KRISTALLNACHT, A WINDOW TO OUR EXISTENCE

Kristallnacht (the night of shattered glass) ought to take on greater significance this year. Not just because this Friday and Shabbos  mark the 80th anniversary of what Adolph Hitler hoped to be “the beginning of the end” for Jews of Europe, but it brings with it a powerful message to each and every one of us, especially the “oy vey” Jews who, as a result of a lone lunatic in Pennsylvania, are all of a sudden beginning to question their physical safety at synagogue services.

Numbers aside (close to 100 Jews were murdered, while windows were shattered and buildings, including synagogues were set ablaze), Kristallnacht serves as a stark reminder that not only did the German government not protect the Jews, but it was Nazi officials themselves, who ordered German police officers and firemen to do nothing as the riots raged and buildings burned. Unless  blazes threatened Aryan-owned property, firefighters were forbidden to extinguish any flames. Yet, here in this country, immediately following the disaster in Pittsburgh, community-wide programs were held, including one here in Dallas, where the Chief of Police spoke, and a letter of support was read from the Mayor. A cogent argument can be made that random acts of mayhem and carnage notwithstanding, Jews living in the United States of America ought to feel more secure than Jews living in any other country, outside of Israel.

The flames of Kristallnacht shed light on yet another catastrophe that was very much evident in Germany. Whether out of zeitgeist or fear, many non-Jewish Germans either stood idly by, as the wanton destruction took place or cheered the frenzied mobs on, as those mobs wreaked havoc on synagogues as well as stores and homes owned by Jews. While I can only speak for Dallas, the outpouring of support and solidarity from non-Jewish friend and stranger alike, has been most heartening. For far too long throughout our history, when confronted by the deadly deed and venom of the anti-Semite, we Jews knew only too well, that we had no one to turn to but ourselves. Yet, within these last two weeks, it was the outside world who turned to us! I, for one, cannot help but feel that it is so very unfortunate, that we Jews do not show greater appreciation to this outpouring of solidarity.

Close to three decades ago, Reuven Bulka, Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Machzikei Hadas in Ottawa, Canada, published a book about misconceptions of Jewish life. One misconception concerns the breaking of the glass at a Jewish wedding. According to Rabbi Bulka, there is no connection between the breaking of the glass under the chuppah and the destruction of the holy Temple in Jerusalem. Rather, the breaking of the glass finds its origin in the Talmud, where a rabbi, an invited guest at a wedding, deliberately threw his glass at the wall, thereby shattering that glass, in an effort to temper the level of joy that had gotten out of hand. I should like to add yet another reason for the breaking of the glass under the chuppah.

Eighty years ago, in Germany, the breaking of glass signified destruction of a past, hatred of others and lives in turmoil. Under the chuppah, the breaking of the glass represents the exact opposite. Under the chuppah, the breaking of the glass represents building a future, love of each other, and a life of harmony.

Rabbi Yehudah ben Teima, a rabbinic sage who lived at the time of the Bar Kochba revolt (135 C.E.) reminds us that 80 is synonymous with strength. Let’s draw strength, knowing that we live in a country where the government protects Jews. Let’s draw strength, knowing that we live in a society where non-Jews are genuinely concerned about us and Israel. Let’s draw strength, knowing  that we are part of a tradition where, provided it is done under the chuppah, the shattering of glass is among the most beautiful sounds we ever hear.

PITTSBURGH APOPLEXY

“Know that my church and I cherish Tiferet Israel and all our Jewish neighbors and friends. We will hold space tomorrow in our worship service as we recognize the pain that is so present and fresh for you”. These sentiments were expressed by our next door neighbor, Pastor Mike Gregg of Royal Lane Baptist Church in an E mail I received Saturday night, amidst the plethora of other E Mails I quickly read and discarded from any number of Jewish organizations falling over each other as they raced to inveigh their feelings about the mass murder that took place at Shabbat services in a Pittsburgh synagogue earlier that day.

After responding eloquently to Pastor Gregg for his touching words, a silent, yet powerful “gevaldt”  rang through the air and invisible steam rose from my ears, as in my typical fashion, I reacted apoplectically to what was occurring as a result of the carnage in Pittsburgh. I cursed and damned Fox, CNN along with all the other sensationalist media outlets as they gave fodder to any number of border line “whack jobs” throughout the nation, who harbored similar thoughts and feelings towards Jews and could very well pull off a copycat carnage at another synagogue . Watching television news and reading about the massacre, pretty much guarantees these poor excuses for human beings the notoriety they seem to crave.

For those who felt the need to express solidarity and went and participated in  programs; for those who gathered to recite tehilim(psalms) I hope it soothed the wounds that they seem to feel were inflicted upon them. I for one fail to see any connection between these efforts and the mitzvah of Nichum Aveilim or comforting the bereaved. Obviously, I am the minority, but for anyone who initially felt at a loss for words or actions, I would urge that the following three suggestions be taken to heart:
Write Fox, CNN as well as any other media outlet and express outrage for their capitalizing on Jewish blood. Reporting the incident is one thing. Exploiting it to increase viewership and inadvertently risking further Jewish blood being spilt by psychos in society is quite something else. Jewish blood is not for sale! And damned be those who contribute to such spillage!

The names of the victims have been publicized. For those for whom it was important enough to take the time and make the effort to attend the solidarity gatherings, I would hope that equal time could be taken and equal effort could be made to  find the addresses of the bereaved families and come Chanukah, a note be sent expressing the feeling that our heritage is one where neither flames nor souls can be snuffed out. If such an effort is for whatever reason not doable, then send those letters to Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh.

Last but not least, remember that we Jews are stiff-necked people. It’s in our DNA. We Jews are contrarians! If what took place at Shabbat synagogue services in Pittsburgh was so devastating,  has it occurred to anyone that the best response would be to attend Shabbat services this coming week and the week after that and the week after that? Let’s see how much coverage the news media gives us, thereby showing all Americans as well as those living in other countries how we respond to travesty. Shouldn’t we be done, wringing hands and beating our breasts? Let’s put the “Oy Vey’s” of the previous generation in the past. Seventy-five years ago, Hirsh Glick also responded to a carnage of our people. Here’s what he wrote: “un vu gefaln s’iz a shprits fun undzer blut, shprotsn vet dort undzer gvure, undzer mut”!
Wherever any drop of Jewish blood is spilled, there our bravery and courage will come to be filled.

May the souls of the victims find immediate repose up in heaven together with countless other souls whose lives were snuffed out over the centuries simply because they were Jews. May the victims of the families know that we are thinking of them, long after the emotional response of these past few days has been consigned to history.

BANKRUPTCY

“Na (sic) ha (sic) can you compete!” exclaimed my late Uncle Morris in his Polish accented English, as he commiserated with my father over their plight as small independent clothing store owners, attempting to eke out a livelihood in a city with more top notch retail stores than one could have imagined.

My Uncle Morris’ words came to mind last week, as I read about Sears recently filing for bankruptcy. Given the current retail climate in this country, Sears simply couldn’t compete.  My Uncle Morris’ words came to mind however for yet another reason. As a congregational rabbi, I’ve come to realize, that although in all likelihood I am a lone voice crying out in the wilderness, when it comes to competing, unlike retail stores,  synagogues shouldn’t compete.

Yes, competition is part and parcel of human nature. Communism was destined to fail from the start, because it did away with the individual as well as competitive spirit of the individual. I’ll be the first profess  that competition, if correctly executed (and it hardly ever is), is quite healthy and even desirable for humans. The intent and goal of Judaism however, isn’t to make us more human; the intent and goal of Judaism is to make us more humane. Competition is part and part of human nature. Judaism on the other hand, challenges us to rise above human nature. How else can we explain the basis of kashrut, which by its very essence, is designed to suppress human urges and to ask of us to work on rechanneling human nature? Judaism asks that each of us incorporate a non- compete clause into our very nature.

“Competition brings out the best in products and the worst in people” according to David Sarna. Recently, I returned a call to someone from the greater New York City area who was looking to relocate to Dallas. It didn’t take long to realize that I was falling prey to the very competition against which I am inveighing. “I’m sure that you’ve reached out to other rabbis as well” I said in my phone conversation to the gentleman. “And how many rabbis have taken the time to get back to you”, I smugly asked. Implicit in my question of course, was the fact that I provide better service than do other rabbis. By asking about other rabbis, I succumbed to the very worst aspect of competition; I showed that I was there for him by pointing out that other rabbis were not. Mea culpa!

Yet as uncalled for as my question was, I was mild in my condemnation of those “competing” against me. One need only watch political commercials being presently aired to see the very worse aspect of competition. We call it negative campaigning. Rather than present their attributes and explain why one should vote for them, political candidates  point out the shortcomings, drawbacks and faults  of their rivals. In Judaism, we call that Loshon HaRa or slander. As far as our sages were concerned, Loshon Hara is about as low as one can go.

How did it ever happen that synagogues capitulated to clichés and worn out phrases such as “warm congregations,” “friendly services” and “caring rabbis”? How is it that congregations  deigned to respond to the repugnant term “Shul shopping” ? Recently, I heard a speaker tell us how Jews are defecting from Modern Orthodoxy, because it does not fill their needs as far as women’s participation and involvement. Politically, the current trend of Modern Orthodoxy is also not to their liking. Excuse me? I was always under the impression that religion was for prayer and connecting with G-d. How did it happen that religion must now compete for our political comfort as well as our personal view of the world? The real travesty however is that so many rabbis and so many congregations will spare no expense to keep the shul shopping congregant, real or perceived,  satisfied.

There is however one type of competition that congregations would do well to embrace. And that is competition against oneself. Rather than worry about what other synagogues are doing best, congregations are better served when they are concerned about their own performance, and constantly looking to live up to their potential and seek new spiritual challenges.

Perhaps it’s time for congregations and rabbis to show what they stand for. Perhaps it’s time for congregations and rabbis to no longer fall prey to merchandising. When all is said and done, since its inception, Judaism has shown itself to be impervious to bankruptcy.

 

PORITZ

I think that it’s fair say that a significant segment of the Jewish population  here in these United States as well as in Israel and elsewhere, reacted with a despondent “say it ain’t so”  when we were informed that Nikki Haley, the United States ambassador to the United States tendered her resignation last week. I also think it’s fair to say that more than a few articles have already been written praising the former South Carolina Governor to the hilt, as she unfailingly and staunchly supported and defended Israel.
In keeping with my philosophy that rabbis should remain apolitical, I choose to neither to praise nor to bury Nikki Haley. Rather it is the Jewish community here and throughout the world that I have in my crosshairs.

The Yiddish word “Poritz” denotes Polish (or Russian) aristocracy who were landowners. In the mid-seventeenth century there were a goodly number of these landowners living in Eastern Poland, who, much to the consternation of the local peasant population, owned tracts of land just over the border in Western Ukraine. Typically, the land housed a “tzerkveh”  or a Ukrainian Orthodox Church as well as a pub. Typically, the Poritz leased this tract of land to a Jew, placing him in the unenviable position of a middle man between the poverty-ridden Ukrainian peasant and the wealthy Polish landlord.

The acclaimed Yiddish novelist Sholem Asch in his book “Kiddush HaShem” depicts a gathering of “Arendarren” or Jewish land lessees, where the discussion soon centers itself around the Poritz. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t take long for a competition to unfold among the Arendarren, with each attempting to out-boast the other as to who had the better Poritz and why.

I cannot help but feel that subconsciously, many Jews in these United States, especially those in leadership positions look upon the United States Ambassador to the United Nations as a modern day Poritz. As such, Nikki Haley was regarded as a most benevolent Poritz.

Just as the physical wellbeing of the “arendar” as well as those Jews who in time settled around the Polish owned land was largely dependent on the attitude and nature of the Poritz, so too is the political wellbeing of Israel largely dependent on the attitude and nature of the American Ambassador to the United Nations (as well as the administration that the Ambassador represents).

The very fact that the United States has a seat on the U.N. Security Counsel serves to underscore the position played by the Poritz . Should it happen that the American Ambassador even abstains when the Security Council holds a vote to censure Israel for the unforgivable crime of defending itself against terrorism, American Jewish leadership  immediately prepares to sit Shiva. Soon after Nikki Haley assumed her position at the United States, American leadership put all orders for Shiva platters on indefinite hold.

Obviously, I have no way of knowing, but I cannot help but surmise, that at present, a good many American Jewish leaders are finding it hard to sleep and, in some cases, even holding their breath until an announcement comes out of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, informing us of Nikki Haley’s successor. I also cannot help but surmise, that behind the scenes, messages are being sent, hints are being dropped and ears are being whispered into by these very same breath-holders in an attempt to persuade our Commander in Chief to take a good look at and consider individuals that would rise to the same Poritz position as did Nikki Haley. When all is said and done, what we have here is a different country, a different culture, a brave new world, but the same old Poritz.

CLEAN MEAT

Clean meat is a term I recently added to my vocabulary. It refers to meat that is grown in laboratories from animal cells. Environmentalists and animal activists are proponents of clean meat because it could produce the flavor of hamburgers and sausages without the greenhouse gases and animal suffering of the factory farming system. Jewish consumers are proponents of clean meat because it could produce kosher bacon et al.

Because I am neither a scientist nor a nutritionist, I find the technological reasoning behind clean meat to be beyond my purview. As a rabbi, as one who believes that I have a fair understanding of American Jewry, I cannot help but feel that the interest – mildly put – in the ability to artificially produce bacon and other heretofore forbidden food products is rooted in the following three reasons:

American Jews, observant American Jews do not seem to be concerned about the prohibition found in the Torah adjuring us not to act according to the abominations of foreign nations. Rather than expand the prohibition to include all foreign nations, our rabbinic sage strove to show that it applies to the seven Canaanite nations and that kosher is solely limited to ingredients. Therefore, from a kosher standpoint, rabbinic authorities seem to have no problem giving their seal of approval to chemically laced, nitrate loaded and artery clogging  nutrition free foods. Apparently, contemporary rabbinic greats as well as those who oversee kashrut agencies are not in any way troubled that we have succeeded in mimicking American culture as far as fast food (hamburgers, hotdogs and pizza), nor do they seem to be concerned that more often than not, observant Jews consume these fast foods in “animal position” that is to say, while standing up (as Jews, we are mandated to eat like a mentsch, in a seated position). Having shown that we are halachically (in accordance with the dictates of Jewish law) capable of duplicating Big Macs and Big Whoppers, it’s only logical to segue into duplicating an Egg McMuffin and  a (Whataburger) Breakfast Platter using clean meat.

I believe that it’s fair to say that there is a disproportionate number of American Jews  in the fields of law, medicine, accounting and comedy. I cannot help but wonderer if there is a disproportionate number of American Jews when it comes to being curious. Even though Adam and Eve had no religious affiliation (we read about them last Shabbat) did their sense of curiosity filter down more to American Jews than to any other people? Are observant American Jews more infatuated in foods that are verboten, than say observant American Moslems? Does Mohammed crave bacon and eggs as much Menachem? As apt an addage as “curiosity killed the cat” may be, perhaps it doesn’t apply to Jews when it comes to heretofore forbidden foods that are suddenly deemed kosher because they constitute clean meat.

The Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) forbids us to remind a person of his past deeds. Heaven forfend that I should single out any one person, but we are living in an age of “Ba’alei Teshuvah” or those who began to observe the dictates of Judaism at some point in their lives. They constitute a sizeable portion of the Orthodox community in contemporary America. Unlike the “Frum from Birth” or those born into  observant Jewish family, “Ba’alei Teshuvah” gave up a great deal, including in some cases forbidden foods when they embraced their new lifestyle. Those “Frum from Birth” never tasted shrimp, bacon or cheeseburgers. Frum from Birth Jews neither long for the taste nor savor the flavor. Not so, the “Ba’alei Teshuvah community. The Ba’alei Teshuvah community has every reason to anticipate the day when clean meat hits the market. However private a matter it might be, upon tasting clean meat kosher bacon or similar, “Ba’alei Teshuvah will have every right to silently intone “Chadeish Yameinu K’Kedem” or renew our days as of old.

RESERVING A SPECIAL THOUGHT

As a firm believer that a special thought deserves a reciprocal special thought, I should like to communicate to Pope Francis, that just as he reserves a special thought for the Jewish community as he stood at the site of the former Vilna Ghetto the other day  on the 75th anniversary of its liquidation, so too do I reserve a special thought for him as well. Actually, I reserve three special thoughts for the Holy See:

Your standing at the site of the former  Vilna Ghetto or at the site of any Ghetto reminiscent of the Holocaust or at any Concentration Camp or Extermination Camp leaves me totally unmoved.

Regardless of any special thought that you reserve, I don’t hold you responsible for any of the atrocities committed against my people under the reign of terror of Adolph Hitler. You were a mere eight years old at the end of World War II. I don’t even hold Pope Pius XII responsible, despite all the controversy that surrounds him. Special thoughts should be reserved in the minds and on the consciences of children and grandchildren of those who were responsible for the Vilna Ghetto as well as the liquidation of Lithuanian Jews that soon ensued. Let them “Klap an al-chet” (beat their breasts) for the sins of their fathers. Any special thoughts you reserve in Lithuania should be reserved in any of the multitude of Catholic churches found throughout the country. Reserve special thoughts as you ask forgiveness from your savior for the inhumanities committed by his faithful while they either ignored or perverted his teachings.

Reserve special thoughts for the Rhineland massacres, where German Christians murdered innocent Jews living in the cities of Speyer, Worms and Mainz. Visit churches that date back to the 11th century  and stand before the crucifix as you reserve special thoughts for the Jewish community. While you are at it. You might ask forgiveness for sullying the name of the Nazarene whose mission was to preach love as well as peace on earth. Stand there in front of the one who suffered at Calvary, just outside of Jerusalem and consider how he would have suffered that much more had he witnessed  murdering masses committing reprehensible and unspeakable acts, thereby besmirching his name and reputation.

Speaking of Jerusalem, reserve special thoughts for 160 churches in Jerusalem (including churches within schools and Christian institutions) that are not subject to defacement and desecration the way our synagogues are throughout cities in Europe. While you reserve special thoughts, you might also offer up a prayer of thanksgiving that the close to 15,000 Christians living in Jerusalem have never feared the Jew. Unlike Jews living in predominantly Christian countries in Europe, who no longer dare wear Jewish identification such as a yarmulke on their head or a Chai around their neck in public for fear of attack or worse, Christians mill about any and all neighborhoods of Jerusalem, feeling completely safe and secure. Perhaps the Holy See will consider a trip to the Holy Land  devoid of any political agenda, simply to express gratitude for the well-being and flourishing of the small Christian community  amidst a Jewish majority.
Your Holiness, history, Jewish existence and safety has been dependent on action and behavior -both by Jews themselves and especially by the outside Christian world. Never throughout our history as a people, has Jewish existence and safety been dependent on  special thoughts reserved by you or anyone else for that matter.

Your Holiness, there is one other special thought that I reserve – actually, it is a prayer. I reserve a special thought that you are able to devote your energies to dealing with the many issues that currently plague the Catholic Church. I will fully understand your not having the time to visit Holocaust memorials where you reserve special thoughts.

SIT- IN

An etymologist I’m not. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the term “sit-in” dates back close to six decades. It was at a lunch counter in early 1960 at a Woolworths in Greensboro North Carolina where four African American college students remained seated despite the fact that they were refused service. Unbeknownst to those four college students, the very first sit-in involved the descendants of Abraham. It first took place thousands of years ago and continues until this very day. Unlike the sit-in of the four college students, our sit-in not in any way connected to race. Independent of the fact that it was mandated in the Torah, our sit -in seeks to address three inequalities.

The very first inequality is that of physical security. Unlike other people, neither hurricanes nor other acts of G-d serve as stark reminders for us that our houses offer absolutely nothing when it comes to physical security. For longer than we care to remember, Jewish houses have been blown down through the huffs and puffs of anti-Semitism. Stories abound of those who managed to survive Der  Fuhrer’s inferno, having the chutzpah to return to the house where they once lived. The Policja (Polish for Police) were at the scene lest the Zydzi (Jews) caused the occupants any trouble. For us, the Sukkah serves as a reminder that the sticks and stones of our houses will offer as much physical protection as the schach covering.

The second inequality is that we – and that means all of us – have yet to properly understand the divine word. “So that your generations will know that in Sukkot, I seated the Children of Israel when I brought them out of the land of Egypt,” explains the Torah (Leviticus 23:43). Absolutely no information exists that our ancestors who left Egypt dwelled in any structure other than tents! Sukkot is a geographic location. Sukkot was the first stop for our ancestors after they had miraculously crossed the sea after leaving Egypt. It would therefore make far more sense to understand that we are required by the Torah to locate a place once known as Sukkot and vacation there for seven days from the 15th of Tishrei until the 22nd of Tishrei! It may very well be that our dwelling in the Sukkah is a statement on our parts showing that the very same  rabbinic sages who were so truly divinely inspired and so unbelievably brilliant in interpreting the Torah, nevertheless had no way of foreseeing the travels and travails of their people. It’s one thing to dwell in a roofless hut in Sachse on Sukkot; it’s quite another thing to dwell in a roofless hut in Saskatoon on Sukkot.

The third inequality is a protest. With Yom Kippur mere days behind us, one would expect that the efficacy of the Day of Atonement to be fresh in our minds as well in HaShem’s heart. If we have been successful in having all of our sins expunged, then our relationship with our Maker ought to duplicate that of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Just as they had free reign of pretty much every tree that grew from the ground, so too should be the case with us. The prerequisite of schach (that which grows from the ground but has been detached from the ground) ought to take on a powerful new understanding. By having a Sukkah sit-in, we are in effect demanding the same accommodation afforded to Adam and Eve! If those who are sin-free deserve paradisaical surroundings, then surely the Sukkah with its faux Garden of Eden covering serves the purpose.

Hopefully the Sukkah sit-n will grow in number over the years. Hopefully, the Sukkah sit – in will grow in understanding as well. Let it be a statement on our parts against the supposed physical security of our house, against the fact that our ancestors never dwelt in booths during their forty-year odyssey in the wilderness, against the fact that we fail to realize that dwelling in the Sukkah is our just dessert in that we are Adam and Eve redux.

IF

There’s one practice that many engage in prior to Yom Kippur, that causes me to lose my appetite. Well-meaning individuals approach others and parrot the following meaningless phrase:

“If I have offended you in any way over this past year, I ask your forgiveness.”

The word “if”, suggests uncertainty. Not only does “if”  indicate that such an offense may or may not have occurred, “if” indicates that the one asking for forgiveness is clueless as far as having committed  the offense, whatever it may have been in the first place. I’m not aware of anyone ever having questioned the aphorism “everybody loves somebody sometime”. Shouldn’t the converse to that aphorism also hold true, namely “everybody hurts somebody sometime”? And if the likelihood exists that we have hurt somebody sometime, especially those with whom we have frequent contact, then surely there are better ways of wiping the slate clean.

If one truly wishes to make amends, one must learn to live by the following truism: “We just don’t realize the impact that we have on others…good and especially bad”. As long as we interact with others, chances are good that we will hurt the feelings of others. Most of the time, we won’t even realize it. And quite often, when a third- party points this out to us, that we have in fact hurt the feelings of another person, up go our defenses and we suddenly become a babe in the woods. “What did I say” we ask in all innocence. Short of being a saint, as long as we are alive and healthy, as long as we possess the power of speech, we will offend. The are no “ifs” about it.

The most meaningless, vacuous phrase, I’ve ever heard is: “I know how you must feel”. I have heard fellow rabbis use it. The perfect response to such inanity would be “You couldn’t possibly know how I feel”. We are individuals. We are unique. No two people respond to the same situation in the exact same way. Each person responds to hurt (or joy) in his or her very own way.

A close runner up to the most meaningless, vacuous phrase, but one that in all probability pours salt on the wounds is “I don’t understand why you are so upset”. Anyone obtuse enough to add this hurtful phrase is partially correct. Such a person does not understand. Such a person does not understand that he or she has hurt someone’s feelings; such a person does not understand how to ameliorate the situation, when told that feelings have been hurt.

If one is truly sincere as far as apologizing,  then rather than offer the meaningless “if I have offended you in any way”  it behooves that person to approach the one to whom an apology is being offered with the following: “in all likelihood, I’ve said or have done something hurtful or embarrassing to you since last Yom Kippur. Could you please point it out to me, because I’m going to make every effort not to do it again. Had I taken the time to realize the implications of my word or deed, I’d like to believe that I would have stopped myself in my tracks” Alternately, one could set things right by approaching another person with whom there has been much contact and  sharing the following: “as a far from perfect human being, I need your help speaking to HaShem on Yom Kippur. If you could just point out how I have wronged you since last Yom Kippur and allow me to properly apologize for it, you will be enabling me to present myself before my Maker as one who is sincerely looking to improve my ways”.

With Yom Kippur behind us, let’s leave the “if’s” to HaShem. Let uncertainties be left to our Maker. We so much as said so in the powerful magnum opus prayer U’NeTaneh Tokef. With an entire year ahead of us, let there be no if’s in our interpersonal relations. Chances are that we will hurt or wrong those with whom we have frequent contact. Let’s ask those who seem to be so much of our lives to point out where we went wrong so that we can make it right.

No if’s, ands or buts!

HOW SWEET IT IS

Unlike non-Jews whose lives are guided solely by the Gregorian calendar and unless we Jews give in to copy-cat behavior, we do not wish one another a Happy New Year. Instead, we extend blessings for a good year, a healthy year and a sweet year. It is this third wish that ought to appeal to our tastes more than any other wish that we either extend or reciprocate.

Wouldn’t it make for a much more interesting Rosh Hashanah, if at each meal, instead of honey, we dipped a piece of our  round challah as well as a slice of our apple into a different type of sugar? We could begin with brown sugar at the first Rosh Hashanah meal, segue into confectioners’ sugar for lunch the first day, go over to sanding sugar (coarse granules, often dyed different colors) for dinner that night and conclude by using table sugar for the final Rosh Hashanah meal, at lunch, the second day of the festival. Aside from the argument found in the Talmud that the honey in question was fig honey rather than bee honey, we would do well to wonder why, in emphasizing a sweet year, we grant honey – that is to say bee honey – an exclusive each Rosh Hashanah?

Those who insist that bee honey is not kosher are unfortunately jumping to conclusions. Savannah Bee, Busy Bee, Sue Bee are three companies that to the best of my knowledge have kosher certification. All three, sell honey derived from bees and honeycombs. Perhaps one of the reasons that honey is our dip of choice is to remind us that an essential ingredient for a a good year is not to jump to conclusions. Just as there is no foundation in claiming that honey from bees can’t be kosher, so too could many a rift have been avoided, innumerable friendships could have remained strong, and untold individuals would have been spared from looking foolish, had all the facts been assembled and carefully assessed a situation. Once someone forgoes the necessary facts and jumps to conclusions, there is simply no way of knowing where that individual will land.

Life is complex. Rarely, if ever are things straightforward. No different is the explanation that while the bee is germane to the production of honey, the bee does not actually “produce” the honey, the same way the cow produces milk. That too is anything but straightforward. Each year, we are apt to find that our pathways of life are filled with blind curves, hairpin turns, lane closures and detours, false stars, breakdowns and accidents. Perhaps for these reasons, we never wish one another an “easy” year. Life is not intended to be easy.

It might very well be that honey is the best visual lingual aid when it comes to explaining the aphorism “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. Like so many other foods that any number of us simply love to eat, what is of essence is not the process, but the final product. Few, if any are interested in how hotdogs are made, how hamburgers start out and how Jell-O comes into being. Similarly, I have yet to meet anyone who has been devastated or even hurt  by somebody else’s intentions; I have yet to encounter someone who has been publicly humiliated by another person’s thoughts. It is the bee that stings, not the honey.

We ask HaShem’s blessing for a year that is mere days old. Let’s develop a taste for wishing each other  sweet times ahead. We pray that 5779 is as honey of a year. .

MOORE AND McCAIN

It’s been close to half a century since Annie Johnson planned her own funeral. Annie Johnson was the black housekeeper played by actress Juanita Moore in the remake of the all-time tear-jerker movie “Imitation of Life.” Knowing that her death was imminent, Annie – much to the chagrin of Miss Lora (played by Lana Turner) – leaves no stone unturned, as she prepares for her final journey. I thought about Annie Johnson ever since I learned that for the last several months, John McCain, two-time presidential aspirant has been doing precisely the same in anticipation of his own demise. Senator McCain’s penchant for details is both understandable, as well as justified, given the fact that for five years he was a P.O.W. where he had no control over his own life as he suffered under the most inhumane conditions, including torture. I therefore begrudge neither the fictitious Annie Johnson, nor the true to life John McCain for attending to such arrangements. In fact, their doing so has provided me with much insight and understanding.
For every Annie Johnson and John McCain who were so very particular about their own death, there are innumerable individuals who are so very carefree about their own life. Despite a culture that is built around career choice, independent of the fact that our society seems to be saturated with planners urging that we look out for our financial future, there are a goodly number in our country who prefer to cast their fate to the wind. How ironic, that one’s send off from this world, one’s farewell from the land of the living which typically lasts but a few short hours, merits such time and effort and meticulous planning, yet a life which will hopefully continue for years, if not decades, is guided by the attitude of que sera, sera!
Yes, it is true that more often than not, life is filled with the unexpected, as well as the unknown. But it is also true that playing life’s cards that are dealt us, requires forethought, as well as contingencies. Neither ought to be relegated to decisions that are made on the spur of the moment. “Every hand’s a winner and every hand’s a loser” are quite likely among the most misunderstood lyrics. Rather than refer to the five cards dealt us, “every hand” refers to our own five-fingered hand and how we use it to respond to that which life hands us. Those of us who have taken the time to plan and prepare will come off as winners; those of us who fail to take the time to plan and prepare will come off as losers.
In less than a week, we pray that the heavenly hand will be inscribing and ultimately sealing our names in the heavenly Book of Life. Both the inscribing, as well as the sealing, ought to serve as a sign that our prayers have been answered. Yet, before HaShem affixes His imprimatur, He has every right to ask us about our plans for the future. It makes perfect sense for HaShem to turn to each of us and ask what plans, if any, we have for the year that He has granted us. It’s totally understandable for HaShem to want to know whether the plans we have are general in nature or have been thought ought to the minutest detail.  For those of you who take the exact opposite approach and cite the Yiddish aphorism “a mentsch tracht un Gott lacht” or “HaShem chuckles as we plan and prepare,” I would add yet one more component. As much as HaShem might chuckle at our planning, HaShem cries at those who fail to plan, in that it shows that they fail to take life seriously.
Let’s applaud the fictitious Annie Johnson played by Juanita Moore and the very real John McCain for planning their funerals. Despite the twists, turns and detours on the paths we take during our years here on earth, despite the unexpected pockets of turbulence that jolt us along the way, let’s laud those who plan their lives.