Friday, April 24, 2020

Breathtaking Speech

Life is so expensive these days but we took some comfort in thinking that at least the air we breathe is free. And then came along the Coronavirus with its cruel ability to asphyxiate its victims and we are painfully reminded that breathing is a gift and a very expensive one at that with ventilators costing thousands to build and even more to use. You see my friends, breathing was never a freebie to do with as we please; it comes with great responsibility and accountability. For certain, man cannot count his every breath in order to display his appreciation of them. But how one uses one’s life and speech, which those breaths afford us, says a lot. There are no words without the breath that carries them forth. So I must ask: What have you been talking about? Have you made talk cheap?

The power of speech is so mighty that God created the world not with His hands but with ten utterances: “And G-d said, ‘Let there be light,'” etc.(1:3) With love and great aspirations, G-d breathed life into our mouths and gave man alone the ability to speak and yet with that very same vessel we spew hate, mischief, curses and falsehoods. We use the very tools He used to build the world, to destroy it. The Talmud states that every word which issues from our mouths, whether good, evil, by mistake, or on purpose, is written in a book. They never disappear even though we plead with our interlocutor to not repeat what we said.  So please tell me, with the stakes so high, from all the role models in the Torah, from Moses to Queen Esther, why would you want to emulate the snake whose venomous tongue brought down mankind? 

In last week’s article I wrote how Adam’s eating the forbidden fruit diminished his physical and spiritual beauty. In this week’s Torah readings we learn how talking slander about people can you make you ugly. The punishment for it is a skin disease called tzarat (miscalled, leprosy). The Talmud says that even when the Messiah comes and all people and animals will be healed of disease and the impure will be made pure, the snake whose scaly skin which actually is leprosy, will not be healed because of his evil words. In this Parasha we also read that it is the duty of the Kohanim, the priestly spiritual leaders, to evaluate the skin diseases of the people, not doctors. Why you ask? Because its cause is spiritual, not medical. There is no suffering, our rabbis teach, without sin. “Plagues only affect a person on account of the evil speech which comes out of his mouth” (Talmud). We must look at our punishment and see how it fits the crime. Covid-19—It’s breathtaking! 

Words never die! We are taught in a Midrash that when Moses smashed the first set of tablets indeed the tablets were destroyed but the words and letters that were upon them, they lived, and they all flew back up to heaven (Jerusalem Talmud, Taanit 4:5). So detrimental is the misuse of words that we see in the Book of Psalms how King David praises God and says “Arise, O Lord, save me, my G-d, for You have struck all my enemies on the cheek; You have broken the teeth of the wicked.” (2:8) Of all things, why would David be happy G-d broke the teeth of the wicked? Wouldn’t he be happier if He broke their necks? And the answer is that teeth are necessary to speak and to curse and to galvanize armies and stir up hatred. But teeth also allow people to pronounce blessings and prayers. And that is exactly what G-d is waiting for and wanting from us. He wants us to pray to Him when we have a problem, not to verbally sabotage the person who may have given it to us; he wants us to bless the food we eat and the lives we live not curse humanity for our perceived injustices; don’t cuss, don’t slander, don’t be a yenta. “You shall not go around as a gossip monger amidst your people (Leviticus 19:16). Use your breaths as if your life depended on them, because it does.

So my dear friends, what are you talking about? I know when someone calls me and asks me, “So have you heard the latest?” I know we are not off to a healthy start. If all your friendships revolve around gossiping about others, perhaps it’s time to question who your friends are. If today they yap about others be sure that tomorrow they will talk about you. When’s the last time you walked away from a conversation smarter than when you started, more inspired and motivated? Do your friends make you better people or vile and base?  It’s time to question your life’s purpose. Are you a creator or a destroyer? Life and death are in the tongue. If you don’t believe that words have power, then why bother praying on Yom Kippur at all, or anytime for that matter?  You wouldn’t use your finest crystal classes to gather a urine sample. So why use the same mouth you use to pray also for despicable, undignified and sinful speech.

I know it’s not easy to stop and that being a yenta ironically is as contagious as the plagues it causes. But we are better than that. How can we not be? G-d made us! Remember the simple advice we’ve all been told, “Think before you speak.” Save your breath, guard your words, watch your mouth and remember most things are better left unsaid.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

A Killer Menu: Bon Appétit

A universal visceral reaction upon first hearing about the Coronavirus was, “Of course it came from China; they eat dogs, snakes and bat soup.” One didn’t have to be religious or Jewish to get nauseated at seeing animals that we call pets hanging from meat hooks or imagining bats doing laps in our broth. Our brainless stomachs and rudimentary retch reflexes just know some things just shouldn’t be eaten. With subtle feelings of superiority we question, “What kind of person eats things like that?” Certainly there will be consequences. All of our own health crazes and the billions society spends on them strongly indicate that we fundamentally believe that we are what we eat, that healthy items help make us healthy and that bat broth breeds deadly viruses. How coincidental, it turns out that G-d believes the same thing. We may deem foods as “gross”; G-d deems some foods as unclean and an abomination. I tend to trust Him more than the Chinese, W.H.O., or the FDA as to what is consumable, after all He did create the world and everything in it. I certainly vouch for His very famous “diet book” that ensures that His people will be not merely healthy, but also HOLY; a diet that has endured through the millennia. “For I am the Lord Who has brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your God. Thus, you shall be holy, because I am holy.” (11:45)

The sages teach that the food we eat affects much more than our bodies. By eating not kosher we sully our souls, distance ourselves from the Almighty and bring on sicknesses. The kabbalists teach that our soul is in our blood and seeing that food feeds our blood it affects our souls as well. The more we learn the depths of our commandments, the more we realize that God is the best diet guru, even if He doesn’t have an infomercial. 

The Jewish people are allowed to eat only ten animals, none of which hunt for prey. They are docile and peaceful. Our sages have taught that eating animals that lust for blood and go for the kill affects our characters and personalities. If eating an energy bar gives you energy, then how hard is it to believe that eating violent and aggressive animals can transform your energy as well making it ever harder to keep the Torah's commandments, all meant to elevate our animal soul? 

The Torah admonishes that not only eating certain foods renders us impure but even touching the carcass of some has an effect on us and contaminates us. But there is no hand sanitizer or alcohol percentage to counter the effects on our soul. Interesting how we are afraid to shake hands, touch doors knobs, or come within 6 feet of each other because we fear to be physically contaminated, but the Torah, which predates our modern-day germaphobia and virus avoidance protocols, takes this concern even deeper. What we touch, who we touch and how we touch also results in spiritual contamination. 

People dismissively ask if God really cares what they eat for lunch? And the answer is a resounding thunderous, YES. So much so that Adam and Eve were thrown out of the Garden of Eden for eating the forbidden fruit. The first sin revolved around eating and brought about the fall of mankind. It is said of Adam that he was the most gorgeous man that ever lived, but by eating what he should not have, his stature and beauty were diminished. Simply because God said so, food affects us profoundly. When we sin with food, and in general, our inner light is diminished and it shows in the spiritual realm as well as on the earthly plains. 

Eating kosher doesn’t just mean avoiding pig and its non-kosher cohorts, it also means not eating “like” a pig. Be a mensch in all your appetites. Have restraint and limitations. Don’t listen to the slithering snake offering you the “forbidden flavors.” One day we will have to give an accounting for our vast intake, not just as regards our fitness but before the Eternal Witness who gave us His menu along with the commandment that we not contaminate ourselves.  The next time you pick up your spoon, pause for a moment and know that G-d is looking at you in the same bewildered and repulsed manner that we look at those who shop at wet markets and eat bat soup: “Why would they eat that? It’s killing them on so many levels.” The Master Chef of the universe, the King of nutritionists specifically commanded his children, to “distinguish between the unclean and the clean, and between the animal that may be eaten and the animal that may not be eaten.” (Vayikra 11:47). Stop being impressed and lured by the fancy French names on killer menus. They are euphemisms for physical and spiritual “poison.” “Do not defile yourselves with them, that you should become unclean through them” thus said the Lord.
                                                          Bon Appétit!

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Sorry, Closed--Due to Us

G-d created this world and if you think the Chinese are solely responsible for shutting it down, you are wrong and dangerously mistaken. The Angel of Death is diffusing with avidity. Mankind has been driven into its homes just as the Israelites were driven into their own “isolation” on the very first Passover so that death would pass them over. Goat or sheep’s blood marked their doorposts. Today we have Mezuzot instead with its three highlighted letters “shin,” “dalet,” and “yud”— an acronym which stands for Shomer D’latot Yisrael, “Guardian of the Doors of Israel.” It is as it has always been, the words of G-d, the Torah, will protect us--if only we would let them.

But man can’t live by words alone. Say the word “food” a hundred times, but you will still be hungry. G-d has driven us into our homes, via His puppets, i.e., governors, mayors, presidents and their like, not only to rediscover our family relationships and reevaluate our priorities, but also to rediscover our relationship with Him. His words demand actions: body and soul partners in time — a very limited time. In many places in the world because mankind has been pushed into hiding, animals are breaching the boundaries of their natural habitats and roaming city streets, goats running rampant in Wales, wild pigs in Paris, coyotes in San Francisco and monkeys in Thailand. When G-d looks through His celestial window, can he tell the difference between us? How different from animals have we become? We worship our animalistic needs and desires while starving our souls. We emptied the supermarket shelves, but the shelf that holds our bibles and prayer books, they are still full, untouched.

One of the Hebrew words for plague is “Dever” דבר. The very same Hebrew letters, Dalet, beit, resh  also spell the word “Davar” which means word  or utterance. Hence the Ten Commandments in Hebrew are Aseret Hadibrot, really meaning the Ten Utterances. G-d’s words sustain us. “And [Moses] took the Book of the Covenant and read it within the hearing of the people, and they said, "All that the Lord spoke we will DO and we will hear." (Exodus 24:7) But when we break that vow and violate G-d’s word, davar, we get dever, the plague instead. Perhaps having to wear masks is symbolic of what we’ve become, hypocrites with our true faces hidden. Moses had to wear a mask because his face beamed with the light of G-d; our faces however, bespeak a godless pallor.

Last year at this very time, with unwitting prescience, I wrote that destiny is as brittle as a matzah and that it can pivot in a second. And woe, how it has. Breathtakingly so. With the upcoming holidays, keep in mind that Passover is not just about cutting bread from the menu, it is also a divinely sanctified time for us to take an introspective look at ourselves, to clean up our spiritual crumbs. It is a time to remember that G-d alone has saved us and can save us, not Dr. Fauci, or Trump, or medical masks or ventilators made by General Electric. Yes, GE may “bring good things to life,” but G-d alone decides who lives. 

Thus says the Lord: Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom, nor the strong man boast of his strength, nor the rich man boast of his riches.” (Jeremiah 9:22). 

Friends, it’s time to flatten our egos like yeast-free bread and start serving the one and only Who is puffing the air into our well-being. The difference between this night and all other nights is that G-d is no longer asking, He is telling. Oh beloved humanity, be expeditious and afraid, lend Him your ears and obey the word of G-d, or the ark will surely sail without you.