Friday, July 31, 2020

A Calling Card or a Calling?

It’s a strange feeling when we leave a job and our business cards become instantly obsolete as we are no longer who they say we are. I know when I had to shed my cards that said ABC News and Fox News there was a pained voice inside that said “ouch.” We feel important by affiliation and often feel like nothings when we don’t have impressive credentials to back us up, great jobs, a good business, a rich husband, rich parents, designer clothes, Ivy League schools, etc., We stand there insecure, vulnerable, reassessing our own worth. Who am I without all that? And you are right, if you feel like a nothing without all that then you are nothing by your own math. Fancy titles hypnotize us and we come to believe our own lies and illusions. Even resumes often read like fairy tales. The Talmud calls this world alma d’shikra, the world of lies. Everything is a misrepresentation. No, there is nothing wrong with putting our best foot forward, as long as it is our foot. But being a phony or a fraud is defeating the purpose of our own creation.

As a journalist, at the onset of my career, meeting the famous was exciting, I was impressed with myself--a superstar by affiliation, but not for long. When you rub shoulders with such people, what really rubs off? Perhaps you learn a little, but for the most part it is a fake world bamboozled and simultaneously paranoid with itself. Some of the people I interviewed and met have been indicted and have done pretty bad things, Am I now guilty by association? At what expense are we hanging on to our titles, prestige or make-belief visions of self? A whole life goes by without truth. I’m so lucky that I have such strong faith and belief in G-d because when I finally realized I was living in a vapid world of make-believe there was something that was real and unchanging for me to grasp on to, G-d and His Torah, my miner’s  torch in a dark world.

I have met some decent people but I can truly say that my most proud affiliation is with G-d. Working for Him alone is when I really became a somebody. And I’m proud of my latest title. No, it is not editor-in-chief, producer,  pundit or Queen of Questions, it is servant of G-d. In this job what is real about me has lasted, the stardust is gone with the wand.

We have only to look to Moses as the ideal role model. He never even applied for the greatest job in history. He was assigned it nonetheless, for his curriculum vitae had life’s greatest and rarest trait, humility. The greatest prophet in history, who spoke face-to-face with G-d, did not have business cards that read Prophet-in-Chief or CEO of the Torah. Moses was called a servant of G-d. His humility made him the worthy and blessed vessel to receive the greatest gift ever given to humanity, G-d’s word, the Torah. King David's humility too made him the greatest king in history: "And I am a worm and not a man." (Psalms 22:17)

Today, our egos and pride are so massive that we leave no room to receive the gifts that await us. We are so busy trying to beat each other with the puffed up resumes of our lives, so busy showing off what we are and hiding what we are not that we repel and prevent all we can truly become. G-d’s royal seal is the word EMET, truth. Thus neither He nor His blessings will reside where there is none. The reason a pig has become the symbol as the "most" unkosher animal is because it is a phony and a hypocrite. On the outside it has split hooves, a feature which renders an animal kosher. "Look, look, I'm kosher." But on the inside, it does not chew its cud, the second vital requisite to deem it kosher. From all the great role models in the Torah, why would we want to have anything in common with a chazir?

In this week’s Torah reading once again, Moses laments the fact that G-d won’t let him into the Promised Land. He beseeches G-d 515 times, to no avail. A midrash teaches that Moses even begged G-d to let him enter the Land even as a beast of the field, which grazes on the grass and drinks water and sees the world that way—“Let my soul be as one of those!” (Midrash via Chabad). Titles didn’t matter to Moses. When you really are something genuinely, you don’t need the fancy appellation. To serve G-d, to reach the prized destination following the liberation from Egypt, he was ready for the most dramatic of demotions, because he knew what we egoists can’t get through our swollen heads, nothing matters but G-d. He is the only audience we have, ein od milvado, there is nothing but Him. When one acknowledges that fact deeply, pretense begins to fall away and our way will be blessed. The rabbis teach that one of the reasons Joseph’s bones were allowed to be buried in Israel after being exhumed from Egypt and that Moses was not allowed to enter in any form was that Joseph acknowledged the land from whence he came when his master’s wife said, “See, they have brought us a Hebrew man . . . ,” he did not deny it; on the contrary, he said “I was abducted from the land of the Hebrews. Moses did not do the same when the daughters of Jethro said, “An Egyptian man rescued us from the shepherds.” He heard this and was silent. Therefore G-d said, “You shall not cross this Jordan.” (Midrash via Chabad).

Know who you are. Know from where you came. You are a Jew. That is your role. Stop playing parts that don’t belong to you. They don’t become you. G-d fills every seat. Only His eyes are on you. They look through every crack and peephole. Be you. Be true. You will like yourself better and everyone else will too.

Shabbat Shalom


Friday, July 24, 2020

Who's Crying Now?

The tallest lady in America is 151 feet tall plus one inch. Her name is Lady Liberty. She has stood for over 130 years as an icon of freedom, her torch a beacon of hope. But as British philosopher John Locke poignantly edified, there is no freedom without the LAW: The end [goal] of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom.”  But the law has been spurned and now lawlessness is playing out on the streets of America. Freedom’s foundations are trembling and the little hairs on the back of Lady Liberty’s neck are standing up. And if we haven’t yet seen the light, how could we miss the lightning? An incident that should have us all deeply contemplating the future and repenting over the misdeeds of the past is the bolt of lightning and its accompanying roaring thunder that nearly hit the Statue of Liberty this past week. The visual was spectacular. But I don’t believe in mere coincidence. The warnings are in the air. For the Talmud teaches: “Thunder was created only in order to straighten the crookedness of the heart.” The global symbol of freedom, almost hit by the finger of G-d should be an eye opener.

Jews, wake up! Our safe haven is not the copper lady. Neither is it the other idols we serve: prestige, gold, money, stocks, cars, gadgets and greed. The only laws that protect freedom: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, is the Torah and all its moral precepts. But we trample it under our feet. We cannot ignore G-d’s signs anymore than we could ignore the 2004 earthquake in Israel that left a crack in the ceiling of the Knesset plenum, Israel's parliament. We’ve lost our moral grip and everything else is a consequence. In no place where we stand can we forget before WHOM we stand: G-d.

These past few weeks mark the saddest times in Jewish history, with the three weeks culminating next week on Tisha B’Av, the saddest day of all. On that day we fast and mourn the destruction of both our Holy Temples which were destroyed (for “lightning” surely did hit twice in the same place.)  The first temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 422 BCE (it stood 410 years) and the second by the Romans in 70 CE (it stood 420 years). What made the temple so holy? There are many reasons; I’ll offer a few: One exegesis says that the earth from which Adam (the first man) originated was from the future site of the altar of the Holy Temple. Secondly, it is there on Mount Moriah that our patriarch Jacob had his dream of a ladder reaching from the heavens as angels ascended and descended. Upon waking he said: This must be God's abode. It is the gate to Heaven." (Genesis 28:17). It is also the site where Abraham set up an altar to sacrifice his son Isaac at G-d’s behest.  The Temple is also called the place where heaven and earth kiss, where G-d and his people come together. But his people cheated on Him and the walls came tumbling down and we cheat on him still in the same measure: baseless hatred, murder (even with our slanderous tongues), sexual perversions and idolatry. Just as every Passover we read that each generation has to be grateful for its freedom as if we ourselves were freed from Egypt, so too each generation has to blame itself that the third Temple was not rebuilt. We should be crying every day, not just on Tisha B’Av, that our Temple is destroyed. Some may not remember why Jews break a glass at a wedding. It is a reminder that even in our greatest joy as we are about to build a new life/house, that G-d’s House is still broken. When the Second Temple was destroyed the Talmud teaches that the gates of prayer were closed. The only gate that remains open is the gate of tears. But as the famous song asks, “Who’s crying now?” In this week’s Torah reading Moses asks the same question.

Moses iterates the same word that would begin the book of Lamentations over 800 years later which we read on Tisha B’Av. Eicha esa levadi”(“How shall I bear it alone?”) According to Rabbi Adin Even Yisroel Steinsaltz, “Moses was not bemoaning the fact that he had to work hard and couldn’t make time for a vacation. What troubled Moses was the tragic fact that he alone must bear the burden of the Jewish nation; “Why is no one else troubled by what is happening with each individual member of our nation?” he was asking, “Why am I the only one who loses sleep because of the troubles of our People!?” ( The problem is too many of us sleep well at night. Who is crying and worrying for the future of our people?

Perhaps this future can be best gleaned from the following two stories. It will all depend on who is right: Napoleon or a Muslim terrorist.

It is said that Napoleon was once passing a synagogue on Tisha B’av. He was taken aback by the sight of people wailing, mourning and sitting on the floor in visible grief. He inquired as to the source of the tragedy. He was told that the Jews were crying over the destruction of their holy temple. As emperor he was surprised he had not heard the news. He was then told that it wasn’t a recent happening but rather transpired 1700 years prior. To that Napoleon replied, “A people who cry for a temple for 1700 years will surely endure to see it rebuilt.” 

Another story, which I first heard from Rabbi Yaron Reuven, sadly foretells a different ending. Salach Taomri, a heroic figure to the Palestinians, a terrorist to the Israelis, found himself in an Israeli prison.  He was truly dejected and certain the aims of the Palestinians would not be successful against the strong Israeli army. In solitary confinement,  “Hatikvah,” i.e. hope, had drifted away. Then one day he saw an Israeli guard eating a pita sandwich. He asked him if he was Jewish, to which the guard said, “Yes.” He then asked the guard why he was eating a pita bread on Passover. The guard answered, “I am not obligated to the wonders that happened to my people more than two thousand years ago. I am secular. I have nothing to do with that.” From that moment on the Palestinian prisoner became instantly re-inspired and reinvigorated. Not only was he motivated to break Israel by attrition and hope for even minor gains, now the entire country became a viable target. If the Jews no longer cared for the history and the G-d that brought them to their land, they had lost the integral force to hang on to it. 

Friends, who’s crying now? No, Argentina isn’t crying, but Jerusalem is and next week hopefully we will cry along with her. For as scriptures says “Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy.” 

                                                               Shabbat Shalom

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Merrily Down the Drain

e are trying to get on with our lives and force normalcy onto a world that is everything but normal right now. And we are quite good at distracting ourselves: Netflix, Coin Master, Facebook, baking, online shopping.  But we are fiddling while Rome burns, not just “Rome” figuratively speaking, but rather the entire globe. Humanity is under severe judgment right now for the Talmud teaches that there is no punishment without sin. And we have sinned. So while we are busy with flix and clicks, the streets of America are devolving into anarchy, Iran and China are forging a dangerous alliance, economies are hanging on by an ever-thinning thread, the virus is hardly abating and anti-Semitism is flourishing like a well-manured garden. But Netflix adds more than 10.1 million new paid subscribers. And poof all our troubles are gone? Hardly.

People hate to hear that G-d is a punishing G-d. They’d much prefer He’d be like the Wizard of Oz who takes requests and then gives you what you desire: a heart, a brain, courage, etc. Now that’s a G-d we can subscribe to; now that’s a G-d we can love. Well I’m sorry to disappoint you but in the Torah the commandment to love G-d is only written nine times, the commandment to fear Him is written 18 times.(1)

Why should we fear Him? What could He possibly do to us if we don't? That could best be answered by the Generation of the Flood who He killed with boiling water because of their sins, or the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah who He killed with sulfur and fire because of their sins, or the 24,000 Israelites who died from a plague, not because they forgot to wear their masks, but because of sin. In incident after incident throughout the Torah unrepentant sinners are punished. We are the ones who are hardly lovable and exhaust G-dly patience.

And now with the world as it is, do we really have the chutzpah to ask, “Where is G-d?” The only legitimate question to ask while we still can is: “Where am I in relation to G-d’s Will?” “What does He want from me that I’m not doing?”  The sages teach us that sin sullies our souls and blocks us from being vessels for the godly light. We become so veiled and dirtied by sin that we can neither be, nor see, the light. Nothing beautiful can radiate in or out because we are so shamelessly mired in a swamp of our own creation. No amount of bathing in Purell can clean up our filth. But turning back to G-d and His Torah can; it is the only vaccine that makes us impervious to threat and that can save our souls and our lives.

We are the cleanup crew. G-d gave us the directives on how to clean our souls, fix the world and bring the light (sparks) out of the dark places if we follow His Torah and make it our Torah. Each of the 613 commandments cleanses us and elevates us and makes us worthy receptacles of G-d’s blessings and light. But unfortunately G-d’s chosen too often chose something else: Eating lobster is more important that keeping kosher; driving to the mall is more important than observing Shabbat; watching Amazon Prime is more important than watching a Torah lecture. We’ve done a great job at polluting our path and have become uninterested and too lazy to clean it up. The lazy cannot serve Hashem. So G-d has brought in the pressure hose and we can only pray that we, along with our sins, won’t be flushed into oblivion.

In this past week’s Torah reading we read of all the 42 encampments (and backtracking) the Israelites set up and broke down during their 40 years of wandering. Hardly a smoothly-paved road. But they created many of the bumps and hurdles by themselves by continually sinning and rebelling against G-d and Moses and failing the many tests G-d set before them. When we are haughty and happy we feel we don’t need G-d and when we suffer we don’t believe He is there. How foolish is mankind?  The rabbinic sage, Sfas Emes, says that each hardship and encampment through which the Israelites journeyed was a cleansing and served as a preparation for the gift of the Land of Israel. Do you personally really want to figuratively wander for 40 years and wonder why your life and our world resemble a man-made disaster zone? Or would you prefer to take matters into your own hands? Start keeping kosher, lighting Sabbath candles, pick up a book of Judaism, stop sinning and spinning in circles like a misguided dog chasing its own tail, stop deceptively manipulating results and start trusting in G-d…people of all faiths, just start cleaning up somewhere in your spiritual house.

Further proof that G-d cleans what He loves is that the Israelites are not commanded to merely meander into the Promised Land and make friends with their new neighbors, but they are commanded to drive them all out of the land and destroy their structures of worship and idols. The filth had to be demolished before G-d’s holy nation with its holy mission could settle in. The Israelites are also warned, “And let the land not vomit you out for having defiled it, as it vomited out the nation that preceded you.” You can’t be holy and unholy at the same time. Which do you choose to be? Decide quickly for the world we knew is approaching its expiration date. For the whoosh you hear when Netflix is paused is our world spinning quickly down the drain.
(1) Via Rabbi Y. Mizrachi

Friday, July 10, 2020

The Heart of it All

Who does Aliza Davidovit think she is that she moralizes to us through her vlogs and blogs? The answer has nothing to do with me. The truth is these lessons give me anxiety and my evil inclination tells me every week to stop, in fact every week for 25 plus years. For some years, unfortunately, that inclination won. It had a great argument. Who cares what you have to say? It’s a hassle. You can be in the gym instead, at the mall, etc., and have one less worry. In any case, for some readers it will never be good enough and for others, well they’ll just think that I’m just an attention seeker. My answer is simple, “Don’t hate me cuz I’m dutiful.” I love learning Torah and it’s a treasure that I’d gladly keep all for myself, except, that it’s forbidden. There are 613 commandments in the Torah and the 22nd positive one, according to Maimonides, is to learn Torah and to TEACH it. G-d gave me the gift of writing. At this time in my life, more than ever, I’m quite sure it wasn’t just to interview famous people some of whom have behaved in ways not worthy of my words, at least not the finer ones. Just as those commandments prohibit me for stealing and murdering and oblige me to keep kosher and keep the Sabbath, those same commandments demand that what I know of Torah, with full accuracy, I must share. Indeed readers are not always receptive but we learn from the holy prayer Shema Yisrael,And these words which I command you today shall be UPON your heart.” The best I can do is put these words UPON your heart. And since a heart is porous, one of my rabbis taught me, eventually a wise heart will allow these words to enter. 

The Talmud teaches that when you save one life it is as if you’ve saved the entire world. But saving a life is not just about keeping a person breathing, it is also about creating and recreating ourselves to be better people, better servants of G-d to earn our way to everlasting life. If you are the same person you were yesterday, you are dying. The Torah is compared to the Tree of Life, I’m praying that my blogs will inspire you to choose life and to kill off what’s killing you, all the false gods you’ve chosen to serve instead of G-d and His Torah, our Torah. Satan comes with sexual provocations,  the lust for money, and jealousy of others. Nevertheless, the struggles are yours to win. Evil inclination also puts tempting words upon your heart and so the Torah warns us: Beware, lest your heart be misled, and you turn away... And the wrath of the Lord will be kindled against you. (Deuteronomy 11:16-17) 

It has been asked why from all the Torah’s great men, from Abraham to Moses, why the Jewish nation has come to be called Israel, the name given to our Patriarch Jacob after wrestling with an angel who ultimately blesses him: "Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, because you have striven with [an angel of] G-d and with men, and you have prevailed." It’s actually rather simple. The life of a living, breathing Jew is a constant struggle with G-d and for G-d. It is that struggle that makes us Israel; it is the struggle that makes us a light among the nations. It is that struggle that makes everything we never dreamed we could be or were destined to be, possible. But sadly, too many of us are stuck in our comfort zones and have come to love our sins; we have put down our gauntlets and prefer not to resist and fight back. Soon we forget how. Pay heed: If you are not struggling daily to increase your relationship with G-d, to refine your character and to bring His light into the world with your unique gifts, you are not living, you are merely existing and slowly or quickly dying. Don’t be a comfort-zone-Jew. Stop getting caught up in the secularism, materialism and lusts of this world and forsaking your Jewish identity and duty. Coronavirus has surely taught us all the things that we can live without. G-d is not one of them. The Torah wasn’t just bequeathed to rabbis, it’s your heritage too. Pretend it’s the millions your parent’s bequeathed you and cling to it greedily, for it is worth much more.

There is a famous excuse: “I wasn’t brought up religious.” Well many of us weren’t brought up rich either and yet that’s still a popular pursuit. In this week’s Torah reading of Pinchas we are introduced to four situations where people were born into a “situation” but it didn’t dictate or assure their journey in life. I will focus on one, the transference of Moses’ leadership to Joshua. Moses had sons, why didn’t one of them get the job? Because being a Torah Jew isn’t about nepotism; not your father, or yesterday’s victories, or last week’s donations, or the plaque in the synagogue with your grandfather’s name or all your hoity-toity connections in the world are going to make you the person you need to be. Only you can do that yourself by living day to day, from struggle to struggle, by recognizing you are not struggling alone and that the power of G-d is with you. And if you live in FAITH instead of fear, falsehood and fleshpots, you just might find you have invented many of your struggles altogether. Win the moments and you win life. YOU are Israel! You may struggle with G-d and man, but you can prevail--SO PREVAIL!