Friday, January 15, 2021

War of Words: Back to Slavery (Va'era)

he past few weeks have reached historic lows. I feel distressed and raw inside. The feelings resemble ones I’ve experienced before during times of great loss. Then, however, I could react naturally and honestly with no fears of retaliation but rather with hopes (and some certainty) that my heartache would land upon compassionate hearts and in understanding minds. Today, I feel no such confidence. Friends, I’ve lost freedom. We all have--regardless of your beliefs. I mourn its loss. I fear its loss. This loss is different than the others because now my words and heartache must be self-censored. If I won’t do it, they will. And, we all know who the “they” are. In good faith, we’ve shared our lives, our dreams, our pictures, our dinners, our milestones, our vacations, etc., on platforms we’d obviously come to trust and like. They seduced us with their charms and turned us into addicts. They lulled us into a false world and a sense of comfort. They sucked us into a black hole. But then they slowly changed the rules and then not so slowly. But now we are in the Matrix and how do we get out? How powerless are we?

But as someone who looks at all things that happen through spiritual eyes inspired by my Jewish faith, I have to ask a vital question that takes priority to all others: Why did G-d allow this to happen to us? What’s G-d’s opinion on words? My query leads me to conclude that we are entirely to blame. Hidden behind flat screens, we’ve become brazen and bold and increasingly disrespectful to each other throughout the years; Gossip, rudeness and character assassination are our brazen creations without  regard to how we are betraying the holy power of speech, the tool with which G-d created the world: “And G-d said, let there be light….” We however, have not used our words to create but rather to destroy. We express ourselves with arrogance and with no regard for consequences, neither personal or societal or spiritual--and in impractical venues at that. We set the social media  networks on fire with our ire, but how many have expressed their acidic sentiments, many completely just, in letters to our elected leaders, corporations, financial institutions, religious or community leaders, etc. Cherished readers, we had the power to create light, but we chose darkness. Yes we had the power, for if we didn’t they would not be censoring us now, would they? Words are the key to freedom. 

In this week’s Torah reading, Va’era, G-d sends Moses on a mission to liberate the Jewish nation from Egypt. Does G-d arm him with bows and arrows? No! G-d tells Moses to go talk to the Israelites and to Pharaoh. Talk!? After spending 210 years in a land not their own, 116 of those years shackled and enslaved, G-d wants Moses to talk his way out of Egypt? That feat would be hard enough even if you had the oratory skills of Prime Minister Netanyahu or President Clinton, but Moses had a speech impediment.  Moses beseeched God to find another messenger for his divine mission because he was “not a man of words.”  But it turns out not having words, even as God’s chief spokesman, is not a disqualifier.  And so God tells Moses: "Who gave man a mouth, or who makes [one] dumb or deaf or seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? So now, go! I will be with your mouth, and I will instruct you what you shall speak.”  In fact, we learn that when Moses received Torah from Sinai his speech impediment was cured. Let that be a lesson to us all. When we wrap our tongues around the “right” words, decent words, G-dly words, our message comes out just perfectly and it also hits its mark. But we need to give G-d something with which to work. Profanities and hatefulness are not vessels worthy of G-d’s intervention or blessing. 

There is a belief in Judaism that each person is allotted a certain number of words in this lifetime and thus it’s incumbent upon each of us to use them wisely, keep them clean of slander, gossip and curses. G-d records our every word as does Alexa and our other devices but with greater efficiency. One day those words will all be played back and then more than ever, we will hate the sound of our own voice. We will condemn ourselves for the things we said and also for the times we didn’t speak up in prayer and in kindness, and even in peaceful protest. We must speak up and speak out in the right venues. We too now are in the same conundrum as the Israelites. Do we choose to stay in slavery and in silence because that’s what we know and where we are comfortable, what we’ve become used to? Or do we make a mass exodus from the platforms whose initial wooing and cooing have now led to our woes and consider us foes?

We can’t forget that the Israelites, too, did not heed Moses’ words. Wrapped up in their slavery, they could not fathom there was actually a way out. They showed no faith in God and had descended into such depths of impurity that they were almost not worthy of being saved at all. They became so accustomed to their servitude that most did not want to leave Egypt. Have we become willing slaves too? Only 1/5th of the Israelites left Egypt, those reluctant to leave died in the plague of darkness. How fitting! Will we succumb to the chains imposed on us and die in the darkness too? I won’t. We must peacefully fight for the light, for without it, we are all dead men. May G-d help us all!

A Facebook friend wrote on his wall that we cannot be censored because we can still talk to G-d. That is very true. But, is G-d still willing to listen? Don’t wait too long. Speak up in prayer and in purpose. If we are suffering the pain of censorship, then G-d didn’t like what we were saying and/or how we were saying it. G-d punishes measure for measure (middah kneged middah). Use dignified speech to save the word: personally, professionally, and politically…in all realms. Yes, I know what your thinking--but alas, their turn will come too, and soon. Dear antagonists who loudly rejoice over our silencing, it behooves you to study history: Soon they will come for you and there will be nary a voice remaining then to speak up for you.

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
     Because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
     Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
     Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Friday, January 8, 2021

What Happened to My Big Fat "Thank You"?

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. You are here to serve them and once you’ve done all you can, your usefulness has expired. They will find others to use and abuse. These thankless people 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 this 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 G-d and didn’t want to be outdone or overpowered by the people who made him successful. 


The Torah teaches us a very different lesson about gratitude. After all the Egyptians did to the Israelites over their long years of slavery, 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 and easier even if only for a moment. Sometimes it is just a merciful moment that can save us from despair.


Other examples in Judaism offer us sensitivity training and appreciation:  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;  Moses wouldn’t strike the waters and turn them to blood because the waters had once saved his life; We hide the challah on Shabbat under a cloth so as not to embarrass it when we first pray over the wine. All out of respect and gratitude. The Torah also prohibits needless destruction, directly or indirectly, of anything that may be of use to people. 


Thus, if inanimate objects which served us can’t be dismissed irreverently or disrespected, imagine how much more so are human beings to be treated with appreciation, dignity 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 the Torah commands us to say thank you also when we finish satisfying our appetites. 


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...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 Mashiach will come. 


Everything comes from G-d. Even if we can’t stand the “messengers” He uses to execute His will, we have to be thankful. When we are not, we snub not only those who help us, but G-d as well. The Hebrew word for “thank you” is todah 

(תודה); When those same letters are permuted, they spell the word dotah (דותה) which means “illness.” When we are unthankful we are like an emotionally “sick” person and we separate ourselves from the Almighty. 


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? Have you rewritten history to fit your own narrative wherein you are a superhero and the other is vilified? Or are you a mensch? Are you a grateful person?


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 G-d’s will. He too gives endlessly and gets little thanks. Just 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!  Watch the shiur on YouTube:

(In Memory of my uncle Joe, Yechiel ben Mosheh, may his neshama have an aliyah; And for refuah shleima for Rivkah bat Menucha Mintzia)