THE LUCK OF THE IRISH

Pesach and Easter are not the only festivals that either overlap or fall in close proximity to one another. During a Jewish leap year, the same can often be said about Purim and St. Patrick’s Day.

With the Irish swinging their shillelaghs this past Sunday, and the Jews swirling their graggers this  Wednesday night and Thursday morning, perhaps it’s time to see that when all is said and done, St. Patrick’s day sheds light on Purim.

“The luck of the Irish” is a phrase not uncommon to many, if not most Americans. Other than being spurious, in that it is anything but complimentary – it implies that the success of the Irish came about through good fortune, rather than aptitude or know how – “the luck of the Irish” should give pause to us Jews.

Despite the multitudes of “Mazel Tovs” (good lucks) that Jews have joyfully wished one another over the ages, there is no place for mazel in Judaism. The Talmud so much as says so, when it states:  “Ein mazal l’Yisrael” or “mazel does not apply to Jews.”

Arguably, the Talmud is referring to what we now know as the horoscope. Jews, says Judaism,  ought not to pay heed to the horoscope. In true Greek or Roman fashion, the horoscope implies that the constellations play a significant role in our lives. Instead of Pisces, Virgo rising, a Jew, a believing Jew, knows implicitly that it is  HaShem who plays a significant role in his life. Small wonder then, that our rabbinic sages disqualified professional crap shooters and the like to serve as witnesses. The more one believes in the roll of the dice or the luck of the draw, explain our rabbinic sages, the less one is likely to believe in the dependability of our Heavenly Father.

Although the great sage Maimonides recognizes the presence of certain omens – for example, if a man marries a woman and begins to advance in his career, he has every reason to see his wife as a contributing factor to his success – he cautions that these omens are in no way to be seen in the context of mazel. Rather it should be understood, explains the Rambam (an acronym for Maimonides) that it was the wife believing in her husband, that served as the impetus for the  husband reason to believe in himself. It wasn’t Zodiac symbol or the spin of a wheel that brought about the change; it was the husband himself who brought about the change, all because of the invaluable support provided by his wife.

Herein lies the powerful message found in St. Patricks Day shedding light on Purim. The very name “Purim” reminds us, that aside from irrational hatred,  the arch villain Haman was guided by the luck of the draw. The very day that Haman would settle on to change the history of the Jews in Persia was chosen by a lottery! By contradistinction, Esther, after finally having been convinced by Mordechai to appear before the King, leaves the following instructions: “Go, assemble all the Jews to be found in Shushan  and fast (and presumably pray) for me”. Esther’s response to the diabolical machinations of Haman was a thoroughly Jewish one. Ultimately, Haman left it all to chance; ultimately, Esther left nothing to chance.

Last week, I watched a renowned Reform Rabbi interview Deborah Lipstadt, Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. Professor Lipstadt revealed that as a child, Emanuel Rackman was her family rabbi.

“You were very  lucky,” offered the interviewing rabbi. “I was very blessed,” countered Professor Lipstadt

BROKENHEARTED PARITY

I was still in the single digits when Sarah Vaughn’s “Broken Hearted Melody” hit the airwaves. Although the concept of brokenhearted was well beyond my comprehension at the time, the melody made an impression on me. So much so, that I thought of “brokenhearted” earlier this week, just as chocolate manufacturers, florists, and jewelers were (hopefully) enjoying their busiest season of the year. As one who lives in a Jewish world, I began to reflect on three (though there were others, as well) in the Torah who were brokenhearted.

“I will descend to the grave mourning for my son,” laments a distraught Jacob, as he identifies  a blood-stained, torn tunic. Yes, parents should not have favorites, but the Torah does not hesitate to point that what “should be” and what “is” differentiates the ideal world from the real world. And it is clear, that living in a real world, Joseph is Jacob’s favorite child. The loss of any child is a tragedy; the loss of a favorite child is a disaster. Because it was a disaster, Jacob refused to be comforted, despite any and all attempts on the part of his other children. The next time the Torah focuses in on Jacob is when he chastises his sons, exclaiming “Don’t just stand there. There’s a famine raging. I heard that there is food available in Egypt. Why don’t you make yourselves useful for a change!” Caustic, accusatory words coming from a brokenhearted father, whose ability to smile and share a kind word, died when he learned that Joseph died.

“Give me children, or I’ll die,” pleads a frantic and frustrated Rachel, as she sees her sister Leah bring four sons into this world. The bitter irony of it all! Leah, for whom Jacob had no love, ends up having his babies. Rachel, for whom Jacob’s love knew no bounds, was unable to return that love in the form of offspring.  Rachel remains barren. She also remains bitter. Yet, neither Jacob nor Rachel can be held responsible for Rachel’s plight. Jacob so much as says so, as he unleashes his anger at his beloved. “What am I? G-d? Don’t you dare complain to me. If it were up to me, you would have been a mother long ago!” Jacob may have excelled when it came to blessing Ephraim and Menashe, the two grandsons ultimately born to him and Rachel, but Jacob’s ability to provide comfort to his brokenhearted wife was an entirely different story.

“And HaShem saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was nothing but evil.” HaShem was beside Himself! It was one thing to grant mankind freedom of choice. Mankind consistently choosing evil over good as a result of freedom of choice, was quite something else! Was it that mankind was inherently evil, or was it that mankind was oblivious to the multitude of blessings that HaShem set forth in this world, that were mankind’s for the taking? Either way, HaShem had second thoughts about having created mankind. HaShem was brokenhearted.

Jacob is brokenhearted, Rachel is brokenhearted, HaShem is brokenhearted. Although all three scenarios differ from one another, a certain parity exists. In all three cases, an injustice prevails; in all three cases the hurt that is felt is unmerited. Brokenheartedness is a direct result of undeserved hurt. Had Jacob’s children fawned over their respective mothers while ignoring their father, we might have made sense of it all, by accepting  what goes around, comes around. Had Leah withheld her love from Jacob, we might have found comfort knowing that you reap what you sow. Had HaShem deprived mankind of free will, because mankind did not know how to use free will responsibly, we might have been secure in knowing that justice has prevailed. But none of this happened. Neither Jacob, nor Rachel, nor HaShem deserved what they received. All three gave love which was unrequited. As a result, all three were brokenhearted.

Let true love be brought about because of Valentine’s Day. Yet, I cannot help but feel, that true love can only be celebrated when we no longer break the hearts of others.

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!

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.