Keeps on Ticking by Rabbi Zell

Every fourth January, a significant proportion of the people in this country fall into despair and in some cases becomes incensed because of the occupant at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, in this nation’s capitol. We call this democracy. 
This week marks the fourth presidential inauguration taking place since I moved to Dallas to serve as rabbi at Tiferet. I would be less than genuine if I were to say that I was always happy or even satisfied with the people’s choice. Nevertheless, I have long accepted the following which I believe is beneficial to share with others:
Any and every individual voted into this nation’s office, deserves to be given an opportunity to lead before one decides whether the new leader is a blessing or curse. Furthermore, when making that choice, one ought to strive to be as objective as possible. This would of course require (gasp) ceasing to listen to news channels, as their newscasters spew skewed news. Impartiality seems to have gone the way of the public payphone. However sad it may be, it appears as though Americans are no longer interested in the truth; Americans are interested in having their preconceived notions validated. To prove the point, I once wrote an article (tongue and cheek) on how headlines would have appeared in six leading newspapers, reporting the Egyptian army drowning in the Sea of Reeds, while the Israelites crossed on dry land. One would have thought that six totally different events had taken place! Personally, I begin each day by reading op-eds of leading newspapers, very much aware and attuned to the predilections of the contributor. In other words, I consider the source. Op-eds do not report the news. Op-eds present opinions of events, behaviors, and people, that are currently in the news or were at one time in the news. Reading Op-eds affords the luxury of digesting information and pondering. Watching or listening to radio or television does not.
Three times in my life, have I had the opportunity to spend time with the Governors of the state where I lived. I even asked one of the Governors to take a walk with me, which she did. The Governors I saw on a one-to-one basis, were nothing like the Governor portrayed by the media. And yes, those Governors were from both major political parties. I cannot help but feel, that the same applies to Presidents as well. Behind closed doors, Presidents are real people who put up with mishigas (garbage), sit down with people they loathe (often for good reasons), and settle for bills far from the ones they conceived of originally. Usually, any ill will that is theirs, is directed at others in the government. If Presidents personally wish us no evil, how can we find it in our hearts to wish them evil? For those of us who place great importance on how any administration relates to Israel, we often fail to realize, that the priorities of an American President and the priorities of an Israeli Prime Minister do not always coincide. And it would be unfair on our part to expect any two Presidents to behave in the same fashion toward the Jewish state.
It has been well over a half-century since American news commentator John Cameron Swayze introduced the phrase  “takes a licking and keeps on ticking” into American homes. Ostensibly, Mr. Swayze was hawking Timex watches. Upon deeper consideration, Mr. Swayze may have been making a statement about this country. Whereas totalitarian regimes either implode or are overthrown, Democracies have been known to be able to take a licking and keep on ticking. Within the last sixty years, Americans have witnessed a presidential assassination, a presidential resignation, three presidential impeachments that did not lead to convictions, as well as a president that never ran for office and was therefore not elected. Yet, never did the United States of America miss a beat. Aside from insufferable governmental bureaucracy as well as intolerable governmental ineptitude (seemingly incurable diseases that afflict both political parties), my concern and fear are not what any president of either party will do. My concern and fear are what any president of either party will either fail to do or be unable to do. While it is true that law-abiding citizens fear rioting, as they well should, it must not go unnoticed that rioting seldom, if ever takes place because of the President’s political affiliation.
It has been a long-established practice at Shabbat services to ask for HaShem’s blessing for our country and its government. Included in this blessing is the President. I am not aware that the siddur has any political preference. Regardless of how we cast our ballot let us allow the incoming President to lead. Let us not fall prey to the lack of objectivity that has infected the media. Let us realize that behind closed doors, one typically finds an individual much different than the one seen in the public eye. And let us remember, that regardless of who occupies the White House, America keeps on ticking.

THE VASSER TREGGER

by Rabbi Shawn Zell

     Over half a century ago, the Zell home was introduced to its first oil painting. Unsurprisingly, given the Eastern European roots of my parents, the painting was a  Shtetl scene of a Vasser Tregger or Water Carrier. The Vasser Tregger was the precursor of the Ice Man. The Ice Man was a feature of “once upon a time in America”, where a poverty-stricken individual, armed with metal tongs, earned pennies, shlepping blocks of ice to people’s apartments so that the food in the icebox would remain cold; The Vasser Tregger was a feature of “once upon a time in the shtetl”. Armed with two buckets, connected by a yoke to be worn around the neck, the Vasser Tregger would walk down to the well, lower the buckets into the well and fill the buckets with water. Staggering under the heavy burden, the Vasser Tregger would then trudge to various houses, thereby providing “home delivery” at a time and place, where indoor plumbing was still light-years away. Like the Ice Man, the Vasser Tregger earned mere kopecks. Therein, the similarity ended. The Ice Man delivered a commodity that preserved food; the Vasser Tregger delivered a commodity that preserved lives.
     As human drama unfolded in the Torah, during the meeting between Judah and Joseph, the Midrash (Tanchumah VaYigash, Chapter V) introduces a profound saying: “The rope follows the bucket”. A most apt, but non-literal translation in the colloquial English usage would be: “every dog has its day”. It would be wonderful in romanticizing the shtetl, to believe that in Shtetl life, the Baal Agoleh (wagoner) and the Vasser Tregger were treated the same as the Rebbe and the Noggid (magnate). They were not. Quite the opposite! The Vasser Tregger and the Baal Agoleh were looked down upon and regarded as a necessary part of society, who were typically not the ones to be invited to a Shabbat or Festival meal. Sometimes, justice does prevail, even if it takes two or three generations. It is not unheard of for descendants of a  Vasser Tregger to become influential individuals in contemporary America. Nochem the Vasser Tregger may have eked out a meager sustenance by pulling heavy ropes attached to water-filled buckets from the well. His namesake, Norm Trager, is a “go-to” New York power broker, who lives a lifestyle of the rich and famous, because of his ability to “pull strings”. “The rope follows the bucket”.
     It was the prophet Isaiah (XL:15) who originated the well-known expression “a drop in the bucket”. That expression comes to life each year on Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath immediately following Tisha B’Av. “Rest assured”, the prophet comforts us. “All the nations (that did you harm) are like a drop in the bucket, as far as G-d is concerned”. Long before the Vasser Trgger of the Shtetl, there were other Vasser Treggers in the history of our people. Although the Torah does not provide details, it is unfathomable for there not to have been Vasser Treggers during the years of our people’s enslavement in Egypt. In addition to those who were constructing the pyramids, and in addition to those who were those fabricating bricks, in all likelihood, there were Vasser Treggers as well, to provide water to sustain the lives of the Israelite slaves toiling under the hot Egyptian sun. But the Vasser Treggers of our people’s horrific experience in Egypt, along with the Vasser Treggers providing precious refreshments during other eras in history, where our people were forced to do slave labor, are also but a drop in the bucket when compared to the present. The Vasser Treggers of yore have been replaced by Wonder Workers currently working in Israel. This explains how Israel provides over 150 countries technological know-how concerning water desalination and preservation.
     On Thursday, we usher in the Hebrew month of Shvat. Typically, Aquarius, the Water Bearer,  the Zodiac symbol (and no, Judaism is not, nor has it ever been averse to Zodiac symbols) for Shvat, receives short shrift. For those who focus on Zodiac symbols, perhaps instead of merely regarding it as Aquarius, it could be seen as a Vasser Tregger. By doing so, it would spur us to learn more about the role of the Vasser Tregger in our people’s history. Thanks to my parents, the Vasser Tregger depicted in the oil painting hanging over the sofa in the living room in my childhood home, will remain alive in my memory for the rest of my life.  

No Refunds or Exchanges

by Rabbi Shawn Zell

     As one who grew up very much aware of what we call the “shmatte business” (all four females in my mother’s family were married to men who owned a clothing store) I always associated the last week of December along with the first weeks of January as “return season”. It was a period of time when disgruntled female customers (forgive the sexism) brought back the blouse or negligee or pantsuit that Santa brought them, asking for cash instead. Even though it has been several decades, the scars do not seem to have healed. The return season that bedeviled the previous generation of clothiers in my family continues to haunt me, as a man of the cloth. As such, I feel that would do us well to ponder a deeper meaning of the term: “returns” and along with it oft mistaken synonyms “payback” and “what goes around comes around” in the hope of gaining a better understanding and a deeper appreciation of that which seems to be destined our way, in life.
     Human memory is short when it comes to favors and acts of kindness. The difference between a benefactor and a malefactor is that the former is seldom remembered, while the latter is seldom forgotten. Divine memory however is not human memory. Any daily davener paying attention to the prayers will tell you that G-d remembers the kindnesses of previous generations and repays in kind, at times to subsequent generations. The great sage Shimon ben Azzai understood this implicitly when he taught that “a mitzvah draws a mitzvah”. Notice if you will, that the sage never said that a mitzvah “brings about” a mitzvah. In using the Hebrew term “gorreret” – drags – he intimated that the return for the mitzvah might take far longer than we would like. The return could very well come about after one’s lifetime. Should it ever occur to someone that G-d is inexplicably kind or good to him, it might very well be that G-d is simply returning the favor from a previous generation.
     So too is the case with cruelty. Only instead of returning any favor, we choose to understand this as “payback”. Return suggests reward; payback suggests punishment. Humans, with a keen sense of justice, are not likely to let bygones be bygones when they have been unjustly wronged. Given the choice of being happy or feeling vindicated, most humans will choose to feel vindicated, even if it costs them, time, energy, and peace of mind. G-d also believes in “payback”. Not content to let bygones be bygones, we are taught (Exodus 34:7) G-d will “pay a little visit” even to the third and fourth generation, to set the record straight, when it comes to an indiscretion of a long-gone family member. Our culture is one, where we are taught and conditioned to “leave something” to the next generation after we depart this world. Typically, we understand this to mean money as well as other assets of monetary value. For those of us who take “payback” seriously, we would well be careful not to leave behind any loose ends or unfinished business before taking leave of this world. Just because we are safe from any earthly court, doesn’t mean we or our descendants are safe from a heavenly court.
     Favors and “payback” are time-release responses. Favors and “payback” test our patience as well as our belief in G-d.  We question why our descendants ought to receive punishments that should have been directed toward us personally. We neglect to question why our descendants receive the rewards that we deserve. Not so, “what goes around comes around”. As we sow, so too do we reap. In Christian theology, this is seen as the Golden Rule. Gold however loses its value, when we are repaid in kind for cruelty and insensitivity. Perhaps this should be referred to as the Human Rule. Perhaps Hillel (and Confucius) understood it better in the negative, by warning us what not to do, in that what goes around comes around. Unlike favors and “payback”, what goes around comes around guarantees us “same life service”. We, and not previous or future generations receive what is due us. Because of what we did, we – and no one else – have been punished or rewarded. Much to our delight or chagrin, we are secure in the knowledge that a system of fairness and equity exists after all.
     Reports indicate that items purchased on-line have been sent back in epic proportions this season. Perhaps so. Merchandise however must never be confused with conduct or deeds. Unlike merchandise, there are neither refunds nor exchanges for conduct or deeds. When it comes to behavior, there are only returns, “payback” and what goes around comes around.