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Rosh Hashanah, Tailor-Made

Nobody likes fundraising dinners. The speeches are dry, the menu is dull, and the seating arrangements seem to have been drawn up by the Marquis de Sade. No one looks forward to these affairs, and we attend them only out of a sense of obligation.

Since one dinner I attended last year, however, I have become more wary than ever of this kind of event.

The evening began unremarkably and proceeded unremarkably — up to a point. The food was better than usual, the speeches ran longer than usual, the company was as good as could be hoped for, and I never saw the dinner plate that slipped from the tray of the passing waiter and struck me squarely on the forehead.

icepack“I didn’t hit you, did I?” asked the waiter in response to the alarmed gasps and cries from the people who shared my table, several of whom assured him that he had, indeed, scored a direct hit.

“Are you all right?” he asked, inevitably. A silly question, really.

A pound-and-a-half of glazed ceramic packs quite a wallop after accelerating at thirty-two feet-per-second-squared from a height of six feet in the air.

At least I was still conscious, still sitting upright, and I didn’t think I was bleeding.

“Get a doctor,” someone said.

“He doesn’t need a doctor,” said someone else. “Get him a lawyer.”

The manager arrived with an ice pack. “Here, take this.”

“I was hoping for scotch with my ice,” I said.

He laughed, but didn’t bring me any scotch. “I’ll need your name and address, sir,” he said, handing me a pen and paper.

“Don’t sign anything,” yelled someone from the next table.

I scribbled my vital statistics. “I’m really very sorry, sir,” he said.

“Is there anything else I can do for you?”

“Just the scotch.” He laughed again and went away. I had figured the manager would offer me vouchers for a complimentary night’s stay. He hadn’t. (I never even got a letter of apology.) I hadn’t gotten my whisky, either.

I began regaining my bearings to a medley of more lawsuit jokes. From across the table, however, my next door neighbor offered the only profound comment of the evening: “What were you thinking about before you got hit?”

I knew exactly what he meant. According to Talmudic philosophy, there are no accidents, no coincidences, no random events. Everything comes about through the guiding hand of Divine Providence, the spiritual imperative that governs how the external world acts upon each and every one of us. In other words, if I got smacked on the head, I must have had it coming to me.

This is a far cry from the popular notion that whatever I want, I have coming to me. As much as contemporary culture may insist that privileges and entitlements are birthrights, the Talmud recognizes only our responsibilities, both to other individuals and to society. When we live up to our obligations, we may expect certain rewards to come our way. But if we do receive an apparently undeserved blow, great or small, we should assume that the equilibrium of the cosmic scales of justice somehow needed to be set back in balance, and we should reflect upon the message that has just been sent us from on high.

Sometimes we can easily identify a concrete lesson to glean from such mishaps. Other times not. But the principle holds, even when we can’t perceive any clear cause and effect: this was necessary; now we need to brush ourselves off and get on with life.

The traditional Yom Kippur liturgy provides a poignant example in its narrative concerning Rabbi Ishmael, the High Priest, who was cruelly tortured to death at the whim of the Roman governor’s daughter.

The heavenly court protested in outrage before the throne of G-d: “Is this the reward for living a life committed to holiness?” they demanded.

“Be silent!” commanded the Almighty, “or I will return the world to void and nothingness.”

180px-tailor-fit_800The incomparable 18th century genius, Rabbi Elijah of Vilna, explains G-d’s reply with this allegory:

A king once received a gift of fine Turkish wool, the most luxurious fabric in the world. It was so beautiful, in fact, that the king could not bear to think that even a tiny piece of it should end up as scrap on the cutting floor. He went to every tailor in his kingdom and asked each to make him a suit without letting even one thread of the wool go to waste. But every tailor claimed that such a feat was beyond his ability.

Finally, the king found a tailor who agreed to do the job. When the king returned to the tailor’s shop on the appointed date, he discovered that the tailor had indeed produced an exceptional suit of clothes. The king was elated.

“But have you fulfilled your promise?” asked the king. “Did you use every thread?”

“You really don’t know,” answered the tailor. “And the only way you will ever will find out is if you tear your beautiful suit apart and lay out all the pieces in the original shape of the fabric.”

Similarly, we often think that life is full of unfair knocks or is missing essential pieces. But to know for sure, we would have to see all of human history undone before our eyes. Only then would we have the right to assert that there were flaws in the slow sculpture of creation.

The days from Rosh HaShonnah to Yom Kippur — the traditional season of judgment — afford us the opportunity to strengthen our trust that the Master Tailor has done His job well, that He has stitched together the fabric of eternity according to a plan He understands far better than we do — even when bricks, or china plates, fall out of the sky upon our heads.

Should I have sued the hotel? the waiter? the school holding the event? the principal, who was speaking when I got hit? No doubt, I could have found any number of lawyers eager to take the case. If a woman could receive 4 million dollars for spilling a cup of coffee in her own lap, this should be worth at least as much.

But life is full of honest accidents resulting in superficial scrapes and bruises. It’s better for us (and better instruction for our children) to look for what we can learn from life’s bumps and knocks, not to look for whom we can blame and how much we can squeeze out of them.

b312248a90eac5da6778e184074f4ea9The waiter returned, contrite and apologetic, perhaps more shaken than I was. “In twelve years this has never happened to me,” he said. Evidently, he also had a date with Providence. “Is there anything else I can do for you, sir?”

“I wouldn’t mind a scotch on the rocks.”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

He did. It wasn’t four million dollars, but it was better than a knock on the head.

Originally published in 2000 by Jewish World Review.

A Present for Heaven

letting-goWhen my youngest daughter was three years old, she discovered the helium balloons in the flower section of our local supermarket, handed out free to every child who asks for one. I tied the string around her wrist so the precious balloon wouldn’t escape up to the rafters. She bounced it on its string as I tugged it this way and that to avoid bumping other shoppers. She hugged it as we climbed into the car for the ride home.

As I pulled into the driveway, my daughter flew out of the car, her balloon bobbing along behind her, raced in through the front door and out again to our back yard, slipped the string off her wrist and gazed upward as the balloon rose into the sky and slowly drifted away.

“Why did you let go of your balloon?” I asked, slightly miffed that she had so casually cast away the new toy she had been fussing over for the last half hour.

My daughter just shrugged, giggled, and watched the balloon disappear from sight.

After our next trip to the market she did it again. Then again, over and over for months. Every time I asked the same question. “Why did you let go of your balloon?”

Finally I got an answer. My daughter looked me in the eye and replied with a smile, “It’s a present for God.”

* * *

She doesn’t do it anymore. And part of me mourns for the pure, innocent faith that prompted a little girl to give up her toy as an offering to the Almighty.

For all our experience and the sophistication, for all our indulgent smiles at the simplicity of our children’s beliefs, is it not likely that our children know something we don’t, something they themselves soon won’t know or even remember they once knew? And perhaps it is precisely their power of belief that sets them apart from the adults they will become.

Children believe in God, believe in their parents, believe in their country and their school and their friends and that good will always win out over evil. Their trust and faith haven’t yet been sullied by the lies of politicians, the corruption of law and justice, the avarice of sports heroes, the superficiality of Hollywood or, most importantly, the cynicism of their parents, who may try for a time to put on an act to spare their children from their own disillusionment.

But what if it worked the other way, that we could learn an old lesson from our children instead of imposing yet another new lesson upon them? What if we could turn the clock back and recapture even a whiff of the innocence of youth? Would we reach out to grasp it, or have we grown too jaded even to try?

This Rosh Hashana, Jews around the world will fill synagogues to inaugurate the first day of the Jewish new year. But Rosh Hashana celebrates much more than the beginning of another calendrical cycle. It celebrates birth and rebirth; it celebrates beginning and renewal, for it commemorates nothing less than the Creation of the world and Mankind.

edelweiss91As we approach the New Year, let us ask ourselves how we can turn back the clock, exchanging bad habits for new challenges, routine for renewal, and cynicism for enthusiasm. Instead of smiling with adult condescension at the innocence of children, let us consider instead that the difference between childhood and maturity is not whether we give presents to our Creator, but what kind of presents we choose to give. A child serves God by sending a balloon up into the sky. An adult serves God by releasing his spirit to soar to the heights of Godliness.

Have we given charity in proportion with our means? Have we visited the sick and comforted the distressed? Have we consistently spoken with kindness to our neighbors, with respect to our superiors, and with patience to our children? Have we honored the Sabbath and studied the ancient wisdom of our people?

It’s not enough to make resolutions; we need to inspire ourselves to see them through. We need to awaken in ourselves an awe of the Almighty by reflecting upon the vastness of creation, the unfathomability of the stars in their courses, the mysteries of life, and the limitless potential of the soul — to behold for a lingering moment the immeasurable beauty and majesty of our universe.

And if we can follow through, if we can make the moment last without slipping back into our well-traveled rut of discounting every noble and beautiful thought and deed, then perhaps we can retain our faith in those things truly worthy of faith throughout the coming year.

Originally published in 2008 by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Aish.com.

Rosh Hashanah Tailor-Made

Nobody likes fundraising dinners. The speeches are dry, the menu is dull, and the seating arrangements seem to have been drawn up by the Marquis de Sade. No one looks forward to these affairs, and we attend them only out of a sense of obligation.

Since one dinner I attended last year, however, I have become more wary than ever of this kind of event.

The evening began unremarkably and proceeded unremarkably — up to a point. The food was better than usual, the speeches ran longer than usual, the company was as good as could be hoped for, and I never saw the dinner plate that slipped from the tray of the passing waiter and struck me squarely on the forehead.

icepack“I didn’t hit you, did I?” asked the waiter in response to the alarmed gasps and cries from the people who shared my table, several of whom assured him that he had, indeed, scored a direct hit.

“Are you all right?” he asked, inevitably. A silly question, really.

A pound-and-a-half of glazed ceramic packs quite a wallop after accelerating at thirty-two feet-per-second-squared from a height of six feet in the air.

At least I was still conscious, still sitting upright, and I didn’t think I was bleeding.

“Get a doctor,” someone said.

“He doesn’t need a doctor,” said someone else. “Get him a lawyer.”

The manager arrived with an ice pack. “Here, take this.”

“I was hoping for scotch with my ice,” I said.

He laughed, but didn’t bring me any scotch. “I’ll need your name and address, sir,” he said, handing me a pen and paper.

“Don’t sign anything,” yelled someone from the next table.

I scribbled my vital statistics. “I’m really very sorry, sir,” he said.

“Is there anything else I can do for you?”

“Just the scotch.” He laughed again and went away. I had figured the manager would offer me vouchers for a complimentary night’s stay. He hadn’t. (I never even got a letter of apology.) I hadn’t gotten my whisky, either.

I began regaining my bearings to a medley of more lawsuit jokes. From across the table, however, my next door neighbor offered the only profound comment of the evening: “What were you thinking about before you got hit?”

I knew exactly what he meant. According to Talmudic philosophy, there are no accidents, no coincidences, no random events. Everything comes about through the guiding hand of Divine Providence, what we call hashgochoh pratis: the spiritual imperative that governs how the external world acts upon each and every one of us. In other words, if I got smacked on the head, I must have had it coming to me.

This is a far cry from the popular notion that whatever I want, I have coming to me. As much as contemporary culture may insist that privileges and entitlements are birthrights, the Talmud recognizes only our responsibilities, both to other individuals and to society. When we live up to our obligations, we may expect certain rewards to come our way. But if we do receive an apparently undeserved blow, great or small, we should assume that the equilibrium of the cosmic scales of justice somehow needed to be set back in balance, and we should reflect upon the message that has just been sent us from on high.

Sometimes we can easily identify a concrete lesson to glean from such mishaps. Other times not. But the principle holds, even when we can’t perceive any clear cause and effect: this was necessary; now we need to brush ourselves off and get on with life.

The traditional Yom Kippur liturgy provides a poignant example in its narrative concerning Rabbi Yishmoel, the High Priest, who died as the skin of his face was peeled away to suit the whim of the Roman governor’s daughter.

The malachim, the divine beings who inhabit the heavenly spheres, protested in outrage: “Is this the reward for living a life committed to holiness?” they demanded.

“Be silent!” commanded the Almighty, “or I will return the world to void and nothingness.”

180px-tailor-fit_800The incomparable 18th century genius, Rabbi Elyahu of Vilna, explains G-d’s reply with an allegory: a king once received a gift of fine Turkish wool, the most luxurious fabric in the world. It was so beautiful, in fact, that the king could not bear to think that even a tiny piece of it should end up as scrap on the cutting floor. He went to every tailor in his kingdom and asked each to make him a suit without letting even one thread of the wool go to waste. But every tailor claimed that such a feat was beyond his ability.

Finally, the king found a tailor who agreed to do the job. When the king returned to the tailor’s shop on the appointed date, he discovered that the tailor had indeed produced an exceptional suit of clothes. The king was elated.

“But have you fulfilled your promise?” asked the king. “Did you use every thread?”

“You really don’t know,” answered the tailor. “And the only way you will ever will find out is if you tear your beautiful suit apart and lay out all the pieces in the original shape of the fabric.”

Similarly, we often think that life is full of unfair knocks or is missing essential pieces. But to know for sure, we would have to see all of human history undone before our eyes. Only then would we have the right to assert that there were flaws in the slow sculpture of creation.

The days from Rosh HaShonnah to Yom Kippur — the traditional season of judgment — afford us the opportunity to strengthen our trust that the Master Tailor has done His job well, that He has stitched together the fabric of eternity according to a plan He understands far better than we do — even when bricks, or china plates, fall out of the sky upon our heads.

Should I have sued the hotel? the waiter? the school holding the event? the principal, who was speaking when I got hit? No doubt, I could have found any number of lawyers eager to take the case. If a woman could receive 4 million dollars for spilling a cup of coffee in her own lap, this should be worth at least as much.

But life is full of honest accidents resulting in superficial scrapes and bruises. It’s better for us (and better instruction for our children) to look for what we can learn from life’s bumps and knocks, not to look for whom we can blame and how much we can squeeze out of them.

b312248a90eac5da6778e184074f4ea9The waiter returned, contrite and apologetic, perhaps more shaken than I was. “In twelve years this has never happened to me,” he said. Evidently, he also had a date with Providence. “Is there anything else I can do for you, sir?”

“I wouldn’t mind a scotch on the rocks.”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

He did. It wasn’t four million dollars, but it was better than a knock on the head.

Originally published in 2000 by Jewish World Review.

Rosh Hashanah and the Mysteries of the Universe

cropped-man-and-mysterious-universeOriginally published by Jewish World Review in 2003.

96% of the matter in the universe is invisible. Mysterious “dark energy” is pushing all of space apart. Empty space is not really empty, but filled with subatomic “foam.” At least seven parallel universes exist, each a trillionth the size of a proton.

Science fiction? Fantasy? The product of opium hallucinations?

Guess again. According to an article in U.S. News and World Report, these hypothesized phenomena represent the mainstream of current scientific thought.

In the wake of observations reported last March by NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, astronomers and physicists are resorting to these and other fantastic models to explain anomalous temperature variations in the background radiation permeating the heavens.

And who knows? They may be right. After all, once upon a time a round earth, a heliocentric solar system, and manned flight were all scorned as flights of the wildest fancy. Perhaps entire universes really do exist, wrapped up in a particle of dust beneath your finger nail.

On the other hand, increasingly complex and convoluted theories begin to look like the frantic flailings of scientists drowning in the mysteries of human existence. Indeed, one noted physicist confessed that, if he’d been presented with these theories not long ago, “I’d either ask what you’ve been smoking or tell you to stop telling fairy tales.”

Of course, one almost has to feel sorry for these scientists. Every discovery, every revelation, every insight, opens up a new Pandora’s Box of inexplicable phenomena. A few short decades ago, we knew of about half a dozen known sub-atomic particles. Today there are hundreds, with the number growing all the time, and often only the haziest guesses as to why they exist. Relativity theory and quantum theory both seem to describe the workings of the universe, but only the most strained and unproven theory suggests how to unite these two approaches.

1280It’s almost enough to make one contemplate — dare we say it? — Divine Creation. Indeed, man’s desire to plumb the secrets of the universe is nothing new. Newton, Descartes, Galileo, Aristotle, all of these and many others grappled with physics and metaphysics in their labors to comprehend the vast expanse of time and space that stretches toward the boundaries of existence.

But long before the first scientist or philosopher raised his eyes to gaze into outer space and contemplate the stars, another man searched inner space seeking understanding. His name was Job.

A righteous man who lost his fortune, his family, and his health, Job questioned whether there was any rhyme or reason to explain the suffering of the righteous and the prosperity of the wicked. And as he sank into the mire of self-pity and nihilism, a Voice from above answered him:

“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” asked the Almighty. “What is the path where light dwells? And darkness, where is its place, that you may take it to its boundary, that you may understand the paths of its home?”

The Creator never explains Job’s suffering, but He does provide Job with the answer that restores his faith: The complexity of creation is not only more that you know, but more than you can begin to imagine. Every star above you in the sky, every drop of water in the sea, and every grain of sand upon the shore resides in its place and follows the course chosen for it; so too is every seeming whim of fate rather an unfathomable pulse from the primordial machine that steers the unfolding of eternity.

And so we say in the Rosh HaShanah liturgy, “This day is the anniversary of the beginning of Your handiwork, a remembrance of the First Day.” As we stand in the murky spiritual twilight between the end of one year and the start of another, we contemplate that amidst the mystery and uncertainty that surrounds us, one constant offers us security and safety if we take hold of it: the indivisible relationship between the Creator of all and His ultimate creation — Mankind, for whom He brought all else into being.

This day. This day of Rosh HaShanah begins a new year, a new season, a new opportunity to draw near to the Master of Creation. This day offers us a poignant reminder of how to cling to the godliness the resides within us, to strive to become more devoted in our relationships and less demanding in our expectations, more focused on others and less fixated on ourselves, less passionate about material gain and more ardent in our pursuit of spiritual fulfillment.

blowing-of-shofarThis day reminds us that we hold in our hands an awesome privilege, as well as an awesome responsibility. How willingly are we seduced into looking for simplistic solutions to the moral and ethical dilemmas that life throws at us day after day? How longingly do we embrace superficial cliches and bromides that urge us to pull the warm covers of apathy over our heads?

This day. Rosh HaShanah is our wake up call, and the sound of the shofar signals our reveille to open our eyes and behold the breathtaking magnificence that is Creation. And if our minds reel as we try to grasp the limitless expanse of the universe, we can yet grasp onto this certainty: that the One who placed us in its midst has revealed Himself through His Word and has given each of us a priceless gift, no less than the sand and the sea and the stars — an indispensable role to play in the completion of His masterpiece and the means through which we can become one with the infinite and with the divine.

Rethink Everything

its-time-to-rethink-everything1The ten days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur commemorate the Creation of the universe and the creation of mankind.  Rosh Hashanah is called the Day of Judgment, reminding us that all our actions matter, whether great or small, whether public or private.

By contemplating that we will have to make an accounting before the One Judge, we become more aware of our own choices, more cautious in how we judge others, and more willing to rethink the many ideas and attitudes we take for granted.

Ultimately, we want to be the best people we can be, which means looking back on the past year to evaluate how we’ve succeeded and how we have fallen short.  It also means looking forward to envision where we would like to see ourselves this time next year, and then setting the bar a little higher, knowing that we will always fall short of our goals.

Change isn’t easy.  But it is inevitable, for better or for worse.

And it’s in our hands to see that we change for the better.

Balancing the Scales of Freedom

Originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch the week after 9/11, between Rosh HaShonah and Yom Kippur.

PD5670061_Terroris_1980732iIt was Judgment Day — exactly one week after the World Trade Center buildings collapsed and so many illusions along with them.

“Judgment Day” is the expression found in the traditional liturgy for Rosh HaShonah, the first day of the Jewish new year.  And as I stood in the midst of the congregation intoning the High Holiday prayers, the vision of exploding passenger planes and twin towers crumbling to dust hovered before my eyes.

 On Rosh HaShonah we will be inscribed … who will live and who will die … who by water and who by fire … who by storm and who by plague … Who will have peace and who will suffer … who will be cast down and who will be exalted.

The judgment upon Jews became kinder after the United States opened her doors to us a century ago.  Where no one else would have us, America took us in, allowing us to live both as Americans and as Jews without persecution.

Yet for all that, American Jews often feel torn by opposing cultural forces, especially approaching our Day of Judgment in a society where there is no greater sin than “judgmentalism.”

Without judgment, however, society cannot endure.  As good citizens we must judge others – not based on race or religion but upon actions and behavior.  And we must judge ourselves as well, by constantly reexamining our motives and our prejudices and our values and our goals.  To condemn even this kind of judgment as a threat to freedom is to retreat from our responsibility to discern right from wrong; it is to embrace the illusion of absolute theoretical freedom – moral anarchy – which is in reality no freedom at all.

September 11 brought us face to face with moral anarchy in the form of incomprehensible evil.  Perhaps the first step toward confronting it is to remind ourselves that freedom is not a right – it is a privilege, and privileges carry with them obligations that are often inconvenient and occasionally painful.  When Thomas Jefferson wrote that the tree of liberty must sometimes be refreshed with the blood of patriots, he warned that the threat against freedom can only be met by not taking freedom for granted.

Freedom is not democratic, as less than a score of suicidal zealots understood when they commandeered four transcontinental airliners.  The duties of freedom are non-negotiable, as New York firefighters and policemen understood when they rushed into crumbling skyscrapers.  And the rules of freedom cannot always be legislated: sometimes we have to choose between necessary evils, as the passengers aboard United Airlines flight 93 understood when they drove their plane into a Pennsylvania field.

These are the kinds of judgments we must make, every day and every year, to preserve our society, all the more so in a nation built out of so many cultures and beliefs as ours.  Every freedom of the individual cannot be permitted if it threatens the collective, nor can every interest of the collective be observed if it oppresses the individual.  But when we share the collective will to make our society stable and secure, then the individual will set aside his personal freedoms for the national good and the nation will bend over backward to protect individual freedom.

This is the mark of a great civilization, and it rests upon an informed and devoted citizenry prepared to debate, sometimes passionately but always civilly, the moral direction of our collective journey.

This Rosh HaShonah I stood shoulder to shoulder with friends and neighbors singing ancient liturgical poems in praise of our Creator, just as so many Americans stood together the week before singing “G-d Bless America.”  There were no agendas, no politics, no grudges, no rivalries.  All of a sudden we were one nation, indivisible, a people with one noble history and many noble ideals whose differences vanished in the shadow of our many common values and common goals.

As the Jews have had ample opportunity to learn, now America has learned that nothing brings us together like a common enemy.  What we have yet to learn is how to continue to stand together even in times of peace.

Rosh Hashanah Tailor-Made

-GIF-When-Im-at-a-family-dinner-party-with-all-boring-adults-GIFSNOBODY LIKES fundraising dinners. The speeches are dry, the menu is dull, and the seating arrangements seem to have been drawn up by the Marquis de Sade. No one looks forward to these affairs, and we attend them only out of a sense of obligation.

Since one dinner I attended many years ago, however, I have become more wary than ever of this kind of event.

The evening began unremarkably and proceeded unremarkably — up to a point. The food was better than usual, the speeches ran longer than usual, the company was as good as could be hoped for, and I never saw the dinner plate that slipped from the tray of the passing waiter and struck me squarely on the forehead.

“I didn’t hit you, did I?” asked the waiter in response to the alarmed gasps and cries from the people who shared my table, several of whom assured him that he had, indeed, scored a direct hit.

“Are you all right?” he asked, inevitably. A silly question, really. A pound-and-a-half of glazed ceramic packs quite a wallop after accelerating at thirty-two feet-per-second-squared from a height of six feet in the air.

At least I was still conscious, still sitting upright, and I didn’t think I was bleeding.

“Get a doctor,” someone said.

“He doesn’t need a doctor,” said someone else. “Get him a lawyer.”

The manager arrived with an ice pack. “Here, take this.”

“I was hoping for scotch with my ice,” I said.

He laughed, but didn’t bring me any scotch. “I’ll need your name and address, sir,” he said, handing me a pen and paper.

“Don’t sign anything,” yelled someone from the next table.

I scribbled my vital statistics. “I’m really very sorry, sir,” he said.

“Is there anything else I can do for you?”

“Just the scotch.” He laughed again and went away. I had figured the manager would offer me vouchers for a complimentary night’s stay. He hadn’t. (I never even got a letter of apology.) I hadn’t gotten my whisky, either.

I began regaining my bearings to a medley of more lawsuit jokes. From across the table, however, my next door neighbor offered the only profound comment of the evening: “What were you thinking about before you got hit?”

I knew exactly what he meant. According to Talmudic philosophy, there are no accidents, no coincidences, no random events. Everything comes about through the guiding hand of Divine Providence, what we call hashgochoh pratis: the spiritual imperative that governs how the external world acts upon each and every one of us. In other words, if I got smacked on the head, I must have had it coming to me.

This is a far cry from the popular notion that whatever I want, I have coming to me. As much as contemporary culture may insist that privileges and entitlements are birthrights, the Talmud recognizes only our responsibilities, both to other individuals and to society. When we live up to our obligations, we may expect certain rewards to come our way. But if we do receive an apparently undeserved blow, great or small, we should assume that the equilibrium of the cosmic scales of justice somehow needed to be set back in balance, and we should reflect upon the message that has just been sent us from on high.

Sometimes we can easily identify a concrete lesson to glean from such mishaps. Other times not. But the principle holds, even when we can’t perceive any clear cause and effect: this was necessary; now we need to brush ourselves off and get on with life.

The traditional Yom Kippur liturgy provides a poignant example in its narrative concerning Rabbi Yishmoel, the High Priest, who died as the skin of his face was peeled away to suit the whim of the Roman governor’s daughter.

The malachim, the divine beings who inhabit the heavenly spheres, protested in outrage: “Is this the reward for living a life committed to holiness?” they demanded.

“Be silent!” commanded the Almighty, “or I will return the world to void and nothingness.”

The incomparable 18th century genius, Rabbi Elyahu of Vilna, explains G-d’s reply with an allegory: a king once received a gift of fine Turkish wool, the most luxurious fabric in the world. It was so beautiful, in fact, that the king could not bear to think that even a tiny piece of it should end up as scrap on the cutting floor. He went to every tailor in his kingdom and asked each to make him a suit without letting even one thread of the wool go to waste. But every tailor claimed that such a feat was beyond his ability.

30_236_354_tailoring000012126397Finally, the king found a tailor who agreed to do the job. When the king returned to the tailor’s shop on the appointed date, he discovered that the tailor had indeed produced an exceptional suit of clothes. The king was elated.

“But have you fulfilled your promise?” asked the king. “Did you use every thread?”

“You really don’t know,” answered the tailor. “And the only way you will ever will find out is if you tear your beautiful suit apart and lay out all the pieces in the original shape of the fabric.”

Similarly, we often think that life is full of unfair knocks or is missing essential pieces. But to know for sure, we would have to see all of human history undone before our eyes. Only then would we have the right to assert that there were flaws in the slow sculpture of creation.

The days from Rosh HaShonnah to Yom Kippur — the traditional season of judgment — afford us the opportunity to strengthen our trust that the Master Tailor has done His job well, that He has stitched together the fabric of eternity according to a plan He understands far better than we do — even when bricks, or china plates, fall out of the sky upon our heads.

Should I have sued the hotel? the waiter? the school holding the event? the principal, who was speaking when I got hit? No doubt, I could have found any number of lawyers eager to take the case. If a woman could receive 4 million dollars for spilling a cup of coffee in her own lap, this should be worth at least as much.

But life is full of honest accidents resulting in superficial scrapes and bruises. It’s better for us (and better instruction for our children) to look for what we can learn from life’s bumps and knocks, not to look for whom we can blame and how much we can squeeze out of them.

The waiter returned, contrite and apologetic, perhaps more shaken than I was. “In twelve years this has never happened to me,” he said. Evidently, he also had a date with Providence. “Is there anything else I can do for you, sir?”

“I wouldn’t mind a scotch on the rocks.”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

He did. It wasn’t four million dollars, but it was better than a knock on the head.

Originally published by Jewish World Review

When we aren’t who we think we are

1After several months, two babies switched in an El Slavador hospital were both reunited yesterday with their biological parents, respectively, in Dallas, Texas, and the United Kingdom.  

But it didn’t have to turn out that way.  Like this story from the news in 2009.

It sounds like a movie. Nurses bring a newborn daughter back to her mother after bathing. The mother insists that she’s been given the wrong baby. The nurses, who clearly know better, dismiss her concerns.

But 56 years later, DNA testing proves that Marjorie Angell, the real mother in this real story, was right.

Kay Rene Reed and DeeAnn Angell were both born on the third of May, 1953 in eastern Oregon’s Pioneer Memorial Hospital. As babies they were switched, presumably while being given baths, and grew up to become wives, mothers, and grandmothers. Less than a year ago Kay Rene’s brother discovered an old photograph of Kay Rene in middle school. Except that it wasn’t a picture of Kay Rene; rather, the schoolgirl who could have been her twin was in fact the sister of DeeAnn.

Subsequent DNA testing proved what had already become obvious. Kay Rene wasn’t a Reed, and DeeAnn wasn’t an Angell.

“I cried,” said Kay Rene. “My life wasn’t my life.”

MISTAKEN IDENTITY

Imagine waking up one morning and discovering that you were someone else. Nothing has changed, yet everything has changed. You have the same friends, the same family, the same job. But you also have another family and another past — a whole different identity about which you know nothing. A careless moment over which you had no control and an innocent mistake outside your knowledge conspired to leave you wondering how your whole life might have unfolded if not for that momentary twist of fate.

What would you do? What would you think? How would you feel?

If you have lived a happy and well-adjusted life, you’d probably wrestle with some inner confusion and then return to your friends and family. But if your life had been difficult, if you had endured an existence of hardships and traumas that had left you broken and bitter, how might you cry out against the cruelty of chance that had snatched away the happy life you might have had.

And what if, somehow, it had actually been your own fault?

THE ULTIMATE ANGUISH

The Sages teach that when a soul departs from this world, it lets out a scream that can be heard from one end of the universe to the other. Contemporary scholars have explained their meaning as follows:

Once freed from the bonds of physical existence, every soul ascends to the next world and comes before the Heavenly tribunal for judgment. Upon our arrival, each of us will witness a reenactment of his entire life on earth, as if projected upon a giant screen, with all of our good deeds and accomplishments, but also with all our carelessness and self-absorption. Recognizing the futility of excuses or apologies, we will feel the shame and remorse of a life poorly lived, with no further chance of redemption.

Simultaneously, as if on a split-screen, a different story plays out. Here we will behold the life of a tzaddik, a truly righteous and pious individual whose every thought and deed is for others and whose efforts are directed entirely toward moral and spiritual self-perfection. The contrast between the two images will be astonishing.

As the painful exercise concludes, each of us will pose a question to the court: “I recognize my own life, but who is this tzaddik that lived so perfect a life, and why was his story projected next to mine?”

“That tzaddik,” the court replies, “is the person you could have been.”

With sudden clarity, the ascendant soul will understand the consequences of a life lived in pursuit of physical pleasure and material goals. Perceiving that there had resided within him the potential to become someone else altogether and, realizing that it is too late to go back and relive his life, the unfortunate soul will emit a scream that can be heard from one end of the universe to the other.

BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE

As long as we remain alive in this world, however, there is time to go back. What’s past is not necessarily past, for the Creator has programmed into his universe the extraordinary capability to go back in time and reshape what has already been done. This is teshuva — repentance or, literally, return.

The Jewish concept of repentance is not mere chest-clopping and confession.Teshuva is a process of self-transformation, of changing ourselves into the kinds of individuals incapable of ever again committing our earlier transgressions and indiscretions. Through sincere self-reflection, our genuine remorse will catapult us to new levels of spiritual and moral sensitivity. By returning to the straight path the Creator laid out before us from the moment we were born, we literally re-create ourselves and severe all connection to the errors of the past.

What’s done is now undone, and we have nothing to fear from the ultimate Day of Judgment. It is no longer our past that defines us. It is what we have made of ourselves, and what we do from this point forward, that will define our future.

100778_1The two women switched at birth have gotten on with their lives, and they have even become friends. Kay Rene introduces DeeAnn as her “swister.”

“I’m trying to move forward and look at the positive,” DeeAnn said. “You can’t look back. It just drives you crazy.”

As we approach Rosh Hashanah, the day on which all the world is judged for the coming year, it would serve us well to contemplate both who we are and who we ought to be.

Originally published by Jewish World Review

Rosh Hashanah: Letting our spirits soar

shutterstock_145625101When my youngest daughter was three years old, she discovered the helium balloons in the flower section of our local supermarket, handed out free to every child who asks. I tied the string around her wrist so the precious balloon wouldn’t escape up to the rafters. She bounced it on its string as I pulled it this way and that to avoid bumping other shoppers. She hugged it as we climbed into the car for the ride home.

As I pulled into the driveway, my daughter flew out of the car, her balloon bobbing along behind her, raced in through the front door and out again to our back yard, slipped the string off her wrist and gazed upward as the balloon rose into the sky and slowly drifted away.

“Why did you let go of your balloon?” I asked, slightly miffed that she had so casually cast away the new toy she had been fussing over for the last half hour.

My daughter just shrugged, giggled, and watched the balloon disappear from sight.

After our next trip to the market she did it again. Then again, over and over for months. Every time I asked the same question. “Why did you let go of your balloon?”

Finally I got an answer. My daughter looked me in the eye and replied, “It’s a present for God.”

* * *

She doesn’t do it anymore. And part of me mourns for the pure, innocent faith that prompted a little girl to give up her toy as an offering to the Almighty.

For all our experience and the sophistication, for all our indulgent smiles at the simplicity of our children’s beliefs, is it not likely that our children know something we don’t, something they themselves soon won’t know or even remember they once knew? And perhaps it is precisely their power of belief that sets them apart from the adults they will become.

Children believe in God, believe in their parents, believe in their country and their school and their friends and that good will always win out over evil. Their trust and faith haven’t yet been sullied by the lies of politicians, the corruption of law and justice, the avarice of sports heroes, the superficiality of Hollywood or, most importantly, the cynicism of their parents, who may try for a time to put on an act to spare their children from their own disillusionment.

But what if it worked the other way, that we could learn an old lesson from our children instead of imposing yet another new lesson upon them? What if we could turn the clock back and recapture even a whiff of the innocence of youth? Would we reach out to grasp it, or have we grown too jaded even to try?

erin-lange-renewal-iThis Rosh Hashana, Jews around the world will fill synagogues to inaugurate the first day of the Jewish new year. But Rosh Hashana celebrates much more than the beginning of another calendrical cycle. It celebrates birth and rebirth; it celebrates beginning and renewal, for it commemorates nothing less than the Creation of the world and Mankind.

As we approach the New Year, let us ask ourselves how we can turn back the clock, exchanging bad habits for new challenges, routine for renewal, and cynicism for enthusiasm. Instead of smiling with adult condescension at the innocence of children, let us consider instead that the difference between childhood and maturity is not whether we give presents to our Creator, but what kind of presents we choose to give. A child serves God by sending a balloon up into the sky. An adult serves God by releasing his spirit to soar to the heights of Godliness.

Have we given charity in proportion with our means? Have we visited the sick and comforted the distressed? Have we consistently spoken with kindness to our neighbors, with respect to our superiors, and with patience to our children? Have we honored the Sabbath and studied the ancient wisdom of our people?

It’s not enough to make resolutions; we need to inspire ourselves to see them through. We need to awaken in ourselves an awe of the Almighty by reflecting upon the vastness of creation, the unfathomability of the stars in their courses, the mysteries of life, and the limitless potential of the soul — to behold for a lingering moment the immeasurable beauty and majesty of our universe.

And if we can follow through, if we can make the moment last without slipping back into our well-traveled rut of discounting every noble and beautiful thought and deed, then perhaps we can retain our faith in those things truly worthy of faith throughout the coming year.

Originally published by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Aish.com

Days of Fear, Days of Love

fdb6bf41ace6004aef23b7c67553d766You must know that there is fear, and there is fear:  there is warranted fear and senseless fear.  Then there is trust and there is naiveté.

Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato, 18th Century kabbalist

We have nothing to fear but fear itself.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt

As we approach Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the days of fear and the days of love, we should remind ourselves that the real dangers we face are not from the Ayatollah, not from Vladimir Putin, not from Donald Trump, and not from Hillary Clinton.

The greatest dangers that we face are from our own bitterness, our own complacency, our own pettiness, and our own resistance to challenging ourselves to learn, to grow, and to bring the spirit of God into our world.