Rabbi's Weekly Article

One Man's Thoughts

A Thanksgiving Thanks - even when it hurts

We are approaching yet again the Thanksgiving holiday. It is a time where families get together and celebrate life. The past couple of years, we have been dealing with Covid and its ramifications. We should be thankful for this positive change this year and pray that it continues.
The concept of offering thanks is not alien to Judaism. In fact, as we shall see below, thanks are offered every single day in a myriad of ways. The basic thrust is that we need to thank and thank often, and never take anything and anyone for granted.

When the holy Temple in Jerusalem stood before it was destroyed by the Romans, there was a special thanksgiving sacrifice offered by those who wanted to say thank you to God. The Talmud informs us that there are four situations which obligate a person to bring this thanksgiving offering.

1.   One who has crossed the sea.
2.   One who traversed the desert.
3.   One who was sick and became healed.
4.   One who was incarcerated and became free.

The common denominator of all four occurrences is that they were saved from danger. To recognize this fact and thank the one above, a special offering is brought. Since there is no longer a Temple, we substitute these offerings with a special blessing during a public Torah reading. There is also a Jewish custom to invite family and friends to a special thanksgiving meal upon surviving a life-threatening illness.

We are taught in the Jewish code that the first thing we do upon awakening, before we say good morning to our kids and sorry to our spouse, is to sit at the edge of our bed, bow our heads and say a thank you prayer. The specific wording is that we thank God for restoring our Soul, and giving us another crack at completing our unique mission in this world. An acknowledgement that life is fragile and that there is much to accomplish.

As a Jew, I pray three times a day. These prayers are held in the morning, afternoon and evening. The Morning Prayer is the longest and is said before we go to work and begin our tedious day. The very first word that we utter as a congregation is the word “Hodu” which means thank you God for listening to our prayers.
At the pinnacle of all these three prayers, we are advised to ask God for individual and specific help. We stand, put our feet together and ask God to fulfill our wish list. This prayer is called the Amidah Prayer. The last page or two of this comprehensive wish list is completely devoted to thanks. Essentially, we are thanking God in advance for our very breath, food, job, children and life.

We are all human and most of us have had a thought-flicker that perhaps God is not listening to our prayers. And some of us are completely convinced that the thing they asked of God definitely went unanswered. I, as a Rabbi, get asked this over and over again.
My thoughts on this are that God’s sense of fairness, justice and thought is completely different from ours. We are a finite being and trying to understand God’s way of reasoning is impossible. We have not fully discovered and neither do we understand how our own brain works, let alone God’s brain. Even scientists who have mapped out the brain admit that they have only scratched the surface. Therefore, it is unreasonable to say that what God did or did not do was wrong or that He did not listen. God operates on a completely different wavelength.
It is very possible (I don’t know God’s brain either) that God did hear everything you asked for, and for whatever reason the answer was a resounding no! Does this make God inattentive or obtuse? I don’t think so. Is a mother evil when she refuses to allow her child an ice cream right before dinner? Even though there are plenty of other mothers (every dad will offer the ice cream and more) who do allow the dessert before dinner, a mother saying no to her child does not make her a bad parent. Quite the opposite. Not only is she not a bad person and mother, she is acting responsibly and fulfilling her divine obligation flawlessly. Likewise, when God says no, it is because there is a reason for it. We are like the child who does not understand how his/her parents can be so mean and not allow ice cream.

The bottom line is this. There are literally so many things to be thankful for. Even if we are hurting from something that is plaguing, troubling or afflicting us, we are obligated to see the good as well. Even if it is not easy to think positively, we must summon the strength to do so. To only see the negative without also seeing the positive is wrong and can be dangerous to one’s physical and spiritual health.
Some examples of simple but important thanks and recognition of the good: We need to be thankful for living in a civilized country with laws and courts as opposed to a place like Afghanistan that is ruled by whims and bullets. We must be thankful that we have a job, home, spouse, family and friends (a great Rabbi?). Even if you do not like your current employment, this should not stop you from being thankful that you have an income and are not homeless and living on the street. Your kids may be a massive drain on your energy, but always be mindful that there are people who are desperate to have children but cannot, etc.

My daughter recently sent me a picture of my grandson at the zoo. His mouth was agape with wonder, his eyes filled with love and hands reaching out to touch whatever animal he was looking at. The picture made me realize that sometimes children are way more appreciative of their surroundings than their parents. Why is this? Because adults are too cynical and are unable to see the forest for the trees. We need to be more hyper sensitive to all the good things happening around us and less critical.

The Thanksgiving holiday is a good time to start.
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Extreme Living

Many people I speak to love this time of the year. The climate is not too hot or humid, and neither is it too cold and unpleasant. In fact, the weather of late has been perfect. While it is true there are those who love the extreme climate of intense heat or cold, I would think that it is nowhere near the majority. You see people, for the most part, appreciate the elements somewhere closer to the middle of the thermometer.
This is not only true of weather, but also of most things. Even politics and religious attitudes need to have a modicum of thought and common sense.

Let’s take politics first. An extremist on the right or on the left leaves us/me with a raised eyebrow. Political extremes are simply an unhealthy way to be. As a Jewish person, I am unnerved by someone who is extreme, as it usually spells trouble for the Jews. I also find that people who are extreme regarding politics have no life or extracurricular activities. It overtakes the individual to the point where friendships come secondary to their opinion. It is like a political cancer has taken over the mind. It is not supposed to be like this.

Same with religion. There is a reason why the Torah has to stipulate that to save a life we are allowed to violate Jewish law, even though for you and me it is obvious that life is the most precious thing that we possess. The Torah however, needs to spell it out as God knows that there are those who are so extreme that they will not eat on Yom Kippur even if it means that they could perish.
Maimonides in his magnum opus only advocates an extreme position if it is to rid oneself of negative behavior like alcoholism, etc. For the most part, Maimonides takes great pains to emphasize that the middle path to serving God and mankind is the proper one: “Such people may then return to the middle path, which is the proper one, and continue in it for the rest of their lives.”

Recently the Torah gave us two scenarios of extremes and condemned both of them. A couple of weeks ago, we studied the Torah portion all about the flood. There it states clearly that God brought a flood upon the masses because no one showed any respect for the other. Life was all about living a selfish and greedy existence. There was no consideration of someone else’s space, property, or belongings. As the Torah testifies, the people took what they wanted when they wanted and how they wanted. There was a total disregard for morality, honesty, decency and integrity. Rape and pillage were so common that God ultimately decided that this is not a world He wants to be king over.
A little further on in the same portion, the Torah discusses that all mankind lived together in one place and the Torah further testifies that mankind had but one language and wished to build the Tower of Babel. God was displeased and scattered them all over the region and altered their dilalects. Have you ever asked yourself what was so bad about people living together and all speaking the same tongue?  What is the Torah really telling us?

The answer is a fascinating one. The generation of the flood focused on the self, the individual and not on the community or family. The generation of Babel on the other hand were the polar opposite but also to an extreme. The Babelites strictly focused on community and they had complete disdain for the individual. They had no regard for differing or dissenting opinions. If someone did not agree, then they were classified as the enemy of the state. The philosophy was such, that you are either with us or against us – there is no middle ground. God decided then that I have no interest in being involved with this oppressive communistic approach either. 
So while the flood victims died because of extreme negative behavior, the generation of Babel were also disbursed for the same reason, extreme negative behavior. What God was looking for was a hybrid, where both the individual and the community matter.
Rabbi Hillel said it best. If I am not for myself, then who will be for me. If I am only for myself then what am I?

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The Powerball Lottery

The Powerball lottery is up to the staggering number of $1.5 billion dollars. This is a boatload of money.
While it is true this amount can be paid over a few decades, if you choose to take it all in one lump sum,
$700 million is pretty darn good.
I remember writing an article about a fellow from Michigan who won a $2 million lottery jackpot in 2010 and was found dead a decade later. The body of Mr. Leroy Fick was found floating in a Michigan river.
The reporter continued that Mr. Fick, from Auburn, won the jackpot in 2010, and after about two years, the money was gone. Fick spent $200,000 on the construction of a new home and about $200,000 in annuities, in addition to losing money in investments and fireworks.

It is mind boggling to me that a person receives a gift straight from heaven and then squanders it. Not only was $2 million lost, it happened in only 24 months. There must be some reasonable explanation to clarify how someone goes from rags to riches in a quick decline.

Of course, the most obvious explanation is that there were bad actors involved who made themselves available to “take care” of the newbie’s newfound wealth and then proceeded to wreak havoc on his bank account.

One explanation is that when a person not only goes from rags to riches, but also goes from rags to riches to rags again, it is usually because the newly wealthy person may be so overwhelmed with so much money so quickly that the individual is not comfortable with their new station. It is not unlike a prisoner being released from incarceration after 20 years, feeling uncomfortable on the outside and having a very difficult time acclimating to their new reality. Someone told me recently that ironically, they are more content being depressed, as it is so familiar and comfortable.

I once read that actor Nicholas Cage, who was a top earner worth $150 million, could not hold on to his money and squandered it on some strange and eccentric purchases, eventually facing foreclosure on several properties and owing the IRS $6.3 million in property taxes. To give you an idea of the eccentricity involved, he owned not one, two, or three homes, but fifteen residences, including two castles, islands and a pet octopus. This is another case of money overload.

There is another explanation gleaned from the Kabbalah that is fascinating as well as practical. As you may know, Adam &Eve were introduced to the Garden of Eden and told, “You may eat from every tree, except this one in the middle.” Can you imagine being Adam & Eve? They had every available fruit and veggie at their whim. They had grapes, dates, oranges, mangos, papaya, brussel sprouts, tomatoes, etc.
They could eat whatever and whenever they wanted as a gift from God at no charge. There was one expectation that they should not eat fruit from a particular tree. Everything else was free game and allowed except one single solitary tree. What did they do? They ate from the forbidden fruit and were promptly punished. They were booted out of the Garden of Eden. Now all of a sudden, they had to grow their own produce, by the sweat of their brow.

The Kabbalah explains what happened here with an interesting analysis. The Kabbalah calls this “Bread of Shame.” Bread of Shame is what Adam & Eve felt when every single one of their needs and whims were met without earning it, without working for it. They felt unworthy and embarrassed that they were on God’s welfare program. This feeling of unworthiness eventually led to resentment, which eventually led them to an attitude of not caring anymore about what God says because they lacked nothing. In other words, spoiled children whose parents do everything for them rebel against the very same people who take care of them. This is truly a case of biting the hand that feeds you.

It is fascinating to read the punishments that Adam & Eve received. They had to now work, and work hard for their sustenance. No more freebies being thrown their way. God took them off the payroll because He was not appreciated and was completely taken for granted. Their new life entailed having to work for their supper, which enhanced their self-esteem. They earned it and therefore it felt so much better.

Secondly, God introduced mortality. Living forever will allow people to rest on their laurels. I have all the time in the world, why do this today when I can do it tomorrow. This is also a form of “Bread of Shame.”
Not appreciating that every moment counts. The timer on the clock is counting down, etc.

Thirdly, God promised that not only childbirth will be difficult, but also child rearing. If our children sail through their upbringing with no issues whatsoever -- no calls from the teacher or principals, no drama with the neighbor’s kids and no hospital visits to cast yet another broken bone -- then the child will become invisible or at the very least very low profile. God wants us to appreciate our kids by creating them with instructions, “Don’t let your parents rest, kid. Give them a run for their money.” This way, the hard work we put into their upbringing will allow us to appreciate them even more.

The bottom line is this. Being born with a silver spoon can be a blessing or a curse as money can be a blessing or a curse. I think Philo, a Greco-Jewish philosopher in first century Alexandria said, "The family, the land and all of humankind can ultimately be destroyed as a result of failure to suppress desires for various pleasures." My Hebrew teachers (who were probably poor) were fond of saying, “Being wealthy is a bigger test than being poor.”

Having said the above, I still pray to win the lottery. As my friend’s father was oft to say, “I have been poor and I have been rich, and it is much better to be rich.”

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