HURTFUL

If I hear or read that someone’s  (read: politician’s) words were “hurtful” one more time…

How did things get so far? Unless I’m mistaken, my generation was raised on “sticks and stones will break my bones, names will never hurt me.” My grandchildren’s generation on the other hand, is being raised in such a manner, that the greatest social sin is to say something “hurtful.”

I pity my grandchildren’s generation. They are being shortchange when it comes to the facts of life. “Everybody hurts somebody sometime.” Most of the time, it is totally unintentional. Some of the time, it is totally misconstrued. I recall officiating at a wedding for the Rabinowitz family. It was a family of three children. I had previously officiated at the weddings of the older two siblings. In my remarks, I made mention of the fact of how delighted I was, that each Rabinowitz child had married into a nice Jewish family. No sooner was the glass broken, when I was accosted by cousin Mel. “Rabbi, I want you to know that you stabbed me with a knife and then twisted the knife while it was in me.” It turned out, that Mel’s three children had married out of the faith. Had this wedding taken place on 2019 instead of 1989, chances are that cousin Mel would have accosted me by saying, that my remarks under the chuppah were “hurtful.”

As Jews, we bear a brunt of the responsibility for introducing the overused usage of “hurtful” into American parlance. As Jews, we have been much too sensitive and far too quick to take non-Jews to task for saying “hurtful” things, despite the fact that being hurtful was the furthest thing from their mind. Although this may very well be regional, G-d help any Christian who invokes Jesus in an invocation. There is bound to be at least one of us present, who will not hesitate to point to the one who invoked, how offended he/she was by including the name “Jesus.” As a group, we have a knee-jerk reaction whenever we hear the term “Jew” come out of a Christian mouth. Any Christian who innocently goes up to the microphone and proclaims how touched he/she is seeing so many Jews in attendance, will be pronounced guilty for not have used the phrase  “Jewish friends.”  Perhaps it’s time to give Christians the benefit of the doubt, that they mean no harm.

As Jews, we are quick to go on the defensive.  Even when a reckless comment is made, such as “Jews have all the money” or “Jews control the media,” we Jews must remind ourselves never to go on the defensive. We bear no guilt. Hence, we have nothing to defend. Rather than going on the defensive, we should consider responding in a totally unanticipated fashion.  To the former comment, we may consider saying: “If that’s wishful thinking on you part, I appreciate your comment more than you will ever know. If that’s a criticism on your part, I wish we Jews had even more money than that.” To the latter, we may consider saying: “Perhaps you should be more careful in how you treat me, because I have powerful friends in the Jewish controlled media…you wouldn’t believe what they can do for people like you, or to people like you!”

It was the great sage, Elazar from Modiin (an uncle of the revolutionary Bar Kochba), who said: “He who (negatively) embarrasses his friend in public, it is as though he sheds his blood.” Clearly, hurtful statements have been around ever since the advent of communication. But with Rabbi Elazar, it was personal. How Rabbi Elazar would have responded to thoughtless comments couched in generalizations, how Rabbi Elazar would have reacted to worn out phrases, is best left open to speculation. Remember however, if personal (negative) embarrassment is tantamount to murder, then personal accolades ought to be a boon to someone’s life.

Rather than zero in on real or perceived “hurtful” words from others, we Americans would be well advised to listen for “pleasing” words  from others. Our society and culture can only benefit from such an approach and in doing so become healthier and stronger.

 

TEARS OF RELIEF

For the longest time, a set of faux dog tags bearing the names of Zachary Baumel, Yehuda Katz, and Zvi Feldman hung behind my office chair in my New Jersey Synagogue. The fate of those three Israeli soldiers, who fell into the hands of the enemy during the 1982 War in Lebanon were unknown and the three soldiers were therefore listed as missing in action. While I do not recall whatever happened to those dog tags, they came to mind this past week, when it was announced that Israel had secured the remains of Sergeant Zachary Baumel.

I pray that there much needed closure for the family. I hope that three much needed messages will continue to live on, long after Zachary’s remains have been laid to rest at Mt. Herzl Cemetery in Jerusalem, last week.

We Jews do not forget. It’s part of our collective DNA. Next week, countless Jewish families throughout the world, will be sitting down to special dinner accompanied by Haggadahs, to recall an event that occurred over three millennia ago. Those who include traditional daily prayer as part of their spiritual diet, are reminded of that event twice each day. It is our ancestors being taken out of Egypt.  I cannot help but feel that as Jews, we remember people and events – perhaps not as many as we ought to – but more than many other nations. As Jews, we not only remember foes, but we remember friends as well. Last Thursday evening in Jerusalem, thousands came to remember, as Zachary Baumel finally received a proper burial service, in accordance with Jewish law.
The next time you are in search for a topic for dinner conversation, you may wish to remind guests seated around the table that in Judaism, we believe that there is sanctity to the human body. That’s why we have a Chevra Kaddisha; that’s why the Jewish community will do anything and everything in its power so that that every Jew receives a Jewish burial. Bodies of the deceased are to be accorded dignity and respect. Does according dignity and respect to the human body, also apply to wanton murderers and terrorists who prey upon the innocent? Are the bodies of murderers and terrorists to be accorded the same dignity and respect as their victims? Is the Jewish view of a human body absolute, or does that view allow for exceptions, when it comes to those who willfully desecrate human bodies?  One thing is for sure. The 37-year-old remains of Zachary Baumel were accorded dignity and respect, as they were laid to rest at Mount Herzl, the same cemetery when Jonathan Netanyahu, the hero  of the raid at Entebbe, lies buried.

Even though not all Israelites left Egypt under Moshe’s leadership, independent of the fact that any number of Israelites known as the mixed multitude “took it on the lamb” with our ancestors, as they charted their course for the wilderness, we of later generations have adopted “no Jew left behind” as our credo. This credo is very much ingrained in each and every soldier of the Israel Defense Forces. As a people, we do not differentiate between the living and the dead. Given the choice, members of the Baumel family would have done anything to have received Zachary back alive. Nevertheless, they left no stone unturned at receiving him back as earthly remains.
Come Pesach, the message of true liberation must not be defined as mere commemoration. For the Pesach festival to take on vibrant meaning, let us sit down to the Seder and digest what “Jews do not forget” truly means. If our history is beyond compare, shouldn’t our collective memory be beyond compare as well?  For the Pesach festival to take on vibrant meaning, let us sit down to the Seder with renewed appetite toward dignity and respect toward our fellow Jew. If our tradition mandates that we  accord honor to the dead, how much more so ought we to accord honor  to the living. For the Pesach festival to take on vibrant meaning, the words “let all who are hungry come and eat” must take on real meaning, so that no Jew is overlooked or left behind and we set an extra seat for someone who might not have been invited to a Pesach Seder.

Toward the beginning of the Seder, as we participate in “karpas,” may the salt water remind us of the tears of relief shed by the Baumel family last week.

IT’S ALL ABOUT THE BENJAMINS, BABY

I was always under the impression that freshman congressman, much like children, should be seen and not heard. A goodly number of American Jews might well have agreed with me, given what transpired  earlier this month, following an exchange of tweets, between two members of Congress. In response to a fellow Congressman from another political party tweeting: “It’s stunning, how much time US political leaders spend defending a foreign nation, even if it means attacking free speech rights of Americans,” the foreign born, newly elected congresswoman tweeted back: “It’s all about the Benjamins, baby.” The Congresswoman was quoting a rap song from a quarter a century ago, which referred to hundred-dollar bills as “Benjamins”, in that Benjamin Franklin appears on the hundred-dollar bill.

Despite the brouhaha which erupted, accusing the congresswoman of anti-Semitism, prompting an immediate act of contrition on her part, I should like to point out that politics notwithstanding,  the neophyte nabob was not entirely wrong.

Centuries before the congresswoman’s country of birth gained its independence, our ancestors in Eastern Europe were enriching our vocabulary with the following Yiddish aphorism: Der vos hot die mayess, hot die dayess. Translated into English, it reads: “whoever has the ‘hundreds’ has the right to express opinions.” While it is highly doubtful that our ancestors even knew who Benjamin Franklin was, much less had the remotest idea that Benjamin Franklin would appear on an American hundred-dollar bill,  there is little, if any doubt, that our ancestors would have dismissed the yet to be born statement “it’s all about the Benjamins, baby” as being anti-Semitic, in either spirit or tone. But then again, never in their wildest dreams, could our ancestors have envisioned  a Jewish State that would come into being prior to the advent of the Messiah, just as never in their wildest dreams could our ancestors have envisioned a close bond that would develop between the “Goldeneh Medinah” and the “Yiddisheh Medinah.”

Towards the beginning of Pirkei Avot or Ethics of Our Fathers, the sage Shimon the Tzaddik (righteous) taught us that “the world depends on three things: Torah (study), Service (worship), and acts of kindness.” Leave it to our Eastern European ancestors with their sardonic view of the world, to emend that teaching as follows: “the world rests on three things: Gelt (money), gelt (money), and gelt (money). Given the abject poverty that threatened the everyday existence of our shtetl dwelling bubbes and zeides, our ancestors’ predilection for “Benjamins” is most understandable. It was only logical therefore, that Tevye, the quintessential shtetl Jew in Fiddler on the Roof, would break out in song, as he begins to muse: “If I were a rich man.”

Among the many inventions  that Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of this country introduced into this world, was the bifocal. Two decades after Benjamin Franklin was taken from this world, a Lithuanian rabbi of renown, was able to direct our attention to the human eye as well. It was Rabbi Israel Lipkin, better known as the Salanter Rov or the Rabbi of Salant,  who pointed out, that a small coin placed directly in front of the human eye will hide everything else from sight. Optics aside, if a small coin has the capability of blinding us to all else, one can only imagine the great power of the hundred-dollar bill, aka the Benjamin!

Short of human nature undergoing a profound metamorphosis, the task will fall to the all too precious few moralists in our society, who will continue to impress upon us that “money isn’t anything.” Unfortunately, there will be a good many in our culture, who will continue to maintain that “money is the only thing.” Like the newly elected Congresswoman, they will add their voices to the mantra, as they bleat: “It’s all about the Benjamins, baby!”