IMPRESSED BY PRESS SECRETARIES

Politics aside, I have a special place for Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the first mom to ever hold the job of White House Press Secretary. It was, therefore, more than with a modicum of interest that I read about “Speaking for Myself” a memoir of hers that came out this week. More than a desire to learn more about what goes on in the White House (I have read books by other Press Secretaries, as well) the title stirred a nerve. With the High Holy days soon upon us, “speaking for myself” is a totally inappropriate description of what will soon be taking place as HaShem scrutinizes us to determine whether we merit being inscribed in the heavenly Book of Life. As Jews, we do not speak for ourselves; our deeds speak for us. Moreover, when it comes to learning the latest about us, there is no such thing as Press Secretaries. Unlike public figures, everything about us is a private matter between us and our Supreme being.

There are, however, “Impress Secretaries”. Occasionally, it happens that we surprise ourselves. Occasionally, it happens that we are able to accomplish a feat, that we were certain was above and beyond our capabilities. While we perform a reality check by pinching ourselves to ascertain did this really happen, while we remain dazed, wondering how in the world did we ever accomplish that, HaShem sits up in heaven with a celestial smile on His face. For HaShem, it is a moment of vindication, in that HaShem knew our potentials all along, even if we did not, or were plagued by doubt or insecurity. In addition, HaShem is grateful to us for having provided Him with yet another reason to “shep naches”. At the risk of taking issue with our venerated sages of old, it may very well be that such feats and accomplishments rather than our everyday deeds capture HaShem’s attention for “recording purposes”.

Judaism teaches us that each of us has a good inclination and an evil inclination. I cannot help but feel that each of us, has not only an “Impress Secretary” but a “Depress Secretary” as well. Just as our “Impress Secretary” is there to inform HaShem that we “hit it out of the Ball Park”, our “Depress Secretary” is there to inform HaShem that we “struck out”, because of improper and uncalled for behavior on our part. To cause HaShem consternation due to carelessness or thoughtlessness on our part is very much human. HaShem takes such foibles in stride. After all, HaShem never intended for humans to be perfect. To cause HaShem consternation because of intended and willful cruelty on our part is very much inhuman. Such behavior is intolerable as far as HaShem is concerned. No different than the “Impress Secretary” delivering “naches” news to HaShem, it is the “Depress Secretary” who is responsible for delivering “shandeh” (shame or embarrassment) news to HaShem. Again, meaning no disrespect to our venerated sages of old, it may very well be that such detestable and disgraceful behavior rather than our everyday missteps capture HaShem’s attention for “recording purposes”.

Atonement may very well be one of the most misunderstood words when it comes to what is expected of us during the High Holy days. However meaningful words of contrition and regret might be, they are largely ineffectual. For all the breast-beating that takes place during Yom Kippur services, it would be prudent to bear in mind that deeds carry the day in Judaism, not words. Mitzvot and aveirot – commandments that have been carried out and sins that have been executed are weighed against each other on the heavenly scales during the first ten days of Tishrei each year, not promises and vows. Put differently, what is expected of us with the arrival of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur each year, is how we express ourselves through deeds. It is for this reason, that in addition to an “Impress Secretary” and a “Depress Secretary” each of us also has been entrusted with an “Express Secretary” who is given the task of informing HaShem whether we have expressed that which we have committed to do, through deed.

I wish Sarah Huckabee Sanders much success with her new book. I wish that our “Impress Secretary” has far more to say than our “Depress Secretary”. Last but not least, I wish that “Our Express Secretary” has the easiest job in heaven, because good and noble deeds of ours have already begun to attract notice up in heaven.

OF LABOR AND WORK

How would you define the difference between “labor” and “work”? A cursory search on my part convinced me that the majority who attempt to explain why “labor” is not “work” and why “work” was not “labor” were in the words of the late Professor Edward Gershfield, a mentor of mine, “upgemixed“. With Labor Day next Monday, I share with you, three differences – based on everyday usage in our society – in the hope that it will add greater meaning to the first Monday in September.
Long before the advent of the internet, back in the day, when Americans literally pounded the pavement with the heels of their shoes. As they knocked on door after door and walked into store after store, they would ask either “do you have any work for me” or “are you looking to hire”? I am not aware of anyone ever asking: “do you have any labor for me”? Work is generated by others; labor comes from within. Unions protecting the proletariat from abuses of industry, opt for the term “worker”. ILGWU (International Ladies Garment Workers Union) and UAW (United Auto Workers) are aptly named. While admittedly looking out for the wellbeing of the worker, their efforts focused on behemoth employers and the concessions they could extract from them. The term “day laborer” is admittedly very much part of our vocabulary, but I can’t help but believe that such a term came into being based on passages from the Talmud looking out for the well-being of the individual who deserved financial reward and/or benefits commensurate with an honest day’s work.
It has been 120 years since the first time clock was invented. I have no idea how factories of today operate, but in the America I was raised, it was totally inconceivable for factories and other places of employment to operate without workers “punching in” as they arrived at their jobs and “punching out” as they left. That way, the employer could be sure that the worker was putting in a full 40 hours before any paycheck was made out. Alternately, when overtime came into play, it was the worker who made sure that he/she was properly compensated for the extra time put in at the job. Not so, the laborer. A laborer – a true laborer is interested in creating and bringing to fruition. Unlike the worker, the laborer counts neither the minutes nor the hours. Unlike the worker, the laborer is his/her own critic and needs no boss or overseer examining the finished product to see if it meets certain standards. The worker puts in hours; the laborer puts in heart and soul. That is why it is perfectly acceptable to ask the former “do you do good work”? That is why it is a derogatory insult to ask a laborer (a term I use interchangeably with artisan) “do you do good labor”?
Interestingly enough, the phrase “Labor of Love” first appears a little over four centuries in the King James Version of the (Christian) Bible. The statement is entirely pareve, assuring us that
G-d is not about to overlook or ignore our “labor of love”. A labor of love is an altruistic act with no expectation of reward – financial or otherwise. A labor of love provides the giver satisfaction and even happiness knowing that time and effort is being given in the hope (but not expectation) that it will impact (even in the smallest way) on the life of the recipient. An ideal labor of love would be delivering a hand-crafted object or a home-baked pie to the door of the recipient replete with a lovely, unsigned note. Part of what makes a labor of love authentic is that while the recipient will know why the gift was sent, the recipient may never know by whom the gift was sent. Perhaps why we speak about a labor of love, but never a work of love.
To me, the term “workers” smacks of Lenin and Trotsky. To me “workers” produced a most pitiful economy and most pathetic society. What has made our country so special, is that in addition to earning a livelihood, so many Americans have made a life for themselves, by giving of themselves, by taking enormous pride in what they produce, and by realizing that there are times to roll up one’s sleeves and put one’s shoulder to the grindstone…just because.

A Meaningful Labor Day to One and All

A LEG UP

Although it has been 20 years since the younger of my two children entered college as a freshman, it was more than with a modicum of interest, that I read about Lori Loughlin (an actress that I had never heard of) being sentenced to two months in prison for her recent role in a College Admission Scandal. Ms. Loughlin, at the recommendation of William Singer, a college admissions consultant, knowingly falsified applications of her daughter, to give her a “leg up” in being accepted as a student, at the University of Southern California.
With the High Holy Days less than a month away, hopefully, many of us, if not all of us, ought to realize, that concepts such as “admissions” and “leg up” are very much in play, when it comes to being “admitted” into the Book of Life. Unlike students of today applying the colleges of their choice, all who seek entry into the age-old Book of Life are openly provided with a “leg up” in being accepted. This “leg up” is known as Teshuvah. Contrary to what we have been taught, Teshuvah has more than one meaning.

Outside the realm of religion, Teshuvah means an answer or a response. Just as first-graders in our culture are conditioned to hear: “who knows the answer to…”, so too first-graders in Israel are conditioned to hear the word Teshuvah. Yet, Teshuvah is anything but kid’s stuff. Teshuvah is part and parcel of being an adult in the eyes of our tradition. Children are exempt from answering for their behavior. Adults (provided they are of sound body and mind) are required to. Yet, how many of us live our lives, aware of the fact, that our religion holds us responsible for what we do, just as our religion holds us responsible for what we do not do? In either case, we will be required to provide a Teshuvah; in either case, we required to provide an answer. Unlike other religions, our day of reckoning is not an end of life experience, where we hope to gain entry into heaven at the conclusion of our lives; our day of reckoning is an annual phenomenon, where we hope to gain entry into the Book of Life.

Among the many songs that bring me to tears is The Circle Game. Composed and sung by Joni Mitchell, the artist concludes each of its four stanzas, by hauntingly reminding us: “We can’t return, we can only look behind from where we came”. Nonsense! argues our tradition. The entire time period beginning with Rosh Hashana and culminating in Yom Kippur, is predicated upon our returning, retracing our steps, examining our missteps and trying to figure out how to properly step up to the plate, the next time. What disappoints HaShem, is not our mistakes; what disappoints HaShem is a failure – or even worse, our refusal to return and revisit where we went wrong so that we can learn from our mistakes and to profit from that experience. Throughout the year, three times each and every weekday, towards the beginning of what is known as the Shemoneh Esreh, we request of HaShem, to bring us back and to His Torah and His service. We conclude that request, with the words: Blessed are You HaShem who desires Teshuvah. Without exception, Teshuvah is translated in the siddur, as “repentance”. Yet, no mention whatsoever is made of our having sinned or transgressed (that’s the subject of the following prayer). Having begun with a request to bring us back, would it not seem more logical to conclude that request with words translated to mean: Blessed are You HaShem who desires that we return or come back?

When all is said and done, Teshuvah is most often translated to mean “repentance.” Although typically seen as a synonym for “contrition”, “repentance” is anything but.” Contrition indicates that the sinner’s soul is a collection of shattered pieces because of the misdeed. “Repentance”  indicates that the sinner has thought over the misdeed that he committed. But thinking over a misdeed does not in any way indicate remorse. What “repentance” ought to suggest at the very least, is that the sinner realized that he has fallen out of HaShem’s favor and hopefully is prepared to do whatever necessary to regain that favor.

Knowing that Judaism is based on personal responsibility and that we will have to have to answer for what we did (wrong) or neglected to do (right), realizing that Judaism insists that we can return and redo, and understanding the importance in rethinking how to gain HaShem’s favor are much more than three different examples of Teshuvah… Each one provides us with a “leg up” in preparing ourselves for the High Holy Days, so that hopefully we are a “shoo in” when it comes to being admitted in the Book of Life.