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.

A STAIN ON HUMANITY

Israel is a stain on humanity. As incredulous a charge as this may be, there are a goodly number of Jews both in Israel as well as in the diaspora who believe this to be true. Furthermore, these Jews feel it a mitzvah of the highest order to convince you that their belief is sacrosanct. For Palestinian nationalists to hurl such a charge is expected; for anti-Semites to hurl such a charge is understandable. But what causes Jews to view Israel as being a stain on humanity?

For them, it is impossible to replace Jewish plight with Jewish might. Lessons of downtrodden, obsequious and subservient Jews of the shtetl have been firmly etched in their minds and perhaps even in their souls. It is therefore unthinkable to expect these lessons to be replaced in a mere seven decades with the existence of a Jewish state. For them, the term Jew is synonymous with underdog. Their weltanschauung is one where the Jew is the nail and not the hammer. As such, I cannot help but wonder if such Jews celebrate Chanukah, the quintessential festival where a minority population with a ragtag army musters the audacity to go up against a Roman army with state-of-the-art armament.  In their view, Jews do not rock the boat; in their view, Jews seek to ameliorate situations by begging the foreign overlord to find it in his heart to accommodate the Jew. And if such heart-searching is stimulated by financial persuasion, so be it. That’s the price one pays for being a Jew.

Jews, non-observant Jews may have abandoned the teachings of the Torah, but the teachings of the Torah have never abandoned them. It’s no wonder then, that Jews, particularly in this country have been in the forefront when it comes to social action. Show them an oppressed people, either real or perceived; show them suffering masses – it makes no difference whether that suffering was brought on by an outside force or by the sufferers themselves – and such Jews will be among the first to take up the cudgel. They view the widow, the fatherless and the stranger mentioned in Torah in absolute terms. Who turned them into widows, who rendered them fatherless and why they are the stranger is totally irrelevant. For those who recall the definition of chutzpah as being where one murders his mother and mother and then throws himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan, such Jews would find it totally incredulous how the court could remain so stone-hearted.

Jews seem to have a knee-jerk reaction when their Judaism is questioned or challenged. And so, the asinine response “I’ll have you know that I’m proud to be a Jew” came into vogue. For a born Jew, being proud to be a Jew makes no more sense than being proud to have black hair and brown eyes. Pride comes about because of what one has worked for and achieved. Pride is commensurate with blood sweat and tears. Unlike those born Jews who parrot “I’m proud to be a Jew,” I cannot help but feel that Jews who charge that Israel is a stain on humanity, are ill at ease at being Jews. Because there is nothing particularly Jewish about their daily lives, their Judaism becomes de facto synonymous with Israel. Because they are uncomfortable with their own Jewishness (Here I go playing psychologist without a license again) they are uncomfortable with the State of Israel. The very same individuals who make a conscious effort not to associate with other Jews and certainly not to incorporate any negative Jewish stereotypes into their behavior, are known for subconsciously maligning Israel on a regular basis.

As of this past Sunday, we have begun to sound the shofar daily. If only the blast of the shofar would penetrate the minds of those who regard Israel as a stain on humanity so that they recognize that that it’s high time they held their heads high, rather than cowering at the sight of the non-Jews. As far as Mah Yomru HaGoyim – what will the other nations say? Quite frankly I don’t give a damn. If only the blast of the shofar would penetrate the hearts of those who regard Israel as a stain on humanity, so that those hearts do not go out instinctively to the widow, the fatherless and the stranger in Qabatiya, Qalqas and Qalqilya without first scrutinizing the reason why the widow, the fatherless and the stranger exist in the first place. If only the blast of the shofar would penetrate the souls who regard Israel as a stain on humanity, so that they become more comfortable with being Jewish through learning and doing. Only then will Israel cease serving as their whipping boy when they engage in self-flagellation. If only the blast of the shofar would cause them to see Israel as a bright spot for humanitarianism, instead of a stain on humanity.

NOW IS NOT THE TIME

Not that I’ve conducted any studies, but I can’t help but feel that there will be topics that any number of rabbis in this country will address in their sermons. Unlike so many other rabbis, the rabbi of Tiferet Israel wouldn’t touch these topics with a ten-foot pole. To borrow a cliché: “Now (Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur) is not the time.”

Now is not the time to talk about the state of the world, the state of this country, or the state of this state… Unless, of course, some high elected officials are present in the congregation. And even then, why not have a private conversation with that high elected official? Unless it is election time and the rabbi is foolish or reckless enough to speak politics from the pulpit, the average congregant can do precious little, if anything, to change the world, this country, or the state or city he or she is living in. You may disagree, but I was always under the impression is that the High Holy Days are all about changing oneself. Please understand, I rant and rave about North Korea, Qatar, Syria, and the Myanmar Rakhine exodus as much as anyone. However, I’ll do my ranting and raving at the breakfast table.

Now is not the time to talk about social action. Come to think about it, rarely, if ever, does the rabbi at Tiferet speak about social action. The rabbi at Tiferet leaves that to other clergy. Let other rabbis talk social action from their pulpits until their hearts content. When it comes to social action, the rabbi at Tiferet is occupied with not talking, but undertaking social action on the other side of Fair Park, Tuesdays at lunch time. The rabbi at Tiferet must be doing something right, because from time to time a Tiferet congregant joins him in this mitzvah of social action. And that’s in addition to the regulars who accompany him on an ongoing basis. Isn’t Rosh Hashanah a time to focus in on oneself? What better social action is there than giving oneself a sense of worth? What better social action is there than getting oneself to establish a stronger connection with HaShem? No different than charity, shouldn’t social action begin at home?

Now is not the time to harangue congregants. Quite frankly, the rabbi of Tiferet sincerely doubts that any time is the time to harangue congregants. Can you imagine any salesperson at Sanger’s department store haranguing a customer? Can you fathom a Liberty Mutual agent haranguing a client? Why then should a rabbi reprimand a congregant? Shouldn’t the very opposite be the case? Isn’t the role of a rabbi to welcome a congregant and embrace that congregant? Why must “you are loved” be the sole domain of televangelists? Why should “love” be a concept that when mentioned in connection with a synagogue makes Jews feel so uncomfortable? If “teshuvah,” a word so typically attached to the High Holy Days, means “return,” shouldn’t “teshuvah” apply to the synagogue as well? Shouldn’t every congregant be reminded, time and time again, that he or she will always be most welcome and will be embraced with outstretched arms and a loving heart at his or her spiritual home?

Let’s leave this year’s High Holy Day sermon topics a secret for the time being. Be assured that they were prepared with you in mind in the hope that they reach your hearts and souls.

THE WATERS REACHED THE SOUL

Webster’s New World Dictionary offers two definitions for the word “deluge”: a great flood; an overwhelming flood-like rush of anything. Given what continues to unfold in Houston since last weekend, Webster’s appears to be accurate with both definitions. Heaven opened up its floodgates and left us speechless, as we vainly searched for the appropriate words to describe the destruction and devastation. As a result, there are those who are already responding and will soon be responding in a fashion that will be similarly beyond words.
There is a Hebrew expression: Higiyu mayim ad nafesh. It is the equivalent of the English “they are not going to take anymore.” Literally, higiyu mayim ad nafesh means “the waters reached the soul.” (It was once believed that the soul was to have been located in the area of the Adam’s apple.) Given recent events, along with the concomitant outpouring of concern on the part of so many, I believe that it’s fair to say that Higiyu mayim ad nefesh has taken on a new and most significant meaning.

The waters reached the soul. Our initial response is that we refuse to stand idly by as our brothers and sisters in Houston attempt to deal with having lost all their worldly possessions. And so, we dig deep into our pockets and donate funds. Unsurprisingly, we will learn of homeless people sending five dollars towards the relief efforts. I cannot help but feel, that any number of Bar/Bat Mitzvah celebrants will be sending a portion of their monetary gifts – if not the sum total of their monetary gifts – to local Jewish agencies earmarks for the flood victims. We can afford to do no less. Let us, also, assist the victims monetarily. With the High Holy Days soon upon us, the timing is propitious. After all, isn’t tzedakah or “proper giving” one of the three indispensable ingredients mentioned in our Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur prayers?

The waters reached the soul. As indispensable as monetary gifts are, in all likelihood, there will flood victims with no place to go and no place to stay. I would like to believe that there will be those in our community who will open their homes, find the room, perhaps even make the room, for those who were left without a roof over their heads. In some cases, those taking in flood victims will receive more in return, in beautiful and everlasting friendships that will be forged. After all wasn’t the very same Abraham, about whom we read on Rosh Hashanah, known for his exemplary hospitality? Didn’t Abraham welcome three complete strangers into his home?

The waters reached the soul. If so, then the heart can’t be far behind. Acts of kindness are bound to surface. They must! Even if it is as simple as sending a Shanah Tovah or Jewish New Year greeting card to complete strangers in Houston telling them that our prayers are with them during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and we wish them the very best for the new year, as they embark on building their lives anew. Here at Tiferet, we will be honoring High Holy Day tickets of Houstonians. If they are unable to attend the services of their own synagogue, we invite them to join us for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kipper. It goes without saying that Tiferet families will host our displaced brothers and sisters from Houston for Rosh Hashanah meals, as well. After all, isn’t the phrase “and the two of them walked together” found in the Binding of Isaac drama read on Rosh Hashanah?

The first deluge that devastated mankind ended on a less than pleasant note with Noah becoming inebriated. This latest deluge, I believe, will end on a more pleasant note. Because the waters reached the soul and we responded either through money, hospitality, or heartfelt acts of kindness. The time will come, I hope sooner rather than later, when we, together with the victims of Harvey, will raise our cups of wine to drink a L’Chaim that will reach the highest heavens.

IS IT POSSIBLE?

As one who is generally unimpressed with the Press (and that’s putting it mildly), I was delighted to read a story last week, in which journalists actually covered the Palestinian – Israeli conflict from a human interest point of view! Rather than fanning the flames of animosity, journalists were actually able to get their story, even though it was based on … mentschlechkeit! Imagine that!
It seems that five American Yeshiva students set out in a car for Hevron, in the hopes of praying at Kever HaMachpelah or Cave of the Patriarchs, where Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah are buried. Nothing wrong with that! I’ve been to Hevron a number of times and I highly recommend the experience. Unfortunately, the Yeshiva students made a wrong turn and ended up in the Jabal Johar neighborhood, which is both Judenrein and under complete and total Palestinian control.
The “welcoming committee” began throwing rocks, bricks and stones at the car. After all, Palestinians will be Palestinians, especially when there is a CNN or Fox or Ynet camera crew or reporters from leading American newspapers within sight, to encourage these and other overgrown teenagers to carry on with their sub-human behavior. As the Yeshiva students managed to extricate themselves from the vehicle, the “cousins club” surrounded them and began to shout Jew! Jew!
Here’s where the story takes a turn:
Fayez Abu Hamadia, a resident of Jabal Johar led the Yeshiva students away from the group of good ol’ boys, “just havin’ a little fun” and brought them to the safety of his home. Speaking to them in Hebrew, Fayez Abu Hamadia reassured them that they would be okay, and helped dress the wounds of one of the students who was bleeding from his face and leg. He then had the Yeshiva students call the Israeli army to arrange safe escort back to the military checkpoint.
Is it possible that there would be less throwing of rocks and bricks and stones if the media simply ignored these miscreants? I am fully aware that my thinking is off the charts, but humor me anyway.
Is it possible that there are others like Fayez Abu Hamadia who see Palestinian rock, brick and stone throwing youth for what they are and are either afraid to speak out against them or have become inured to such criminal behavior?
Is it possible that the average Chaim Yankel (John Doe) here in the United States and elsewhere, fails to draw either of the above conclusions (which I admittedly couched in question form, given my sardonicism) and wistfully asks: when will this cycle of violence end? That is, if they bother to ask at all.
Most appalling of all, I cannot help but feel that any number of rabbis will devote at least part of their High Holy Day sermons to the “plight” of the “poor Palestinians”.
If this is the most burning issue when it comes to teshuvah and becoming better Jews, then indulge me one more question, if you will.
Is it possible that that among the many requests we place before HaShem, there will be one where we ask for greater understanding and discernment, so that we realize that on a typical day, what actually takes place between Palestinian and Jew is anything but newsworthy.

ACCEPT ME FOR WHAT I AM

Every so often, a new prayer book or High Holiday Machzor makes a debut. As leader of a congregation who replaced a tried and true High Machzor a few years ago, far be it from me to speak out against new texts. What I do take issue with however, is the reason for the change.
Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements have been known to come out with new Siddurim and Machzorim because they feel that the Siddurim and Machzorim they have been using up until now no longer “speak” to their members. Is it possible that the exact opposite is the case? Perhaps the Siddurim and Machzorim they have been using up until now “speak” to their members loud and clear. It’s just that the members of Reform, Conservative or Orthodox Judaism have suddenly become uncomfortable with the message. And so, the message is rewritten.
Rephrasing a quote that Cesar A. Cruz once made about art, it can be said that “religion should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable”. While I’m no psychologist, I can’t help but feel that the vast majority of those who attend religious services would only agree with the first half of this aphorism. Put differently, the vast majority of congregants or parishioners look to religion as well as religious services along with the texts that are part and parcel of those service to rubber stamp their behavior and lifestyle…. if they look at all. It seems that while it is the G-d given right of those who attend religious services to change the message conveyed by their House of Worship either through clergy or text, it also appears to be true that G-d help the clergy or text that seeks to change those who attend those very same religious services!
When it comes to religion, there is a great irony in today’s society. On the one hand, there are untold numbers throughout our culture who espouse “accept me for who I am”. Yet, when it comes to reciprocity on their parts, particularly when it comes to religion in this country, the notion of accepting the church or synagogue for what it is, seems to suddenly disappear.
Isn’t it strange, that Americans who are conditioned to “telling it like it is” and demand from others to “give it to them straight”, suddenly change the rules when it comes to church or synagogue attendance? Maybe I’ve had it wrong all these years, but I was always under the impression that the very purpose of September 13th through September 23rd of this year is to show that what makes us humans is our ability to change and improve our habits as well as our behavior.
Something to think about these High Holy Days… And beyond.