OH ‘MY’ GOD

As he stood stammering in shul one morning, he realized that he was much more comfortable with ‘his God’ (Elokai) than he was with the ‘God of his fathers’ (Elokei avosai).

When alone in a park or forest, speaking words of hisbodedus, or even under the blanket trying to work out the kinks of a stressful day, ‘his God’ – his personal, privately developed relationship with his Father in Heaven – felt near and natural, full of patience, love, and guidance.

Yet when standing in a minyan, siddur in hand, reciting ancient holy words in an ancient holy tongue that even after decades of davening, he scantily understood (especially when read at anywhere near the pace he had to, to make even a semblance of keeping up with the minyan), the ‘God of his fathers’ – the traditional, passed-down Masoretic conception of the King of the Universe – felt distant, inaccessible, and perhaps a little disappointed with him for his short attention span and weak reading skills.

It wasn’t that he demurred from that aspect of the relationship; he wholeheartedly accepted it as true and essential for his and the world’s spiritual wellbeing. It’s just the ‘God of his fathers’…wasn’t.

The vicissitudes of history, somewhere down the line, had sent the train of his family’s spiritual legacy – connecting generation to generation from the giving of the Torah on Sinai – careening off the track. Oh, they knew they were Jews – they just didn’t know what Jews (really) were.

So, in his mid-20’s when he finally awoke from his train-crash induced coma and desperately flung himself onto the caboose of one of the still chugging trains, it was all news to him. Hebrew. Thrice-daily praying. Studying the Torah. He did it all to the best of his abilities (when factoring in his cerebral and moral desuetude), but it never came naturally. Learning a language as an adult is not the same as learning it as a child. The same can be said for absorbing a reality paradigm or cultural norms.

Throw in his natural introversion (he never was much into ‘group’ anything, never mind prayer), his societally instilled anti-organized religion bias, and his burgeoning ADD; and the synagogue experience was – and often still is – for him one of obligation, endurance, and ennui.

On the other hand, ‘his God’ was the natural extension of a long-running inner dialogue, a whispering inner voice that had subtly showed him the synchronicity of life and guided his footsteps on a winding path back to his true heritage, where yes, He also assumed His more formal identity, but never closed the cozy, informal ‘back door’ through which He’d guided him home.

There were times when ‘his God’ and the ‘God of his fathers’ managed to merge (as, of course, they are in fact truly one). He’d slow down in his siddur reading to a pace that he knew what he was saying. He’d try to mean what he said (which wasn’t hard, because he did), and most of all try to remember Who he was talking to – none other than the same loving Father to whom his improvised prayers came so naturally. Then it would click, and the ancient words were no longer foreboding and forbidding, but the utterances of his timeless soul.

Of course, the spell would always too quickly break. After all, he couldn’t stand in prayer for three or more hours (the pace it would take to do this) could he? People were starting to look at him (which tested him alternatively with embarrassment and pride) – and, did I mention, he had ADD?

So today he accepts that he may never become a ‘synagogue Jew’, but he continues to suit up and show up, try his best, and feels very grateful for ‘his God’- wherever he may find Him.   

 

YOU CAN’T LOSE

IF – I put forth an initiative to bring the world (or even myself or my family) closer to God and the Torah, which I believe is the truth.

AND – if one of the Torah’s most basic premises is that God is in total control of every situation; no one can thwart His will; and all that happens is for our very best ultimate good.

THEN – if someone or something thwarts my initiative;

I SHOULD BE HAPPY.

BECAUSE – the thwarting must be God’s will and therefore must ultimately be for the very best.

AND – if it’s not for the best; that means the Torah and its premises are (chas v’shalom) not true.

SO – why would I want to bring anyone closer to a lie?

 

MAN’S EYE VIEW

Holy hair-coverers, it is you we are praising;
your commitment to tznius is truly amazing.

How you willingly carry the weight of this mitzvah,
in an age where the prevalent fashion is chutzpah.

So it surely must be that you’re just unaware;
of the effect of a wig that looks just like hair.

Though it’s technically true that your hair is concealed;
to the man on the street what you’re wearing looks real.

Yes, I know that they say a wig doesn’t attract,
I’m afraid to inform you this just isn’t a fact.

While he may know it’s not real with his intellect,
not man’s logic, but his instincts, does the first glance affect.

Though to you it may feel like you’re wearing a hat;
I assure you to men it does not seem like that.

It is no way my place to tell you what to wear,
and your reasons to do so may be righteous and fair.

But just so you’ll make an informed decision;
I avail you this insider’s view of male vision.

(Of course it’s not easy and the test will be keen,
for the force that draws us to look, is what draws you to be seen.)

 

THE RATTLER

Chinka, chinka, chinka, chinka…
“Oh no!” I cringe as I hear the familiar rattlesnake sound.
Chinka, chinka, chinka, chinka…
“He’s getting closer!” I feel my nerves tensing; wanting to retreat. But there’s no place to
run.
Chinka, chinka, chinka, chinka…
“He’s almost on top of me now. Maybe I can stay perfectly still and he’ll leave me alone,” I think, as, siddur in hand, I piously pose in my tallis and tefillin.
Chinka, chinka, chinka, chinka…
“Too late!” I despair, as the pushka-shaking tzedaka (charity) collector catches my eye.
Chinka, chinka, chinka, chinka…
“Why, he’s younger than I am…He doesn’t look so hungry…How am I supposed to pray?…He’s the tenth one today…No way!!!”
Chinka, chinka, chinka, chinka…
Then I notice that the sound isn’t coming from him, but from inside of me.
Chinka, chinka, chinka, chinka…
The rattlesnake I hear is none other than the primordial serpent – the yetzer ha-ra.
Chinka, chinka, chinka, chinka…
I hear it retreat into the bushes as I reach into my pocket…and give.

THE BIRTH OF THE HOLY ARI Z”L

(One of the inspirations for starting this blog was my connection, and the connection of a very special friend, to the mystical city of Tsfat, Israel, in which among its many great kabbalists, dwelt the holy Ari z”l. The following account is based on a translation by Rabbi Boruch Twersky from original sources.)

Once, Reb Shlomo z”l, an upright, G-d fearing Jew who lived in the Land of Israel, was alone in shul, praying and studying Torah, when Eliyahu HaNavi (Elijah the Prophet) mystically appeared to him. He said:

“God has sent me to you to tell you that your wife will soon become pregnant and give birth to a unique and special soul. You should name the child Yitzchok. He will become known throughout the world; the wisdom of kabala will be revealed through him and he will possess every kind of wisdom. He’ll save the Jewish people from negative spiritual forces and rectify numerous souls that have been trapped in unfavorable reincarnations (gilgulim) for many years.

“On the day of the child’s bris, make sure not to circumcise him until I arrive, as I will be the child’s sandek (one who holds the child during the ceremony).”

The Prophet then disappeared, and Reb Shlomo, shocked by this vision, remained in shul the entire day praying to God that this good tiding should truly come to happen.

He didn’t tell the secret to anyone, not even his wife. As the pregnancy progressed, he would cry with joy. When the child was born, the entire house seemed filled with light. On the eighth day, Reb Shlomo brought him to the shul for the circumcision.

He looked all around to see whether Eliyahu the prophet had arrived, but he wasn’t there. Reb Shlomo felt great distress, as the congregation (who didn’t know the reason he was delaying) began urging him to perform the bris. They were soon shouting: “Take your child and circumcise him.” To appease them, Reb Shlomo apologetically replied that some of his relatives haven’t yet arrived.

When a half hour passed and Eliyahu HaNavi still hadn’t come, Reb Shlomo tearfully concluded that his sins must have disqualified his child’s potential spiritual greatness. Suddenly, the Prophet (who no one else could see) appeared to him and said: “Do not cry. The reason for my delay was to test you, to see whether you would listen to my words. Now sit upon my chair (the ornamented chair customarily used at a circumcision in honor of Eliyahu the Prophet) and hold the child. I will sit upon your lap and hold the child’s feet.”

Reb Shlomo happily did as told, and Eliyahu sat upon him. After the child was circumcised he was returned to his mother, and even before they returned home from the ceremony, the milah was entirely healed, as if the child had been circumcised years ago. People saw this and were amazed.

WHO IS A JEW?

  1. How, if at all, has your self-concept as a Jewish person changed since you became frum (Torah observant)?

Before I was frum – call me ‘Jew’ and I shrink.
Now that I’m frum – I do not even blink.

Before I was frum – an irrelevant birth fact.
Now that I’m frum – an essential soul pact.

Before I was frum – primitive superstition.
Now that I’m frum – a mystical mission.

Before I was frum – atavistic ethnicity.
Now that I’m frum – core of identity.

Before I was frum – a fact that I hide.
Now that I’m frum – one in which I take pride.

Before I was frum – if I could I’d erase it.
Now that I’m frum – standing tall I embrace it

Before I was frum – Holocaust: proof of our weakness.
Now that I’m frum – it confirmed our uniqueness.

Before I was frum – loser, ‘slaughtered like cattle’.
Now that I’m frum – star of spiritual battle.

In short:

Before I was frum – Jew rhymed with Eeeew.
Now that I’m frum – Jew rhymes with true.

 

THE ‘IRRELEVANT’ IN THE ROOM

I fear I’m running out of steam.

As if there is no more I can say, or at least that which anyone wants to hear.

Time has moved so fast, I feel irrelevant,

Technologically,

Culturally,

Socially.

The scary thing is that I’m surprisingly okay with this.

I used to be so driven to change the world.

I still am, but after spinning my wheels for too many years, I’ve concluded that my ‘drive shaft’ must have disengaged (or perhaps was never engaged at all).

They tell me everything we do affects the world in a hidden way.

They talk about ‘silent workers’.

To me, it sounds like a consolation prize.

It’s not my fault – it’s in my genes.

A Jew is a World Changer.

Like a fish is a swimmer.

Like a lion’s a hunter.

A Jew innately knows it could and should be different. It could and should be better.

He can see it…just beyond the horizon.

He can hear it…just out of range to make out the words.

He can taste it…on the tip of his tongue (next to the words he needs to say, and can’t).

Those Who Talk Don’t Know, And Those Who Know Don’t Can’t Talk.

It’s not fair.

We indulge our elders, but we don’t take them seriously because we can’t hear them.

The world is sliding downhill (yeridos hadoros) so fast, its attention span shrinking so fast,  that that by the time you’ve gained some wisdom worth imparting, your language of impartiture (I made that word up) rings irrelevant to younger ears.

It’s hard to accept irrelevancy.

It’s like ‘So why did I bother?”

Maybe some can do it. Oldsters who flow with the lingo of the young.

Or maybe youngsters who just ‘get it’ fast, and can give it over while it’s hot.

I’m dubious of that though.

‘Cause wisdom’s more than words. It has to be absorbed in the bones.

That takes time.

Yet, who has time?

Youth is flashy. Youth is pretty. Youth gets your attention.

But youth is not wise. Not ‘in the bone’ wise.

So my bones are wise (perhaps), but creaky.

I heard once, in the name of a famous Torah teacher, that everyone she knows, sometime in their 50’s, gave up their dream.

I think it might be different than that.

That was when they realized that their dream was really only…a dream.

Until then they were sure it was destined to come through – destined to come true.

I’m not cynical.

I’m all for dreams. But a dream is only compelling while it’s still one’s real world. Waking up might leave one wistful,

or inspired,

or relieved.

You can live for something real, even if it’s not yet born. But once the doctor says ‘no heartbeat’, only a fool keeps building the nest.

And yet, still…

The Chinese poet (Chuang Tzu) once said it best:

“Great truths do not interest the multitudes,

and now that the world

is in such confusion,

even though I know the Path,

how can I guide?

I know I cannot succeed

and that trying to force results

I shall merely add to the confusion.

Isn’t it better to give up and

stop striving?

But then, if I do not strive,

who will?”

V’im lo achshav, aimasai?…

 

(JERUSALEM) STONE SOUP

He’d been to some pretty funky youth hostels in his 6 months of post-college European backpacking, but this place took the prize. In the same communal kitchen/dining-room/lounge, sat bleary-eyed breakfast eaters, others garrulously gabbing over hearty lunches, as still others wound down over laidback suppers after an all-day hike.

There, above the Arctic Circle – Norway’s Lofoten Islands – the midnight sun swung at various angles above the horizon all 24 hours of the day. Lacking a circadian rhythm to keep them anchored, the hostel’s already unconventional clientele of budget travelers simply demarcated days and nights as they pleased.

Unlike some of the ‘old-timers’, who’d stay for weeks, he only arrived two days ago and was planning to leave on the ferry that day, so he’d never deviated far from what his watch told him – that it was midday – and he was hungry.

The problem was that he neither had much of an on-hand food supply, nor the budget to obtain one. Food in Scandinavia was outrageously expensive, where the markets individually wrapped their produce like jewels and charged prices to match.

Being a bit of a showman in the kitchen, he flamboyantly pulled down a communal-use pot and began hacking at the couple of carrots and several celery stalks he did have, hoping to catch the ears of the super-sociable crowd.

It worked.

“What’re you making, man?” A road-dusty Dane asked him, peering into the pot.

“Soup. A big delicious soup,” he said. “Want some?”

“Sure. Y’know, I have a sack of baby potatoes we can put in there too if you want.”

“Why not?”

As the first guy peeled, more folks gathered around – with more offerings.

… “Want some chickpeas I’ve got?”… “How about some cardamom pods I picked in Ceylon?” … “Dried mushrooms?” …

He stirred the ever-more-eclectic soup – now just about ready – looking forward to his first good meal in a while, when a large can, with a label seemingly depicting chainlike intestines, floated in front of his face.

“Hey, if we are going to eat, let’s do it right.”

He followed the deep voice, looking up, and up, and up, at the huge German biker’s train-track smirk. The guy’s uber-loud motorcycle and his violent tattoos had made him edgy from the first time he saw him, and now he was buying into lunch with a can of genuine German pork link sausages.

Months of travelling had taught him that in these impromptu communal happenings it was very bad manners to say no to any offer, especially one as “parve” (if you will) as this – even if the offerer wasn’t the size of an oak tree. His fellow soup-stockholders were all for it, so he gave a little nod to the guy, who whipped out a gleaming multi-knife from his leather pants, opened the can with one of the blades and sliced its slippery contents into the soup with another.

“Hey, after all that work, aren’t you going to eat?” slurped the urbane Jewish travel buddy he’d met there and had planned to ferry to the mainland and train back down to Trondheim with.

“Um…” He wasn’t yet keeping kosher; he didn’t even really know what it was. But he’d become vegetarian over the last several months, feeling it healthier and somehow better for his Jewish soul. It wasn’t doctrine with him though, and if someone had thrown in a little chicken or even beef he would have just eaten around it. But German Pork Sausages?

“C’mon, have some. It’s good.”

Everyone seemed to be really enjoying it, and he was very hungry… Maybe his visit to the Dachau concentration camp on his way north was still too fresh in his mind, but…

“Nah, not for me,” he said with a shrug. “You know sometimes just the cooking is filling enough.”

“Whatever,” the guy mumbled as he eagerly scraped out the dregs of his bowl. “I heard the boat’s already at the dock. Let’s grab our packs and head out.”

The Norwegian Sea on its calmest day is a roiling ride. And the tossing ferry together with its fragrant diesel-fume bouquet made his head spin. Seeking distraction, he noticed a group of fellow passengers leaning over one of the guardrails peering into the water. Maybe they’d seen a whale or something.

He walked over, just as his buddy – face green as the sea – lifted his head. “Woe, I don’t think I have any more guts to lose,” he croaked. “That greasy soup…bad move…I’m sick as a dog.”

He panned down the line of heaving ex-hostelers, to see Big Biker, now looking more like a weeping willow than a mighty oak – the cook who’d spoiled the soup, yet had somehow revealed a hidden ingredient within.

THE DAY THE KOREAN DROPPED THE BOMB

“Come in, sit down,” Reverend Kim said with a too-wide grin.

Hesitantly, he shuffled into the small, fluorescent-lit study, shooting his buddy, Tae, a confused look before the door clicked closed behind him.

His Korean friends were pretty cool. Wicked Ping-Pong players and wildly mischievous behind their goody-goody veneers.  He’d humored them on their all-day church picnics, sitting out the religious stuff and dousing fiery kimchee with beers, before the former was trendy.

Their Dad, the church leader, who’d pretty much ignored him until now, seemed like a jovial sort, hardly congruent with the obeisant cringes his kids made whenever he would call to them. And now he wanted to talk to him, alone.

“You are Jewish, yes?”

He nodded, not sure where this was going.

“Tell me. Do you sacrifice animals in your religious services?”

He might as well have asked him if he had horns. “Animal sacrifices?! No, of course not. Judaism doesn’t do that!”

“Well, you used to.”

Used to? What was this guy talking about?

Reverend Kim went on. “It says so in your Bible.”

How could it possibly say something like that? Okay, he’d never actually read the Bible. He got one once, in English, from his Hebrew School for his Bar Mitzvah, but whatever trifling interest he might have had in reading it was quashed in indignation that they’d misspelled his name on the monogram. Still, he’d gone to that school for seven years, surely if there was ever anything like that involved in the religion they would have mentioned something. The guy must be bluffing – maybe he’s an anti-Semite or something – still, he’d never read the Bible, so he couldn’t say for sure…

“Well, we don’t do it anymore!” he said with a self-assured nod that synched with Kim’s ever-smiling bob, as he backed out the door.