Friday, March 27, 2020

I'm Sorry for What I Did!

Like most days, I asked a question on Facebook this past week. This one however, relating to the coronavirus, was rhetorical. I asked: “Is there really anybody who is saying right now, "I can't understand why God would do this to us because we were so well behaved?"  We have lost our way my friends, lost our souls, become high and mighty, turned ourselves into gods—selfish and heartless ones at that--created our own morality and conveniently altered G-d’s Will like a custom made suit that fits to a T.  But we who just last month thought we were gods in our respective microcosms and fiefdoms, who would command Alexas and Siris and Amazon to give us what we want, who lavished in a life of plenty manufactured in China, that same “we” has been brought to its knees. And our custom-made lives are popping at the seams. We would not humble before the invisible G-d, so now we kneel before the invisible virus. Unlike us, this invisible virus does not discriminate, it hates Democrats and Republicans, it hates the unknown and the famous, it hates Jews, Muslims and Catholics, it hates the rich and the poor, it hates democratic countries and it hates tyrannical ones. And in its universal hate, it has reminded mankind that we are one and G-d is one.  Some, in stubbornness, will still blame the Chinese; they played their part. But the Talmud teaches that not one blade of grass grows in this world without Divine supervision, so much more a virus that pretty much has overnight changed the world as we know it, perhaps irreversibly. Now each of us, like a punished school child, is sequestered to his corner, to shelter in place and to think about our behavior. Perhaps it’s time again to pull out our ruled notebooks as in years gone by and write a thousand times. “I’m sorry for what I did,” I’m sorry for what I did,” etc.

In this week’s Torah reading, God “calls” Moses, and once again it was to assume a momentous duty. So important is his new duty that the book of Leviticus is titled Vayikra, which in Hebrew means, “He called.” God “called” Moses to instruct him how the Israelites should “say sorry” to atone for their sins. What a beautiful gift G-d gave mankind: forgiveness. But unlike cute modern-day catchphrases, such as “love means never having to say you’re sorry,” we indeed have to be sorry, say we are sorry and behave as if we are sorry. 

The means to atone for sin was through animal sacrifices.  More graphically, it involved slaughtering a living animal, cutting it into pieces and sprinkling blood, etc. And be sure, those who brought sacrifices were cognizant of one thing: that the animal before them was dying in their stead. God takes “sorry” very seriously. Yes, Moses got the “call,” but we have dropped the “ball.”

Today we have no Temple and therefore no more animal sacrifices can atone for our sins. Today, what stands between us and the dispatched Angel of Death is the Torah: Penitence, prayer and charity can avert the evil decree.  “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. And you shall choose life, so that you and your children may live. (Deuteronomy 30:19) 

Friends, I know a lot of fancy words, but I can best summarize by saying mankind has become low. Even those who teach G-ds’ laws in every religion, many are liars, cheaters, panderers who became too business oriented instead of soul saviors. The secular have become too open-minded, too accepting of moral decay. We’ve been bumping off each other in close proximity in an “everything goes” mindset and have brought out the worst in each other. Politicians who are elected to lead are instead ready to ruin their countries for greed and internecine hatred. G-d had enough. Now we are isolated with only G-d to keep us company. We have no more audience to see our clothes, our cars, our jewelry, our manicures. It seems karmic that China, which has manufactured our phony lives, has also manufactured our death. We are all in hiding with only who we really are as our company. If the power goes out, taking Wifi and Netflix with it, what will be left of you? Can you stand yourself?

When a person dies, in the Jewish faith we say, “Shehalach lolamo,” meaning the deceased went unto his world. Why “his” world? Because in the afterlife we go to the world we’ve created for ourselves. The time to change is now!!!  I pray G-d will forgive us and this plague will disappear as quickly as it came. But friends, while we are already “figuratively” on our knees, I do believe it’s time to say, "G-d we are so, so sorry. Please let us out of solitary confinement and we promise the next time we won’t do it again." In the meantime, a vibrant rainbow has appeared in my window; it’s time to build my ark.

Friday, March 6, 2020

Are You G-d’s Gift to the World?

Are you G-d’s gift to the world? You look beautiful, “sexy,” healthy, strong, fashionable and fit. What beautiful packaging. You certainly must be G-d’s gift to the world. You got it (whatever “it” is) and you flaunt it. But when we pull the ribbon and look beneath the eye-catching wrappings, what exactly do you have inside? We are a world so absorbed in appearances but the content is lacking. Pretend, G-d forbid, all the world was blind, would you still be G-d’s gift? If we are all driven into isolation by mandatory quarantines due to the ever-spreading Coronavirus and with no audiences to notice our biceps, our coffin-shaped manicures, our designer wear, who and what are we really? With your face covered by a medical mask and only your eyes showing, the windows to the soul, what would we see inside? A blank stare or a soul as deep and pure as the waters of G-d's Torah.

Most of us are always putting on a show—whether it’s out of arrogance or insecurity, only a therapist can know.  Yes, it’s hard to admit because we like to think of ourselves as authentic individuals, as real people. But it's all a show. A perfect example of this point is basketball player LeBron James who just said he will not play in an empty stadium after the NBA warned teams to prepare for games without spectators due to the coronavirus crisis. Our life is all about audiences. But in truth, Hashem is the only real audience, the eternal Spectator who sees what we are when the curtains come down on the show and when there is no one left to applaud our "fabulousness." If we were to examine our lives with honesty, we’d soon recognize that we are all actors in the imaginary show we’ve created for ourselves. We are the stars and the moon and the sun. In those roles we can never be one with our neighbors or G-d. In the Tanya, the fundamental writings upon which Chabad teachings are based, we learn that an individual who focuses on the animal soul, i.e., the body's wants, can never love his neighbor as himself. For the animal soul, the one that craves constant attention and “nutriment,” albeit from artificial sweeteners, sees everyone as an enemy. “If we are a body, the other person always threatens us; if we are a soul, the other person always complements us.” (Rabbi Yehoshua B. Gordon, Z’L).  It turns out that showing off and showing too much doesn’t make us G-d’s gift to mankind but its enemy. Yet, when we keep the commandments of the Torah we optimize all our relationships, with G-d, man, animals and all creation; when we make up our own convenient rules, we destroy the entire universe. The Coronavirus, as example, for the sake of timeliness, shows us how contagious we can be to one another from one end of the world to the other. What’s true in the physical world is true in the spiritual world. Good deeds beget good deeds; sin begets sin.

One of those sins is dressing immodestly. By doing so you are definitely no gift of G-d, just a toy of Satan, of the Angel of Death destroying yourself and the beholder. You provoke jealousy and lust. Whose husband are your trying to steal? Whose eyes are you trying to catch? With whom are you competing? Where will it all lead? If you want to be G-d’s gift, find the G-d in you and harness it. Let not the wrapping be more beautiful than the gift.

In this week’s Torah portion we learn how important our clothing and appearance are in interfacing with G-d and mankind. Funny how golf clubs, gyms, restaurants, schools, all have dress codes which we respect and yet, when it comes to religion and serving God, we think wardrobe doesn’t count. It does! In reading,  Tetzaveh, we learn about the detailed description that God gives to Moses regarding the clothing of the Kohanim who were to serve in the Temple: “You shall make vestments of sanctity…for dignity and adornment.” (Shemot 28:2). The mystical reverberations of the priestly garments are beyond our comprehension, but the lesson they seek to teach is very understandable. God does care about our outfits. He was the first designer and was quick to make Adam and Eve clothes for modesty’s sake.

Through the years I’ve often heard people make fun of the Orthodox Jewish community and its fashion customs that vary from sect to sect. Laugh no longer because they are smarter than you and I when it comes to dressing for success—success in the eyes of the Almighty. We hide in hazmat suits not to get sick; they hide too, so their souls shouldn’t get sick by the dirty, depraved, lustful world we find ourselves in. Fashions may trend, but holy garbs mend. The outfits we wear have spiritual impact; they either subdue the animal soul and elevate our higher spirits or do just the opposite. Interesting how often the same people who mock the spiritual impact of clothing are the same ones sporting red string bracelets to ward off the evil eye, counterintuitively expressing that a whole outfit makes no difference to their well-being but a single thread can.

In the Torah, God says, “Do not ascend My altar by steps, that your nakedness may not be exposed upon it.”  When reaching up to God, He demands modesty from men and women. Even the Kohanim, who by merit of their positions and other virtues had a close relationship with the Almighty, were specifically commanded regarding modesty. The Sages teach that what is covered is blessed and also what is truly treasured is hidden, not flaunted. Peel the fruit and it begins to rot.

Stop being so devoted to serving your body for it is not nearly as loyal to you.  We shed over a million flakes of skin every hour and like a serpent within 2 to 4 weeks we too shed our entire skin. Within seven to 10 years we are an entirely new set of cells. The us that we cater to regularly abandons us on a regular basis. Going, going, gone. The body leaves us regardless of our opinion: We die and the worms eat us. But our soul lives on and too late we realize that that is our true gift from G-d, the gift we were meant to share. It gives us life and yet we treat the soul like a silent partner. We muffle its calling and instead feed the beast. But one day it will have a lot to say. So, perhaps my dear friends it's time to question, "What will your soul “look” like before G-d and the Heavenly Court when the beautiful wrapping is rotting in a dumpster?"

Sunday, March 1, 2020

A Healthy Distance

The other day I was at the bank when two Asian people entered, one wearing a white medical mask. Everyone’s heart lurched. Were they protecting themselves or us? The tellers told me it wasn’t the first time and wished they themselves were permitted to wear them. How funny I thought it would be if robbers came and for a change saw all the tellers masked too. But the bigger picture is just not funny at all.  People are avoiding each other and public venues like the plague, and maybe it is one.

I can’t help but think of the teachings of our rabbinical sages who have cautioned us through the ages, “Keep a distance from an evil neighbor, do not become attached to the wicked, and do not abandon faith in [Divine] retribution.” (Perkei Avot 1:7). When our own Talmud and Torah tell us to stay away from bad influences, whether they be Torah shirking people or sinful environments, we shrug a shoulder and deem ourselves invincible. We think our friends who drink too much, or are liars, or lazy, or cheap, or gossipers, or gluttons, or classless, or thieves won’t affect us. When we are intimate with the wrong people in the wrong ways, we seem not to worry too much. We deem the rabbis and the teachings they preach obsolete and quite frankly, irritating. We block our ears. After all, it’s only our souls at stake. We take the risk. Yet now, with fear of the Coronavirus, the world is coming under lockdown with nations and peoples banned and or isolated willingly or by mandate. Why? Because we want to live. Now it might affect us physically; we have skin in the game. All of a sudden the consequences of congregating in the wrong place or with the wrong people are existentially clear. It could kill me! And just as a virus is microscopic and beyond our natural means of perception, so too are the ravaging repercussions on our soul by engaging in what is forbidden and by not discriminating with whom we "hang out' and where we hang. Perhaps violating the Torah won’t produce a cough and fever, but when mankind violates G-d’s law it sickens itself and all creation. 

Judaism teaches that every physical manifestation has a spiritual counterpart. Nothing happens here on earth that is not reflected on High. Thus even if it’s currently a manufactured fear and hype, perhaps it is time to question our behaviors on many levels and on many fronts. G-d wants our attention.  Perhaps it’s time to start saving our souls and not just our hides. I have often written how our entire lives, mostly make-believe, are manufactured in China from knockoff designerwear to, well, everything. But now the supply chain is suspended, production halted and the stock market  is in free fall as a result. Now, with no access to a life made in China, we are compelled to look at that which is made by G-d: Our soul.

There is a story of the Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, who was tortured and interrogated by the Soviets for his “counter-revolutionary” activities, i.e., setting up Jewish institutions. When his interrogator put a revolver to the rebbe’s head to “inspire” his cooperation, the rebbe calmly replied: “That toy is persuasive to one who has many gods and only one world; I have one G‑d and two worlds [this one and the world to come].” While entire communities are under lockdown and people driven into isolation, I can’t help but think of my kindergarten punishment when I was put in a corner or left alone in a classroom and told, “Now sit there and think about what you did.” Perhaps now with much of air travel grounded, it’s time for our souls to take flight and to think about what we did.