oh, and the haunting howling of grief that ricochets into the night long after they have been released from the bellows of the heart. They resonate still. I realized there, more than any place else in the world, that we have to believe that G-d has His plan and we were never hired to be the architect. We have to learn from Joseph the Tzaddik that no matter how thick the darkness, it is part of G-d’s purpose. Like King David we must remain certain, “Though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me.” (23:4). Friends, I know it is so very hard to have faith when we are crying and when we are flailing and failing and mad at the world, but I also know that it is even harder to live without it. Remember it is ALL from G-d or none of it is. It’s time to decide!

Dedicated to my uncle Yechiel who died so that my mother might live. May his neshama have an aliyah! Love, your niece Aliza.