Thursday, May 28, 2020

Washing My Hands of You!

"The L-rd rewarded me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands He recompensed me." (Psalms 18:21)

It is illuminating how compliantly we all adhered to the ever-changing guidelines in order to avoid catching the Coronavirus, most especially our attentiveness to hand washing and the disinfecting of all our touchables. After all, we want to stay alive, so we do what’s right for us. Judaism also highlights the importance of washing one’s hands except that its rules are not inconsistent and reliant on questionable science with its questionable motives; it rules were given by G-d. Their aim, too, is to keep us alive, in this life and the next. In Judaism one is not permitted to pray without washing one’s hands, even if it means traveling the distance of four miles to do so. The moment a Jew gets out of bed in the morning one cannot take but a few steps without the mandatory washing of hands.. One cannot eat bread without washing one’s hands as well. All these are not just physical imperatives but they also have spiritual ramifications. For instance, our sages teach that when a person sleeps they are 1/60th dead. When the soul returns to the body the impurity of death still lingers upon the tips of the fingers and hands. Not washing has both spiritual and physical repercussions.

And so, since everything in this world is a message from the Heavens above, I can’t help but know that new “cleanliness protocols” around the globe, ushered in by the lovely Covid-19, is a wakeup call to us all: It’s time to clean up our acts. Our immoral behaviors are deadly. From adultery to theft, from gossip to disrespecting our parents and the elderly, from wasting seed to immodesty in all our behaviors, we are dirty. I’m reminded of the famous line by Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth who compulsively rubs her hands and pleads: “Out, damned spot! Out, I say!” The blood spot she sees is projected solely upon her hands by her own guilt for committing murder. Yes, we have to keep physically clean, but it is our crimes against G-d’s Torah that make us most dirty, and just as stress manifests as sickness, so does sin. 

There is only so much that hand sanitizer can do for us. It certainly won’t wash our way into G-d’s good graces. For the past 49 days since the second day of Passover, the Jewish nation counted the passage of that time with a special prayer. There are a few reasons for doing so and one is to cleanse our souls from defilement. Each day we grapple with a trait that calls for “fixing”, i.e., purification. That spiritual preparation leads us into the Shavuot holiday, wherein the holy Torah was given on Mount Sinai by G‑d to the Jewish people, and as a gift to all humanity, more than 3,300 years ago. That gift is the eternal sanitizer and the only means through which we can refine ourselves. “...For God has come in order to exalt you, and in order that His awe shall be upon your faces, so that you shall not sin." Sadly, when this pandemic erupted, we  dashed for the Purell and not so much for G-d.  But on this holiday of Shavuot we are given the chance once again to grab our Torah with both hands, 'clean hands' and commit ourselves to being better Jews and better people. To be certain we really aren't as nice as we think we are. This holiday we read the Torah portion of the Ten Commandments, the purifying Decalogue of our souls. Here’s a quick review of  them  to see how well you are doing.

“I am the Lord, your G-d, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” It is from this starting point that any of the commandments have relevance. Do you really believe in G-d? How do you believe in Him? Do you believe in a G-d that owes you something or does your belief have you realizing that every second of this gift called life you owe Him. Do you believe He is a loving G-d who will forgive you no matter how you live your life? Because if you do, then you believe in something, maybe Disneyland, but it’s certainly not G-d.

II “You shall have no other gods….” Though you may not have a golden calf in your living room, it does not mean you are guilt-free of idol worship. ANYTHING that comes between you and G-d is an idol, including your money, your fancy lifestyle, your fear, you anger, your own arrogance and your vanity. 

III “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord in vain.” How many times have you made a promise to G-d and not kept it? That’s calling upon G-d’s name in vain and it makes you a liar. The Talmud teaches that God hates liars. Have you perjured yourself in traffic court or on other occasions while you swore with your hand on the Bible? Have you sworn to a friend that something was true when it wasn’t? Have you said the wrong prayer on the wrong occasion calling down G-d’s holy name for no reason at all? 

IV “Remember the seventh day and keep it holy.” Often people say I love my job, so it’s not like working on the Sabbath and it’s not hard. Very simply, nothing is hard for G-d. He created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. You think you are doing everything right, you know it all and have all the questions and the answers. After all, you know there were no cars in the desert, so you can drive on Shabbat, right? Ok, I’ll stop here because you're a scholar but I'll just add that there are thirty-nine categories of labor that are forbidden on Shabbat. Can you please list them for me please while you’re driving to shul?

V “Honor thy mother and father.” Most people think this decree means not to be rude to your parents. Did you know you are not even allowed to sit in your parents’ chair and you are not allowed to contradict them unless they oppose the Torah teachings, and even then with kid gloves? If you curse them or hit them, the Torah calls for the death penalty. 

VI “Thou shalt not murder.” Did know that embarrassing a person in public, according to biblical exegetes, is tantamount to murder. Breaking someone’s pride and dignity and crushing their spirit is also regarded as a form of murder. Slandering and gossiping about people can kill their reputations and ruin their lives and you can effectively kill their potential with your dagger-like tongue.

VII “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”  Only you and G-d know the truth. But be certain, no excuse is good enough, not even that your own wife gained 20 pounds or that your husband doesn’t buy you flowers. Dressing provocatively,  taunting and teasing and leading others down this road is a sin too. When you cheat, you cheat not just on your mate, but G-d as well.

VIII “Thou shalt not steal.”  Manipulating someone’s mind or heart is considered stealing. When you make appointments and don’t show up, you're stealing people’s time. When you make salespeople believe you’re going to buy something when you have no intention to, you're stealing their time and emotions. Taking small things like grapes, artificial sweeteners, and not paying, things you deem as having no value, is the reason why G-d destroyed the world with a flood. 

IX “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” Perhaps you would not lie under oath, but any form of lying against another person’s good name, even to aggrandize yourself or your business, is a sin. 

X “Though shalt not covet.” Maybe you don’t admit to lusting after your neighbor’s donkey, but have you bought things you cannot afford or simply wanted because you coveted with your heart and eyes. Have you hungered for your neighbor’s life or wife because they look better than your own? The Torah wisely admonishes you not to do so and to keep your eyes in your head. Coveting leads to the violation of all the other commandments. To covet is also your way of telling G-d He doesn’t know what He’s doing.

                        Oh, dear people of the Book, pick up the Book and wash your hands of sin

Friday, May 22, 2020

Your Story Doesn't Add UP

The salutation on the letter I received from the US Census Bureau in March was hardly warm and personal. It read, “Dear Resident.” Now, as a law abiding, patriotic and taxpaying citizen, it would hardly upset the Republic if I was greeted by the feds with, “Dear beloved citizen, Aliza Davidovit.”  So be it, even without Uncle Sam’s reciprocal sentiments, my heart will mend. After all, it is still life affirming to be tallied among the living, especially since Covid-19 from whence we tally daily and precipitously the infected and the dead.  Nonetheless, it is a humbling thought that our existence, as per the census at least, is a mere statistic. You have been counted, but do you count? 

A heavy cloud has beset the world. If being just a number, a statistic, a dispensable cog wasn’t enough, now we are further dehumanized by wearing face coverings and driven into prescribed isolation. Our smiles and dimples, our frowns and grimaces, our personalized interface with the world, further diminished. 

Hypothetically, what if it were true, as some believe, that Messianic times are upon us and that current events presage Gog and Magog, a bloody apocalypse? Now that so many of the things we deemed as vitally important just a few months ago have lost their relevance in light of the Coronavirus, what is left of us? The scale of our personal worth has been re-calibrated. Now that simplicity has, by mere practicality, obviated ostentation and that the toilet-paper frenzy mobilized greater masses than the Klondike Gold Rush, how has your value changed in this world? What have you counted for in this lifetime? Have you been a mere number or have you counted for one but lived as if you alone were an entire army, an indomitable force that gave life to your convictions, gave love to the world, gave hope to the downtrodden, gave kindness a home, and served the will of God?  Anyone who knows a bit about computer programming knows that any image we see on a screen is composed of pixels, and those pixels are composed of numbers. Change any number on the computer and the picture you see will change. Do you really know your own number and what spiritual image you are conjuring and casting? Where are you in sequence relative to your obligations to Judaism, to your fellow Jew, to our Holy Land of Israel? When we are at the DMV or a bakery we all know our number; G-d forbid we should miss our turn. But in relation to G-d, we are hardly so conscientious.  Perhaps we have all stepped out of place and that is why a disjointed, fractured national image is being projected.

In this week’s Torah reading, Bamidbar, we read how G-d commands Moses to take a census of the entire assembly of the Children of Israel. The sages teach that G-d wants a counting of his people for a different reason than governments. G-d counts out of love. Each is precious to Him. For certain, as the All-Knowing, does He really need to count? Doesn’t He already know exactly how much of everything and anything there is? He could have told Moses here in Sinai now the census count is 603,550. But any collector of fine things knows that you count and count again what you love.  And this counting of His children was hardly impersonal; it was by name and father’s house and tribe.  But the count is not only precious for the counter, but also for the counted. Imagine having three kids and in front of them only count two. The hurt is unfathomable. We each want to be counted and want to count. But with that acknowledgement comes responsibility. G-d is not just counting his children, He is counting on them as well. He is counting on you: Don’t just be a Jew at heart, i.e., “A Cardiac Jew,” be a Jew in deed. Just as each tribe had its own flag and color and gem, you too have a unique special attribute that Hashem gifted you with. And you are meant to use it in His service and in a concert with your fellow Jew. Yes, every Jew has to keep the 613 commandments but one is also compelled to offer what is unique in them. Look deep into yourself, to the part that even a mask can’t conceal. The best mirror of oneself is the study and observance of Torah. It really shows you who you are, who you are not and what you should be and can be. The sages teach us that there are 248 limbs in the body corresponding to the positive commandments and 365 tendons corresponding to the negative commandments (equaling 613), which comprise the entire commandments in the Torah. My question to you is how many of your body parts are acting in service to God? If the parts make the whole, then how much of you is acting Jewish? The statistical odds of being born Jewish is small. Value your uniqueness and rarity. Don’t just be counted or lazily count yourself out, count for something!  You can fool the whole world, but G-d Himself knows your number; and it’s your duty, as G-d’s treasured children, to add up to much more!

Friday, May 15, 2020

Why would you do that to Me?


Herzl’s consideration of Uganda as an alternate “Jewish Homeland” was rejected for there is only ONE Promised Land. The Israelites’ worshiping of idols was sinfully wrong because there is only ONE G-d. A nation whose underlying sentiment is that another Jew’s affairs is “not my business,” is deleterious and splintering, for the Jewish people too, are ONE. A fundamental of Judaism, as foundational as the Aleph Bet, is that all Jews are responsible for one another, for we are ONE people. When Mayor De Blasio calls out the Jews, he doesn’t just mean the MIB, he means me too.  G-d, His Torah and Israel, i.e., the people and Land are ONE. As such all our destinies are intertwined. Our shared responsibility does not end by donating money to a Jewish cause or planting a tree in Israel; that, however important it may be, is just a pretense to shirk responsibility. And great responsibility beckons us all the days of our lives and every moment of those days. Every sin a Jew makes affects the entire nation and the world. For your adultery, your thievery, your gossip, your lies, your arrogance, every Jew will pay. When it comes to G-d’s laws, we have a very hard to time swallowing this acerbic truth. And yet in our secular lives we get it loud and clear. When a Jewish ball player, boxer, philanthropist, scientist does something great, we beam and aim to bask in their greatness. When a Madoff-like character rears his head, we shrink and hide. We are quite cognizant of the fact that in world affairs the act of one Jew impacts us all.

The Coronavirus is a perfect manifestation of what occurs also in the spiritual realm, it too with serious repercussions. A man coughs in Wuhan and over 300 thousand people are dead. A Jew sins anywhere, and we all are impacted. “Each man will stumble over his brother.” (Leviticus 26:37).  We see early on in the Book of Joshua as the Israelites set out to conquer the land, they are commanded not to take any silver and gold, nor vessels of copper and iron for themselves as they are “consecrated to the Lord.” The Israelites are miraculously successful in their first effort and the walls of Jericho fall to them by the mere blowing of the shofar. In their next battle 36 men die and Joshua is crestfallen and cried out to G-d only to find that one man did not obey the commandment and coveted the gold and silver and took some for himself. The sin of one Jew caused the death of 36 others. I often think about the Israeli soldiers who are putting their lives on the line for us spoiled Jews in the diaspora and when I’m tempted to be lax in observing a mitzvah, I think perhaps their lives are in my deeds. And they are, just as their lives are in our prayers.

In the past I’ve asked on Facebook whether G-d is a punishing G-d or a loving G-d. For the most part respondents feel that G-d is a loving G-d. It is true. But one does not preclude the other. To live life thinking that we can flout G-d’s will and not worry because He loves us no matter what is living in a Disney-like world with feel-good exemption coupons. Anyone who has read the Torah even a single time knows that our behaviors matter. When Adam and Eve sinned, G-d punished them; the generation of Noah sinned, and G-d drowned them; when Cain sinned, G-d punished him; and when it came to Sodom and Gemorrah, G-d destroyed them, and so on and so on. We are not in elementary school where everyone these days gets a gold star for participation. Yes, G-d loves us and that is why throughout the Torah G-d tells Moses, “Speak to children of Israel.” When you care, you remain in dialogue. But unlike humankind, G-d doesn’t talk for nothing. It doesn’t matter if you are much kinder than the Jew who wears a black hat, you TOO are mandated to keep Shabbat and kosher. What really makes you “so” nice and kind if the Torah tells us that for your sin other Jews will be punished? Figuratively, if you sneeze, your neighbor will get blown away. We have to look no farther than this week’s Torah reading to know exactly what G-d wants from us and what He will do if we don’t listen. We have to stop deluding ourselves that we are good people even without Torah. What makes you so good? Maybe your sexy clothes are taunting someone else’s husband; maybe your showoff ways are invoking jealousy; maybe you minding your own business is making others vulnerable to life’s great hardships; maybe your “innocent” gossip is destroying innocent lives; maybe your harsh rebukes on social media are debasing society; maybe investing money in the stock market with its lousy odds instead of giving charity where G-d’s returns are guaranteed, maybe all that doesn’t make you so nice. Maybe begrudging someone a “like” or heart on social media leaves them sad, lonely, insecure. Don’t be so sure you’re so good. G-d alone decides what’s good. The words of this week’s reading are loud and clear. If you follow G-d’s commandments life will be abundantly blessed. If not, well some things are better left said for themselves. 

But if you do not listen to Me and do not perform all these commandments, and if you despise My statutes and reject My ordinances, not performing any of My commandments, thereby breaking My covenant…I will order upon you shock, consumption, fever, and diseases that cause hopeless longing and depression. You will sow your seed in vain, and your enemies will eat it. I will set My attention against you, and you will be smitten before your enemies. Your enemies will rule over you; you will flee, but no one will be pursuing you. And if, during these, you will not listen to Me, I will add another seven punishments for your sins: I will break the pride of your strength and make your skies like iron and your land like copper. Your strength will be expended in vain; your land will not yield its produce, neither will the tree of the earth give forth its fruit. And if you treat Me as happenstance, and you do not wish to listen to Me, I will add seven punishments corresponding to your sins….” (Leviticus 26:14-43).  It goes on and on, avoid reading at your own risk.  If that’s not a G-d you can believe in, well, I don’t think He really cares. He’s not applying for a job interview.  But if you do believe in G-d, it’s time to start realizing it’s His will that counts. Yes it's true that G-d made man, but in some measures man has “made G-d”-- for we have a fashioned a G-d that fits our lazy, selfish and ironically godless agendas. Remember that you never sin alone, the whole nation is there right with you. And as Rabbi Hillel famously said, “If I am only for myself, what am I.”  The truth is, without your nation, without your G-d, without your Torah or your land, you really are nothing at all. We are one or we are none!


Friday, May 8, 2020

The Sound of Silence

Last week I looked through my blogs of previous years for some inspiration, a starting point to get me going.  I used to fear the blank screen as a writer until it dawned on me just a year ago that it was never me writing these articles. It was always G-d. I was just the pen He used. I’d been restless all morning waiting for Him to pick me up again and put me to use. I stared and stared at the blank page further exasperated by numerous interruptions that had me jumping from my seat more times than any writer would care to. No inspiration came, not from above nor from my previous articles.  Had G-d put down His ball point or had I just dropped the ball? 

Although I’ve been writing Torah blogs for over 25 years, it turns out that every year since I started posting my blogs to the Internet in 2012, I’ve skipped writing about last week’s Torah portions.  It’s ironic for me personally as this week’s Torah reading is the one which corresponds with my Hebrew birthday. It is called, Emor, which means “SAY.” In fact, within the very first sentence the word say is written three times. How auspicious for one who would become a writer and would have so very much to say. And yet somehow words  have failed me repetitively at this same point.  Nonetheless, the sages teach that the spaces between the words and letters of the Torah are just as important as the letters and words themselves, just as  is the silence between  notes to give any song meaning and form.  

In a world of unceasing chaotic noise, perhaps talent and wisdom is to know when to stay silent. In the silence, in the spacing, our identity takes shape and defines itself. We have only to look at the effects of social distancing and its resulting isolation. When we pull away from the narrative of our lives, ones we are often unwittingly interlocked with, only then can we really get a clearer picture of who we are. And when we reassert our voices into life anew, we can better decide where we will position ourselves. Will I be like the letter ayin that heads the word oneg which means happiness/joy or like the ayin that inserts itself at the end of the word ra, which means bad or evil?  The sages teach that every letter came before G-d ‘ere He created the world wanting to be the one that starts His Torah. Where do you want to fit in? When the silence breaks, know that sequence has consequence. Where will you place yourself vis-a-vis your relationship with G-d and others. It is not surprising that the word humility in Hebrew, anava, starts with the letter ayin because the ayin has no sound of its own. Its sound depends completely on the vowel attached to it: ah, eh, oo, etc.  Moses was known to be the most humble person that ever lived, in a manner, a man of silence. No sound of his own, i.e., no ego. He tells G-d: “I am not a man of words, neither from yesterday nor from the day before yesterday….” (Shemot 4:10) It was that humility that made him worthy of being G-d’s messenger and teacher to humanity. A man of no words? Today we call the Torah the Five Books of Moses. That’s a lot of words. 

I’ve truly come to value the sound of silence. My father always taught us not to talk needlessly. So many people talk simply to talk, to be heard, to be braggarts, to be important. Their words make them feel like a somebody, from academic snobbery, to scriptural swank, to gossip, as long as  they are talking. As long as we hear our voices in the air, we feel important, alive. And the age old question comes to mind, what if a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it, did it really make a sound? The answer comes to us in last week’s Torah reading, whose voice came to me only later in the week. G-d commands the Israelites, “"You shall not curse the deaf” (Leviticus 19:14). 

Now not tripping the blind we can understand, but why not curse the deaf? Really no harm done, right? Wrong. The physical ear, whether it works or not, is a physical manifestation of the soul’s ear--and speech originates from the “soul of speech.” No words are lost in the universe and they all make their mark. And a word out of place can disrupt the algorithm of the universe. Sefer HaChinuch explains that a curse can have its effect even when it’s not heard (via Rabbi Munk). The Rambam says that a curse actually affects the one cursing. Anger, which propels curses, is tantamount to idol worship as it is a tacit reaction that implies G-d was not behind whatever it is that angered the person.  

Friends, our words comprise our reality and also compromise it. As such, we have to learn not to be afraid of the silence when we have nothing godly to say. Interesting, to give honor and respect to those who died we will often take a moment of silence in their memory. Let’s do the same for life and the living. Stay quiet to give honor and legitimacy to the words we do say. In some fields such as mine, we often get paid by the word. But when you serve G-d you are rewarded for appropriate silence.  Last week’s commandments prohibit us from cursing the deaf, and our parents, from lying to one another, to gossiping. This week’s Torah portion, ends with someone blaspheming G-d. That’s the problem with the tongue, when it gets started it doesn’t know when to stop. It will start thinking that cursing or gossiping about the deaf or those not within range is harmless and it will end up like the snake taking on G-d Himself. Talk is cheap, silence is golden. Choose your worth.