BEAUTY IS VAIN

Sadie Hawkins Day, it isn’t. It’s much older with a totally different intent. The 15th of the Hebrew month of Av, otherwise known as Tu B’Av, which this year coincides with the 15th day of August, although mentioned in the Talmud, has received short shrift throughout Jewish history.

“There were no better days for the people of Israel than the Fifteenth of Av… The daughters of Jerusalem went out dressed in white and danced in the vineyards. ‘Young man’, they called. ‘Consider whom you choose to be your wife. Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain; a woman who revers HaShem is to be praised.’”

Times have changed, but traditionally speaking, what makes the hearts of young men and women go pitter-patter has remained the same ever since Adam and Eve. I believe it’s fair to say “I have nothing to wear” is an inter-generational lament on the part of the fairer sex. Even if it’s true, it’s a sad commentary about (male) society. Are those one wishes to impress more likely to remember the dress of the female or the demeanor of the female? Are those one wishes to win over more apt to recall the outfits or the outbursts. Clothing and comportment are diametrically opposite. Clothing is ephemeral; comportment is enduring.

If the fairer sex frets over what to wear, the male sex frets over where to go. No different than the one they invited out for the evening, the male also wishes to make an impression. Heaven forbid that the guy comes off looking cheap! Is it really so terrible to take a date walking through a windy park or take a drive along the beach? Does going to Chez Pierre guarantee a better time than Chef’s Pizza? Even more important, at which of the two places is one more apt to see the “real McCoy.” Isn’t it fair to say, that for the vast majority of us, our daily lives are more akin to a pizza parlor than to an expensive restaurant? Doesn’t the bright fluorescent lighting of the pizza parlor shed more light on the subject than the dimly lit candle of the expensive restaurant? Doesn’t it behoove us to enter a relationship with eyes wide open?

The aging process is in many cases unkind to one’s looks. It is the exception, rather than the rule, that one becomes better looking with the passage of time. The above cited quote, “charm is deceitful and beauty is vain” which is intoned at the Shabbat table each Friday night, serves as reminder that beauty must never be skin deep. Pirkei Avot or Ethics of Our Fathers is famous for laying out combinations of four. One such combination that never made it into Pirkei Avot, reads as follows:

There are four types of people: Those who are attractive to behold but are inwardly repulsive; those who are repulsive to behold but are inwardly attractive; those who are repulsive, both to behold as well as inwardly; there are those who are attractive, both to behold as well as inwardly.

Yes, it is possible for people to have beautiful personalities as well as beautiful physical features, but bear in mind that personalities rarely, if ever, change. Alternately, physical features – facial  and otherwise, rarely, if ever stay the same.

Our rabbinic sages were on to something, when they designated the 15th of the month of Av as a date for establishing relationships. With Tisha B’Av still fresh in our minds, they were keenly aware that relationships (in the case of Tisha B’Av, the relationship between HaShem and His people) undergo great strain. For there to be any hope at all to withstand the strain, it is essential that those relationships be founded upon comportment and not clothing, sensation and not location, alluring and not luring. May love – true love, sincere and genuine love – conquer all.

A SMILE ON HASHEM’S FACE

Unknowingly, those of us in Dallas County are responsible for a one of a kind Father’s Day gift, that is both memorable and priceless. Last Sunday’s microburst afforded us the opportunity to present our heavenly father with a Father’s Day gift that will surely bring a smile to His heart.

For those of us living in Dallas, it took hours of a massive power outage for us to realize how dependent our lives on electricity. Food started going bad because our refrigerators and freezers were cut off from electricity, our homes began to take on heat and humidity, now that they were no longer thermostatically controlled, because our air conditioners ceased to function, our cell phones could no longer receive their daily electrical charge and fuel for our vehicles remained trapped in the underground storage tanks at gas stations, because electrically controlled pumps had gone dead. Imagine if you will, that instead of being painfully reminded of how dependent we have become on electricity, we suddenly realized how very dependent we are on HaShem. Plug in the digestive system instead of refrigerators and freezers, replace air conditioning with a properly functioning heart, substitute kidneys for cell phones and hearts for gas pumps, and one hopefully realizes that how totally dependent we are on HaShem. If we take our life style for granted, only to be reminded how very grateful  and beholden we ought to be to our electric provider, then how much more so ought we, who take the daily functioning of our bodies for granted, be grateful and beholden to HaShem, provider of life! Give the next utility truck you see  a thumbs up and put a smile on the face of those inside; offer up a prayer of gratitude to HaShem and put a smile on His face as well.

The early part of this week, reinforced my faith in the human race, at least those living in western culture.  When confronted by crisis, humans go out of their way to help humans, even total strangers. A little over four decades ago, New York City was paralyzed by a blizzard of epic proportions. A pregnant woman living in a neighborhood in Queens was dangerously close to going into labor. Knowing that they could not count on snowplows to respond some two-dozen able bodied men showed up with snow shovel in hand and began to clear a path for the family car to make it to a major roadway that led to the hospital. A few days ago, I witnessed similar outpouring of care and concern, as strangers were there with chain saws to help others out of harm’s way, when fallen trees were leaning on power lines leading into homes, when trees fell onto cars parked in driveways and when fallen trees completely blocked entrances to homes. What I was unable to witness, but knew in my heart, were any number of situations, where those with electricity offered freezer and refrigerator space and even lodging to others who were left without electricity. As one who firmly maintains that nothing escapes HaShem’s notice, I have every reason to believe that these many acts of kindness, care and concern put a smile on HaShem’s face as well.

It is said that there is a silver lining for every cloud. Here at Tiferet, last Monday morning, the lining was platinum. Shavuot festival services were held in the parking lot, rather than in the darkened chapel, because sunlight afforded those in attendance the ability to read from the siddur. Conservatively speaking, there were at least fifty in attendance, as we raised our voices in prayer. Given the comfortable temperatures, along with a most pleasant breeze, many in attendance were able to experience being closer to HaShem, not unlike our ancestors who stood at Mount Sinai. There were even those who suggested that we consider holding services outside again sometime, independent of any power outage.

Personally speaking, Yizkor services took on special meaning. Typically, the term “Yizkor” is a request that HaShem remember the souls of the departed, whom we have come to memorialize. But “Yizkor” can also mean: “He will remember.”  I cannot help but feel that HaShem will long remember the three-fold Father’s Day gift of our realizing how dependent we are upon Him, of kindness, concern and kindness shown toward others and the most beautiful sight of us davening in Tiferet’s parking lot. And each time HaShem remembers this three-fold Father’s Day gift, it will bring a smile to His face.

THE ORIGINAL ROCKY MOUNTAIN

There is a not so well-known midrash that tells us when Moses was preparing to ascend Mount Sinai to receive the two stone tablets upon which were engraved the Ten Commandments, various pathways leading to the summit began to quarrel with one another. Each pathway vied for the honor of providing Moses a conduit up the mountain; each pathway offered features that the other pathways could not. One touted being the most direct, while another claimed it was the smoothest path to take. Yet a third, claimed that it offered the least steep climb.

There was the one pathway, however, that did not join in the fray. It felt that it had nothing to offer Moses, in that along the entire way up the mountain, it was strewn with rocks. Predictably, it was the rocky path rather than the other better suited paths that was chosen by Moses. Had Moses known that in time to come there would arise a language called English, his choice of pathways leading up the mountain would have been chosen with even more alacrity.

It would have been phenomenal had Moses been able to say that his climb up Mt. Sinai would be the beginning of a wonderful relationship. Moses’ experience with the Children of Israel, however, told him otherwise. Even though the odyssey from Egypt, along with liberation from enslavement, was barely in its seventh week Moses already understood only too well the attitude and temperament of the Children of Israel. To label those who followed Moses out of Egypt as ingrates would not even begin to do justice to the masses, who were incapable of returning gratitude and loyalty for a new lease on life. Even if Moses was not the greatest prophet in Israel, as we find in the song of praise “Yigdal,” he was nevertheless right on target for following a rocky path all the up Mt. Sinai. For Moses instinctively knew that the relationship HaShem would have to endure over time with His chosen people would be a rocky one.

It’s been close to half a century since the term “Rocky Mountain High” was first introduced to American culture. Truth be told, given Moses’ choice of pathways,  the first Rocky Mountain high was experienced over three millennia earlier: “And they (the Children of Israel) encamped there, opposite the mountain” (Exodus 19:2). What made the scenario all the more breathtaking was that this was the first, and unfortunately perhaps the last time as well, that the Children of Israel would be united in commitment and spirit. Given that as a people the Children of Israel have historically been known for their acrimony, rather than their harmony, it is safe to say that both HaShem and Moses, His servant, experienced a “Rocky Mountain High,” as they looked down at the masses at the foot of the mountain.

George and Ira Gershwin May have been on to something, despite employing the wrong possessive pronoun, in their joint effort classic. (George composed the music and Ira wrote the lyrics  to “Our Love is Here to Stay,” as a tribute to his brother who had just died). The Rockies have yet to tumble, neither has Mount Sinai with its rocky pathway to the top. But it is “My love,” says HaShem, “that is here to stay.” And that love has been here to stay from the time Moses ascended that rocky pathway leading to the top until this very moment.

Mount Sinai has been known by a number of names over the years:  Har HaElokim,  Har Bashan,  Har Givnunim and Har Horev. Perhaps there is room for yet another name for this earth-shaking, historic mountain. Taking into account HaShem’s immutable love for us, bearing in mind the “Rocky Mountain High” that HaShem and Moses experienced seeing a united people, and considering the rocky relationship that has existed since Moses first received the Torah, perhaps  Mount Sinai that has every right to call itself the original Rocky Mountain.

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.