Rabbi's Weekly Article

One Man's Thoughts

Two Types of Sight

The most important prayer in Judaism is the Shma, which is the affirmation of the belief in God. The literal translation is “Hear O’ Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” This prayer is recited at least three times daily to constantly remind us of our creed.

While there are no last rites in Judaism, and a Rabbi does not have to be called in to administer prayers and ministrations to the person on the brink of death, the dying individual should ideally recite the Shma prayer sometime before passing.
During the Holocaust, the Shma verse was the last words said by the holy martyrs who died strictly because of an evil anti-Semitic nut job. Think about it, as they were waiting to be shot or gassed, they never let the Nazis destroy their inner core. The body maybe, but not their soul.

If you ever went to Hebrew school or attended a Jewish service, you will notice that when we say the Shma, we place our hands over our eyes to block our vision. There are a number of explanations given as to the reasoning behind this practice. The most well-known accepted belief is that when saying the Shma, which is our ultimate declaration of faith, we cover our eyes to show that there is nothing but God, and we fear nothing but God. Other reasons state that by covering our eyes we are able to concentrate better. Yet, there is another explanation that I believe is powerful and enlightening. Beware, these next few paragraphs may change the way you see things. (pun intended).

Let’s discuss eyes for a moment.
Eyes are one of the most delicate parts of the human body. To see the world, light has to enter through the iris, cross the lens, and fall on the retina in just the right way. Everything has to function perfectly in order for an eye to do its job and see. What is fascinating to me with everything that goes on inside an eye -- the iris opening and closing, the lens focusing and the retina sending electrical signals to the brain – eye size is completely done growing by three-months-old.
Scientists as of this moment have not created an artificial eye and placed it in a person. They may get there but still have a way to go.

Despite the awesomeness of our eyes, there are so many things we cannot see. Every night, our vision is compromised. A dog can see and hear things that we are not able to. A leopard, hyena, owl and opossum all hunt in the dark without the benefit of a flashlight. In fact, I would venture to say that most things in our universe are completely invisible to us. When we see water, we see clear liquid and we do not see the H2O. I think of my days studying all about things we cannot really see like the atomic particles, neurons, electrons, nucleus and ions. What we can physically see is miniscule compared to what is out there in the universe. Even colors are subjective. Remember the blue and/or gold dress. I saw blue, what did you see?

I read the following fascinating letter that someone sent to a colleague of mine and he forwarded it to me. The letter has been truncated due to its length.
A woman writes. “When I traveled to Israel, I visited the Blind Museum. Simply explained, it's a museum that is entirely black. You literally feel like you are blind. It was terrifying, to say the least. I felt acutely more vulnerable and insecure than I ever felt in my life. We were a group of six frantic strangers and one guru guide and the darkness. The only thing I knew about anyone in the room were their voices.
“Consistently, throughout the tour, I subconsciously learned to drown out strangers voices around me and train my ears to listen for the one voice, my tour guide who himself was completely blind. The blind leading the blind.
“Nothing though could have prepared me for the 'music' room. It was an empty room—I know that because of the echo I heard—and we all sat on the floor doing nothing -- just listening to beautiful Bach and Mozart compositions. It was perhaps one of the most visceral experiences I have ever had. I could feel the music in my bones, the vibrations in the floor! Because I could not use my eyes, the music came alive in a different way.
”The last room in the museum was the 'cafe'... We ordered snacks, made our way to a table, groped our way around chairs and finally settled in for what was to be a fascinating chance to ask our authentically blind guide everything we ever wanted to know about being blind. Amazingly, he was even able to tell me whether I was standing or sitting and even what I was feeling. A truly remarkable fellow. And then the lights went on and I got to 'see' him. I got to really see him. Physically, with my naked eyes.
“Rabbi, I'm ashamed to admit this but I recoiled in shock. His eyes were half mast, fluttering jarringly. His gait was uneven, his teeth buck, stained and crooked. His body was deformed and his face was grotesque. I am embarrassed to admit. I could not look at him. It was too uncomfortable for me. I am ashamed but that was my feeling. I couldn't reconcile the wise, trustworthy, brilliant, deep, inspirational, kind, loving, sensitive, and insightful guide with this bumbling physical mess. My eyes saw, my brain knew, yet they couldn't mesh it all together. I was so disgusted with myself, with my short-sightedness.
“And it was on that day that I learned a truth I will always cherish: As long as I could not see, I actually saw. When I started to see, I became blind.”

You see, as long as she was in the dark and could not see anything, she actually could “see” this special human being. She could see him for who he really was. As long as her eyes were shut, she was privileged to see this man’s insides. But when her eyes opened, when the light came on and she began to see, she stopped seeing. She BECAME blind! When her eyes were closed, she saw all of him. When they opened, she only saw the superficial.

Now we can understand a deeper reason for covering our eyes during the Shma prayer. When our eyes are open, we don’t see God, we see superficial stuff that clouds our minds and hearts. When we close and cover our eyes and see nothing, this very nothingness allows us to see God without disturbing sights of the happenings around us.

This is the same reason women and girls cover their eyes when they light the holy Shabbat candles. This is the same idea when you see people from all different faiths and backgrounds close their eyes during a moment of prayer.

When our eyes are shut, this gives us the ability to really see.

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Is there such a thing as atheism?

Someone recently sent me a link to a pretty active organization called American Atheists headquartered in New Jersey. He asked me my opinion as to whether I think this is a good organization or not a good organization. My position as of late is not to engage with these types of questions. My opinion doesn't really matter. In fact, I stopped listening to talking heads on the radio and cable because their opinions do not matter either. So, why bother. Plus, my degree, as well as my experience, is in the rabbinical and not atheism. Just as I would not comment on Buddhism, Taoism or Jainsim, I am not to comment on atheism.

The question did get me thinking as to what the Torah says about atheism. The Torah, according to Maimonides, classifies the command to believe in God as an obligation, as stated in the first line of the Ten Commandments, “I am the Lord your God who took you out of Egypt.” Other scholars state that this is not an obligation but rather a given, and is therefore not to be included in the sum of biblical commandments.

Upon delving further, I found something remarkable. While there are 50 commandments in the Torah denouncing idolatry, there is no specific commandment denouncing atheism. The focus of the Torah is more on don’t worship false gods rather than how dare you not worship me. Take a look at a verse in Jeremiah, which states: “They have forsaken me and have not kept my Torah.” To which the Pesikta D’Rav Kahana, a 5th- to 7th-century Midrash, explains it to mean: “If only they had forsaken me and kept my Torah.” This essentially means that Judaism stresses deed way more than creed. As Nike’s slogan says, “Just Do It.”

Upon further reflection and contemplation on the fact that the Torah does not denounce atheism while it emphatically does condemn worshiping false gods, I have a theory I would like to offer.
Perhaps the Torah does not believe that there is such a thing as true atheists. I am not referring to the quip, “there are no atheists in a foxhole.” I think the Torah does not believe that an atheist exists even when not in a foxhole.
You see, we all have to believe in something. Yes, everyone must have a greater cause to focus on outside of themselves. Even those who are completely selfish believe in something. Let me explain.
For those of you who believe in a God, you may stop reading these thoughts. For those who do not believe in a God, I would humbly suggest that you do, in fact, believe/worship something greater than yourself, but you may call it by a different name.

We all know that money is worshiped by many. It is probably the greatest idol of our time. Even on the U.S dollar bill, it clearly reads "In God We Trust." This is no coincidence. This was not put there just to pacify some of the old religious men during the Civil War.

The phrase "In God We Trust" teaches us two great lessons.
Be careful lest you start putting the almighty dollar bill before God, family, state, country and morality. Many people work so much that they never participate in family affairs like nightly dinners or their kids’ sports competitions, etc. Likewise, treason can usually be traced to money. Think about this. A person is able to betray their country’s very safety for a few thousand dollars.

The other lesson is that if you believe in God, then you do not need to resort to stealing money to survive. In fact, the very belief itself will (should) prevent someone from committing a theft as it is incongruous to believe in God, and at the same time trespass His commandments to get money. It makes no sense. If you act like this, then clearly you have not thought things through properly.

The other big contemporary idol would be self-worship. The Torah admonishes a successful person who claims that he/she is wealthy and effective either because of hard work, prowess, brilliance and the like. The Torah rejects this attitude as there is no room for God in this self-proclaimed success. Likewise, character traits such as ego and arrogance are not only putrid, they are also idol worship, because you only see yourself and there is no other cause other than you.

There are of course plenty of other types of belief systems that swap the belief in what I call God with what they call god. Interesting to note, the following forms of idol worship are strictly because God was not included in the picture.

Hitler was a pantheist who believed in the god of nature. He therefore believed in the superiority of one race over another. More so, he himself played the role of God. If you were a Jew, gypsy or homosexual you were vermin and therefore deserved to die. He along with others made that determination. When I think of Mengele’s thumb, I think of the Jewish prayer recited on Yom Kippur, who shall die and who shall live, which is attributed to God and God alone.

Stalin, Lenin, Mao & Marx may not have believed in God, but they did believe in their failed canon and defended this belief to death. They claimed that there is no God, and since there is no God, therefore, they suppressed and killed political dissidents and social classes ("enemies of the people"). There was religious persecution, ethnic cleansing, forced collectivization and use of forced labor in concentration camps. I don’t know about you, but to me, they replaced one God for another god, albeit very ungodly.
I could go on and on and on.

I would much rather believe in a God than in the idea of self-rule, because as we have seen empirically, when left to our own devices, we leave much to be desired.
As for the arguments that so many have been killed in the name of religion, I maintain that these killers, pillagers and rapists are not religious, they just look religious or talk religious. I would also remind you of this proven fact that between Stalin, Hitler and Mao, over 80,000,000 were murdered and slaughtered.

Don’t replace God with another “Ism,” as it is not a good substitute.

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Learn to Live Life

After posting some recent thoughts on not allowing Covid to destroy our existence, and that it is high time that to start living our lives to the fullest and merely and not just surviving, I am regurgitating some old thoughts that I had penned a while ago. 

I was asked a question recently the other day and I answered with what I thought was the most obvious response. The question posited was – What is the opposite of pain? I responded, pleasure. What would you have said?

The questioner responded that he believes that I am incorrect and that the correct answer is “NO pain.” While this is something more for Confucius than yours truly, it got me on a track of thought that I believe is worth writing about.

There are many ways to go through life, and yes, some are more fortunate than others. It is true that there are some who everything seems to go their way in terms of looks, money, fame and luck. And yes, it is also true that there are others whose lives seem to be lacking in many areas, and where nothing seems to be going right.  The reality is, however, and this is a crucial truism: There are five big words that we should repeat as our mantra, “WE ARE NOT IN CONTROL.” There are so many things in life, whether pain or pleasure, that we can absolutely do nothing about.  We have living proof that we clearly cannot control Covid. We just need to adapt to it and hopefully it will extinguish itself.

Another example. We cannot change how tall we are (this Rabbi knows that elevator shoes are not worth the money). The only thing we can do is change how we feel about it and decide if this particular issue is going to be very painful to us or not. Is what happened going to destroy us or can we rise out of the ashes like a phoenix stronger than we were before? Much of life’s challenges are more about how we react to the challenge than the test itself. Viktor Frankl says it best in his book, “Man in Search of Meaning.”

In fact, Judaism teachers us that the only real control that we actually have is how we respond to a challenge. The holy kabbalistic book of Tanya discusses in great depth that challenges is actually a test from God to see how you respond and react. It is very easy to praise God when you have just won the lottery. It is not easy to praise and bless God when you are faced with a challenge. So, ultimately, TRUE faith comes out specifically when one is challenged.

It is really all about one’s attitude.
There are three ways to fly. There is first class, which is magnificent. You are living it up luxuriously. You get to Europe refreshed, full and ready to take on the day. Parenthetically, be careful, once you fly like this there is no going back. Then there is business class. This is also an unbelievable experience. While not as pampered as the upper class, it is still an incredible way to fly. The next level of flight is economy. The airlines do not wish to call it third class so they wised up and call it economy to applaud you for being more frugal with your money. Now economy is a more difficult flight, crammed like sardines with no legroom, but it is still way better than the next level, which is flying with the animals and baggage. There are no amenities in the baggage hold and definitely no pretzels or inflight TV. 

Now let’s take two different people from very different backgrounds. On the one hand, there is someone like Derek Jeter. If you stuck him in economy class, he would probably back out of the journey and let you know that you will be hearing from his team of lawyers and he is done flying commercial. However, what if you take a Sudanese boy, Srinwantu Dey, and fly him out of his war torn country. He could care less which class of service he is in. In fact, he would settle for an oxygen mask and a piece of rope tied to the outside of the plane because he is focused on the goal of surviving to live another day. He is not bogged down by the lack of ambience, etc.

If we feel entitled like a Jeter, then whenever life does not go your way, we are going to be unhappy. If on the other hand, we simply are thankful and appreciative about the little things, then life we be easier, especially on the psyche.

It is really up to us. Are we going to let our day-to-day issues ruin our lives and live in immense pain? Or are we going to be thankful for our life and try and squeeze out a little pleasure?

It is way easier to be cynical, bitter and see the cup half empty than to be happy and positive. This is why in Judaism there is a Mitzvah, which loosely translates as an obligation to be happy. We need to be commanded to be happy because it is sometimes very tough.

The message is clear.
1. Don’t get bogged down by the small stuff and instead choose to be happy.
2. Please realize that attitude is 95% of living.
3. Lastly, do not go crazy over things you cannot control.

I choose pleasure over pain and if I cannot have pleasure then at least I choose NO (minimal) pain.

Good luck on your respective life’s journeys.
Please feel free and slightly obligated to share this message with someone who can gain from this. 

New Year - What Now

The New Year came and went. We are all back to the daily grind hopefully with newfound energy and vigor. Admittedly, I do have some anxiety when January 1st comes around as it is a new fiscal year, usually with more fiscal responsibilities than the previous one.

I also struggle to clarify my communal and personal goals for the next 12 months. The following are some of my free-flowing thoughts that I jotted down for this year. No one size fits all but I believe that common sense is the guiding light in this regard.

In 2022 I have made my decision to keep on living and not be bogged down by Covid. While I hope it will dissipate as fast as it came, I am resolved that even if it lingers, I can no longer live in fear and anxiety. I am obligated by Torah law to do whatever I can to protect myself and protect others, but I can no longer live in fear.
Part of our raison d’etre is to live a meaningful and productive life. Covid has taken a bite out of meaning and life, and I am determined to recapture most of the happiness and normalcy that was pre-Covid.  Don’t get me wrong, pre-Covid had its issues and was not all rosy, but Covid is a joy killer 24/7. I saw a quote recently attributed Via, Dark Secrets which sums this up nicely.  “This year I survived, next year I want to live.”

Another energy zapper that sucks the very life out of every conversation and encounter is national politics. This year I will redouble my efforts to avoid any temptation to discuss political drama and nonsense. When will we realize that arguing amongst ourselves will not change anything other than making us angry and less productive? I speak to people who are only quasi-functional as they are obsessed with this politician or this political statement.
Now that my children are adults and my era of coercion over humans is now officially over, I came to the realization that I can only change myself, and boy, do I have much work to do. Why would I waste precious hours, brain space, and get myself aggravated when there is absolutely nothing I can do other than vote. Can you imagine the number of hours wasted on this stupidity? I am not denigrating public office; I am absolutely demeaning the wasted breath of private citizens arguing with each other.
Frustrated? Call your local, state and federal representatives and let them know how you feel. There is no value in letting me and your neighbor and your neighbor’s neighbor know how pathetic or vile you think this person is. None. The obvious question I have is that for the past few years the only topic of conversation was politics. What on earth can we bring to the table? It used to be sports, but even that is political. A real conundrum.

We own too much. Whether office, home, car, purse or man bag, there is way too much stuff. Judaism offers quite a few fascinating insights about the importance of decluttering.

The Torah
The very beginning of the Torah/Bible states the following, “The earth was without form and void – chaos.” The next couple of pages are dedicated to God organizing the universe and placing everything where it belongs.

King Solomon brilliantly writes at the beginning of Chapter 3.
“Everything has an appointed season, and there is a time for every matter under the heaven.
A time to give birth and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to uproot that which is planted.
A time to kill and a time to heal; a time to break and a time to build.                      
A time to weep and a time to laugh; a time of wailing and a time of dancing.        
A time to cast stones and a time to gather stones; a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing.             
A time to seek and a time to lose; a time to keep and a time to cast away."

You know how I interpret cast away? Yup. Throw it out!!  Decluttering leads to a better and happier life.

The Mishna
The Mishna quotes the great Rabbi Hillel, “The more possessions, the more worry.” Right on the money. Nail on the head. 

I admit I take things and people for granted. I take my health for granted until I get a headache. I take my wife for granted until she shows me who’s boss. I took my car for granted until its head gasket blew and I needed a new car. I am not alone. Most of us operate this way. It is just so human to go through life and simply expect certain things to always be there. That is until they aren’t. So, how do we become more sensitive to the constants of our lives that they are not taken for granted?
I was once talking to someone who told me that she keeps something called a gratitude journal. I asked her to explain. A gratitude journal is where you write down some good things that happened to you today, however minor. What this does is make one focus and not be oblivious.
Try it.
You do not even need a journal. In fact, Judaism has an incredible concept called the Modeh Ani. Essentially, it is a short but powerful prayer that is said immediately upon awakening. This prayer is said before coffee, even before getting out of bed.  The message of the Modeh Ani is so clear. It sets the tone to have these thoughts upon starting one’s day. I am so thankful that I woke up this morning. While it is true that I have woken up multiple thousands of mornings in a row, I am not going to take this day for granted. Thank you for allowing me to have another day to make an impact and fulfill my destiny. Thank you, my dear spouse, for going through this journey with me. Thank you, my dear kids, for being my kids. Thank you, my fellow colleagues at work. It is so good to see you today. On and on.
Appreciate the mundane. Acknowledge the obvious. Embrace your reality. Even try to make sweet lemonade out of lemons

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