Posted by: R Jonathan Gewirtz | June 20, 2019

Dates with Destiny

Do special dates lose significance with the passage not only of time but of the participants?

Today, June 20, is my parents’ wedding anniversary. Had Mom been alive it would have been 57 years. But she isn’t. So is it still their anniversary? Should I be wishing happy anniversary to my father?

It’s also the birthday of a friend who was like a brother to me. Except that he passed away last Summer. Facebook doesn’t even realize it and they reminded me that it is his birthday.

I didn’t need the reminder. I remembered.

Now that he’s gone, is it still his “birthday”?

We know that other dates have significance in history. Washington’s Birthday. July 4, 1776. September 11, 2001. For good or for bad, events took place that made a difference in history.

My parents’ wedding anniversary was a date that made a difference. It led to a marriage of 50 years and a large loving family. That doesn’t go away with Mom’s passing.

Moishy was born and lived an amazing life, though most of us would feel it was much too short. He left his mark on those around him and also left behind a family who will remember what he stood for.

These life events don’t go away when people die. They just become even more poignant reminders for the living of what life is about: doing for others, loving and caring, and making the most of the time you have because you never know when it will be up.

We all have dates with destiny.

JG

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Posted by: R Jonathan Gewirtz | April 15, 2019

Let My People Go!

Everyone knows that since the Exodus from Egypt a little more than 3300 years ago children ask their parents the Mah Nishtana, the Four Questions, at the Seder. In fact, the night is geared towards questions and children are encouraged to ask whatever they think of.

There’s another question that while not quite as old, is just as popular if not more so: “So where are you going for Pesach?” Apparently, ever since we left Egypt, there’s been some sort of Capistranoan instinct that makes Jews recreate the Exodus by leaving their homes to head for parents, in-laws, hotels, and exotic locales. While Sukkos has a corresponding behavior, we are actually commanded to leave our homes, but we often don’t stray far.

Nowadays when thousands migrate to Orlando and various other locations where the Chol Hamoed trips are easy to come by, it feels like relatively few people stay home. There are Pesach hotels with smorgasbords of food that make you forget you can’t eat chometz, shiurim that make it easy to learn while enjoying a cup of tea, a plate of fruit and some (I can’t believe it’s) shehakol cake, and concerts and entertainment that bring the circus and theater to you! So what’s it all about? Is this our idea of freedom?

For all the devoted men and women working feverishly to clean their homes, it may indeed seem like freedom to lock the doors, sell the chometz, rent the premises and enjoy Yom Tov. But that’s only a superficial liberty and the costs inherent in going away for Pesach may mean some long periods of indentured servitude to pay for it.

Not being one to break with tradition though, for a number of years my family has gone away for Pesach. Though in the early days my wife’s family went to hotels, these days we all get together at my in-laws’ to make Pesach and allow the cousins to enjoy each other’s company while providing plenty of grandparental nachas.

My job for the past few years is to go down early (waaaay down, in Florida laaand) and do the bulk shopping. Foil pans, produce, and various other items that need to be in the house so people can start cooking. This year, my exodus from the NY area took a few twists and turns which will lead us to the promised land of freedom I think we’re looking for.

Having checked in for my flight via e-mail, I got a notification that my flight was delayed. The flight from Newark was delayed from 7:25 to 10:15. I was struck with the inspiration to see if there was a different flight from the Westchester County airport and indeed there was! As I rode to the airport for that flight, I called a woman who had visited our home the day before and mentioned that she flew from there. Clearly it was meant to be so I might think about it. I therefore thanked her for being Hashem’s messenger. The Newark flight eventually did travel to Florida, at 4am the next morning.

While sitting and waiting for my flight in Westchester, a heavy fog descended on the area. The plane circled in the air and eventually was diverted to a different airport. However, another plane that was also circling managed to land. That was the flight to my destination scheduled for after mine. It seemed they would make it out relatively on time while we waited to hear what had become of our airplane when it landed in another state.

A throng of people rushed to the ticket counters to see if they could change to that other flight. I thought to myself, “I’ll call the airline. It’s enough hishtadlus – it won’t make any difference by going to the counter and waiting in line versus calling.” By the time the woman on the phone was able to “uncheck me in” all the seats on the next flight were taken (and the line was still pretty long.)

Eventually, my flight did make it to us, we took off about 2 and a half hours late, but the plane was pretty empty so we all had extra space. I got to sleep about 4:30 am and made it to Shacharis at 8. OK, so you’ve heard the whole chad gadya of my trip. What’s the point?

The point is that the entire time, I didn’t get upset, frustrated, or lose my cool. I smiled, was friendly, and was able to make a Kiddush Hashem with a number of people. I lent someone my phone charger, I shared information with others on what I’d heard from the airline, and when I was told there was no room for me I wished the people who made it on a safe and pleasant flight.

I said to myself, “The Jews didn’t leave Egypt one second before they were supposed to nor one second later. They left exactly when Hashem wanted them to leave and that’s when I’m going to leave too.” What we gained when we left Mitzrayim, the freedom we achieved, was: “Shalach Ami V’Yaavduni,” Send out My nation and they will serve Me.”

When our sights are focused on Hashem, and we understand that He is the real air-traffic controller, we will be free of worry, free of frustration, free to serve Him with all our hearts and enjoy the sweetness of Pesach and life.

Chag Kasher V’Sameach!

Mozes ordering let my people go out of Egypt. story of Jewish holiday Passover. vector illustration
Posted by: R Jonathan Gewirtz | March 18, 2019

Hishtadlus without the Effort

A couple of weeks ago I had an eye-opening experience.  I was about to enter the supermarket and a girl was selling raffle tickets.  I like to encourage these children, so I took the money out of my wallet to buy a ticket, and I also took out a dollar for the man sitting nearby who was collecting money for himself.  I figured that I would give her the money, and then walk over to him to save him the trouble of getting up.

Well, no sooner had I begun to hand her the money than he came over to me with a big smile, “Good Shabbaaas – Shabbat Shalooom.”  I gave him the dollar and he walked back to his seat, very pleased with himself.

It struck me.  He thinks that it’s only because he made the effort to get up and come over to me that he got the dollar.  He was making his hishtadlus and probably thinks that if he hadn’t, he wouldn’t get it.  How can I assume he thinks that?  Because he got up and came over to me.

In this rare instance, though, I had a special insight.  I knew that not only was I planning to give him the money, but I was planning to walk over there so he didn’t have to get up and exert himself.  It was a very surreal perspective, one that the Ribono Shel Olam has all the time.

He’s already determined what we’re going to get, and it’s ours.  It doesn’t matter how hard we try or how little we try, we will get it because that has been decreed from above.  That being said, we see nothing wrong or futile in spinning our wheels, pushing hard, and exerting ourselves to get what we would have gotten had we remained seated!

But what do you mean, you ask, everyone knows you have to make hishtadlus.  Otherwise you won’t get anywhere!  Well, you’re right and you’re wrong.

In Chovos HaLevavos, Rabbeinu Bachya unequivocally states that our efforts to earn a living mean nothing.  We are going to get what we’re supposed to get, when we’re supposed to get it.  However, there is a point in hishtadlus.  Two points actually.

You see, hishtadlus is a test.  You need to work to earn a living.  How will you do it?  Will you operate according to halacha, or will you bend the rules and say, “it’s just business”?  If you follow halacha, you’re showing that you choose to be an oved HaShem.  If you cheat, steal, and all the other wonderful things that people permit for “parnasa,” then you’ve shown that you don’t trust HaShem to take care of you and you will repaid accordingly.

I once heard a story about a factory that had been in bankruptcy.  The owner told his bookkeeper to backdate orders and vendor invoices so that it appeared they had come in before the bankruptcy, and so he avoided paying these vendors.  Is this the derech HaShem?  Or is this factory owner afraid to trust G-d and figures he has to earn money his own way?  He might even be a big baal tzedaka and buy expensive aliyos in shul, but he’s still not what HaShem wants us to be.

The second reason to work is that if we didn’t have to, we might forget HaShem, as the posuk says, “Vayishman Yeshurun Va’yivat,” Klal Yisrael got fat and satisfied and kicked at HaKadosh Boruch Hu.  Thus, the need to work is a preventative measure for us to keep us from rebelling, or contemplating things we shouldn’t and can’t fathom, like what was here before the world, and what will be after.

OK, so we’ve determined that we really don’t need to do hishtadlus or be “ambitious” to get what HaShem has prepared for us. Does that mean all our actions are truly fruitless?  No.

Our actions are only meaningless as it relates to getting our parnasa.  However when it comes to Ruchnius, we can make the effort to gather more and more, even above and beyond what HaShem had prepared for us.  The navi says, “Only in this shall the proud be proud, in knowledge and getting to know Me.”  Our efforts to come closer to HaShem, to improve our negative middos and reach for higher levels are the ones which can really bear fruit, and for which a person should feel accomplished.  As a bonus, if we do that, then the trouble of striving for parnasa goes away too. 

That is not to say that you won’t have to work for parnasa, but it doesn’t have to feel like work.  If your attitude in doing your hishtadlus is to show HaShem that you are trying to be righteous and want to do what He commands, then you will feel accomplishment and satisfaction in your efforts and not that you have wasted your time, even if that big deal doesn’t pan out.

You will no longer obsess about having to work longer hours or properly impressing that big client.  You will get what’s coming to you anyway, so why not focus on impressing the One who really counts, who will provide for you in this world and the next?  Take the time to learn more of His Torah, to be kind to His children, and become a holy person.

Working doesn’t have to be your hishtadlus, and hishtadlus doesn’t require effort.  All you need to have is a clear perception of the world and you’ll find yourself happier, more satisfied, and a better Jew to boot.

Posted by: R Jonathan Gewirtz | March 7, 2019

Say Cheese!

Have you ever noticed how people run to have their picture taken by a newspaper reporter or to be on TV even if nobody will know who they are?  So often we see a reporter doing a story or a Jumbotron camera at a sporting event and people in the background are waving to the people they know somewhere far away, mouthing, “Hi Mom!” and just trying to get in the picture.  Jewish newspapers that have pages for photos from simchas have people fighting to get their pics in the paper.

I was in a music video for a Jewish singer’s song and in one scene a fellow in the office walked by just in time to be seen as the camera moved down the hallway.  It gave him such pleasure that he would be in it.  But why?

I think I can explain in one word: immortality.  We know we’re on this earth for a limited time, and we want to find a way to remain alive and relevant.  Even if we can’t actually continue to live, we can live on through our “fame” as other people see our images. When people take pictures, we tell them, “Say Cheese!”  Yes, it’s because the ‘long e’ sound makes your mouth appear to smile, but why couldn’t it be, “Say Beans!” or “Say Sneeze!”? (Either of which would be MUCH funnier, by the way.)

It may not be a coincidence that since milk is something that spoils quickly, much as people disappear quickly, and cheese is a way to preserve it and keep it around for longer, that we use the same word for taking a picture that will remain for posterity.

Now, this may seem like a very vain concept, but no less a personage than Queen Esther herself requested that her story be written down, canonized, and read annually with the appeal, “Establish me for generations.”  Why did she want to be remembered and what does it mean to us?

The story of the Megilla is an amazing one, and one that has deeply hidden secrets and meaning in each word.  Countless seforim have been written about the Megillah and more continue to be written.  It captures our imaginations and offers us hope.  The primary themes of Divine Providence and salvation through repentance are ones that reverberate with each of us in our own lives. 

Each of us can find times when he or she felt sure there was no way out of a bad situation, and this message of HaShem’s intervention is comforting.  By teaching us the methods used: fasting, prayer, and repentance, the Megilla gives us a gameplan for our own lives, hence its message is eternal.  That is why Esther wanted us to remember it. In doing so, however, Esther and the Chachamim also taught us how to become immortal.

Esther’s story could have been written down and recorded for posterity, but that wouldn’t have been enough.  The dusty old scroll would likely have languished in a closet somewhere and never impacted the lives of succeeding generations.  Therefore, she implored the Sages to establish the READING of the Megilla as a way of ensuring the message was not lost in the future.  By making an impact in our lives, Esther achieved immortality.

If we look at the mitzvos of Purim, we find a furtherance of this idea.  Matanos L’evyonim – we give gifts to the poor.  This is not simple charity, but a gift that means we took the time to see someone else’s situation and do something about it.  Mishloach Manos – sending gifts of food to others.  Intended to ensure everyone had a Purim seudah, these gifts increase friendship because “someone ELSE cared enough to think about ME.”  Seudas Purim – often shared with friends and family, these meals engender a unity amongst people.  Even the Machtzis HaShekel, the customary donation of half-dollar coins to tzedaka, reminds us that we need others to complete us.

All these ideas teach us that the way to be immortal is to make a difference in the lives of other people.  Be relevant to THEM, and make an impact on THEIR lives.  Esther cared enough about us to share her message of hope, and when we care about others we give them reason to remember us fondly as well, and therein lies the secret of Jewish immortality.

Our souls live on forever, connected to HaKadosh Baruch Hu.  But at a certain point, our lives cease to earn us dividends, and we stop being productive.  We remain living off the principal of our deeds but not gaining more.  When one leaves behind children who follow Torah and Mitzvos, those children send “packages,” a sort of spiritual Mishloach Manos to their parents, but the wise person doesn’t rely on that alone.

The one who truly wants to live forever, to constantly have new merits accruing to his account as a sort of Heavenly pension, will do his or her best to have a positive impact on the lives of others.  Then, through them and their children, he will continue to amass Torah and mitzvos.  That’s what Esther did, and we can follow her lead.

By making the effort to care about others, to feel and alleviate their pain, to inspire and help them, we will have something to smile about for all eternity, and we won’t even have to say, “Cheese!”

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Posted by: R Jonathan Gewirtz | January 4, 2019

What’s Wrong with This Picture?

Perhaps at some point you were a kid reading a magazine and you found a fun page. There were riddles and jokes, maybe a word find puzzle, and sometimes they had a picture with a special challenge. “What’s wrong with this picture?” they would ask, and you’d have to find five or ten things that were unusual or out of the ordinary.

It could be that the table in the picture had only three legs and a rubber chicken. Maybe the orchestra conductor was wearing a tuxedo and swim flippers, or the woman with the dog on a leash was walking an actual hot dog in a bun!

Your eye was trained to find what was out of the ordinary and shouldn’t be there. The more you played the game, the more attuned you became to details and the faster you could ferret out the mistakes. And that’s a shame. Not because you wouldn’t enjoy the game as much, but precisely because you built up a love of finding something wrong.

Perfection is a fallacy. No person is perfect, and no situation is “perfect” at least insofar as the way we’d like things to work out. The Ribono Shel Olam is the only one capable of creating perfection and the way He does often leaves us scratching our heads at how many things seem to have gone wrong. 
When we look at a picture and expect everything to be just right, if it is that way, then it’s not a picture of the real world. 

The real world has challenges and jagged edges. It has square pegs and round holes. It has dead ends and staircases to nowhere. But that’s OK. 

Our mission in life is not to find out what’s wrong around us. On the contrary, it is quite easy to find what we think is “wrong.” The hard part is noticing the things that are so right, even when they might seem out of place or unexpected. 

Imagine you were stationed at a college campus where there were some Jewish kids who had no idea what a Shabbos was. They’d never seen Tefillen or a lulav. You got them to come to you for some cholent and one of them came to you the next day and said, “I’d like to try on those black boxes once. It would be an experience.” You’d be overjoyed because a fellow Jew would be doing a mitzvah. 

It might be only one time, but it will add a spot of holiness to a life otherwise unconnected to HaShem or our heritage. It would be a bright spot in your career and you’d feel immense pleasure in it and love for this holy neshama who took this small step. 

And yet, if we see a Jew who puts on Tefillen every day, and keeps Shabbos and eats kosher, but he doesn’t look or practice just like we do, we are often quick to write him off. Why is that?

The answer is that we’re asking, “What’s wrong with this picture?” Since so much looks the way we think it should, what stands out are the differences. We see what the other person is not doing the way we think it should be because we’re trying to get a perfect picture. 

When it comes to the person who does nothing Jewish, the perfection of their non-observance is what we question and we’re able to find the exceptions. In truth, as Jews this is part of our culture. For example, though it may be sunset, as long as there’s any light, it’s still Shabbos. We hold onto the holiness of the day so long as there’s a glimmer of the day remaining. In the morning, we can begin our avodas HaShem before sunrise as long as the first hints of light are visible. 

We’re not looking for what’s wrong, but for what’s right. 

I recall the true story of a fishing boat in the Caribbean that capsized. The ship’s cook was below deck and was trapped as the boat sank. When the salvage teams went to the boat a few days later, they found the cook alive!

The ship sank so fast that a small pocket of air was trapped in the room where the cook was sleeping. He was in water up to his ears but he managed to breathe and stay alive as long as that air lasted. It was enough to save his life. Most of us would look at the room and think survival was impossible. The ship was full of water and at the bottom of the sea! But the little bit of space that wasn’t flooded was enough.

As a last example, how often have we looked at our spouses or children and noted all the things they weren’t?

They aren’t neat; they aren’t sweet; they don’t have hair, or they don’t care.

Maybe our child rebels a bit, and we’re at the end of our ropes. They don’t live up to our dreams, they don’t fulfill our hopes.

But is there nothing at all of which we are proud? Nothing that sets them apart from the crowd?

Perhaps they have something, perhaps could it be? That there’s something that makes you want to say, “He belongs to me!”?

When you look at a picture and all you see is what’s wrong, remember the cook in the sinking ship and focus on what you have instead of what you don’t. Your life, or the life of someone else, may very well depend on it.

Posted by: R Jonathan Gewirtz | December 9, 2018

Upon Reflection

The partition between the Men’s Section and the Women’s Section in my shul has panes of one-way glass in it.With brighter light on one side of the glass it is see-through for the women but to the men it appears as a mirror. I often chuckle to myself as I see men and boys straightening their ties or adjusting their hats in the “mirror” as I imagine some woman on the other side watching the show with amusement.Recently, however, I saw something that not only made me smile, but made me think.

A fellow had brought his young daughter, who is perhaps 2 or 3 years old, to shul for Mincha on Shabbos afternoon. As she stood on a chair next to him during the prayers, I noticed her looking in the mirror. I couldn’t pull my gaze away from this adorable sight.

She was turning this way and that, smiling at her reflection in the mirror. She removed her headband and carefully put it on her forehead, then slid it back into place at the top of her head so her hair was smoothed down. She tilted her head and smiled again.

Then she tore off the headband, decisively brushed her bangs down over her forehead and put the headband back in, this time with the hair hanging to her eyes. She smiled, twisted, and turned back and forth as she admired her appearance.

I wondered how at such a young age she had come to this insight of wanting to see what she looked like, and how she determined she looked “good.” It seemed to me that she must have learned it from watching her mother or perhaps an older sister. While she could have figured out on her own what she considers nice-looking, I couldn’t see the preening and posing she was doing coming organically.

It made me think about how we are often so concerned with our appearance to others. We wonder what we look like to them, and we are ready to twist ourselves into pretzels for their approval.

On some levels this is appropriate. There’s a story about R’ Yisrael Salanter who appeared to be making faces in the mirror. When asked what he was doing, he replied, “The Mishna in Pirkei Avos says, “Hevay mekabel es kol ha’adam b’saiver panim yafos,greet all people with a nice face.” I’m looking in the mirror to see which smile and expression is the most pleasing to look at.”

If that’s your goal: to serve HaShem by being friendly to others, then that’s fine, especially when you’re using your own judgment. If you want to make sure you’re clean and neat, that’s important and admirable too, as you represent Hakadosh Baruch Hu.

The problem I find is when the opinions of others become so important that we lose connection to our own decision-making. It’s when we’re willing to pain ourselves and perhaps others in an effort to gain the approval of a chosen few people. Just as this girl was imitating what she’d seen of people modeling in the mirror ahead of “being seen” by others, we often live our lives the way people on the outside tell us to.

On Chanukah, we place our Menorahs outside so the world should see what we’re made of. While all the darkness in the world cannot diminish the glow of the Chanukah lights, we must shield them with glass so the winds of the world don’t blow them out. We also light our Menorahs inside on tables by our windows, again, facing the outside world but separated by a glass.

This is very dangerous, especially when what society finds “beautiful” is not beautiful in HaShem’s eyes or the eyes of the Torah. Chazal tell us that Yavan, Greece, represents beauty. However, the beauty of the Greeks, who studied Science and created magnificent art, is limited to the body, to nature, and tends to ignore a deeper spiritual element of Man which cannot be overlooked or underestimated – his soul and his connection to his Creator.

Do you know what happens when the lights of Chanukah glow inside and the darkness reigns outside? Those outside can see the light emanating from them and get a glimpse of their true inner beauty as it radiates outward.

At the same time, those lights reflect back inwardly – as the glass acts like a mirror. It is at those times,when we gaze at the Chanukah Menorah and strain to see the light of Creation which has been hidden within them (and within the Torah they represent) that we should reflect on what the world is seeing in us, and whether we’re exhibiting the beauty of the Jewish People.

When HaShem looks at us, will He be impressed with how we appear?

On Chanukah, and every day, we should be putting in all the same effort and more, to twist and turn and scrutinize ourselves to make sure that we’re as beautiful as possible, even if it hurts sometimes or involves pushing ourselves out of our basic comfort zone.

However, we should be looking in the mirror not to see how our physical features appears to others, but to ask ourselves if our spiritual beauty is shining through in our actions, words, and behavior. At the end of the day, the thing that matters most is whether HaShem will like what He sees.

Posted by: R Jonathan Gewirtz | October 10, 2018

Berry Good Ideas

Poison Berries – An Observant Jew Moment of Meditation

I passed a tree this morning which has a number of bright red berries in various stages of ripening. Though they look nice, I believe they are poisonous. I wondered: They look so good, and berries are for eating. Why should they be poisonous?

Poison-Holly

G-d’s answer (plugged into my brain): The message is that just because something looks good in my opinion doesn’t mean it really is good. If I ate them because I thought they were appealing without asking an expert if they were poisonous, I’d end up sick or worse.

That’s why we’re supposed to learn from our elders, rabbis, teachers, and from G-d, by way of the Torah, so we know when to stop and pick the berries, and when to walk on by.

Parting thought: The berries may be good – for animals. Just because something exists, doesn’t mean it’s for me.

Posted by: R Jonathan Gewirtz | August 28, 2018

Signs!

As the deadline for my next article loomed closer, I drew a blank.  I had no idea what to write about.  Images of lonely writers with mental block assailed me.  Typewriters sitting in garbage cans (for those of you who don’t know what I mean, you must be too young.  Imagine the guy throwing his monitor out the window instead,) crumpled sheets of paper, depressing tales of writers who never made it.

“Please HaShem,” I thought, “Give me a sign.”  Wait a minute, signs!  Perfect, that’s what I’ll write about!  You see, this issue will be out just before Rosh HaShana and this is the perfect time to talk about signs, omens, and symbolism.

nowrongwayMost every Jew knows that we dip apple in honey so that we should have a sweet new year; even the non-Jews know it, thanks to Sue Bee and her friends at the honey factory.  But those of us who are more familiar with Jewish traditions know that this is just the tip of the iceberg [which, by the way, is a siman done by eating just the very smallest edge of your lettuce leaf, but I digress…]

On Rosh HaShana, we make all kinds of symbolic acts, usually involving food.  That more than anything probably proves the authentic Jewish origin of this custom.  The common symbols we eat are listed in the machzor and include the head of a lamb or fish so we should be, “the head and not the tail,” pomegranates, so we should be “as full of mitzvos as a pomegranate,” and carrots.  Why carrots?  Because in Yiddish the word for carrots is “merren” which can also mean “more.”  We appreciate what we have, but we want “more” zechusim, “more” chesed, “more” of everything.

People have taken this to new levels.  One prominent Rov was known to eat peas on Rosh HaShana to have “peace on earth.”  You could eat lettuce, half a raisin and celery so HaShem might “Lettuce half a raisin celery” (Let us have a raise in salary) or put a cabbage in your briefcase to get “a head at the office.”

What we see is that even though these foods have no special significance other than their chance homophonic similarities to something, they are respected as “siman” food.  Doesn’t seem too magical, does it?  So how does it work?

The thing to understand is that “simanim,” the signs we assemble on Rosh HaShana don’t work by magic.  One origin of this custom is the Gemara in Horayos 12a which says that one should be accustomed to view various items at the beginning of the year.  That’s good news for those squeamish among us who can’t quite stomach the idea of eating something like a lamb’s head that can watch us as we do.  We don’t need to eat it, just look at it.  OK, we know where it comes from, but do we know how it works?

The gemara just before it says that if a person wants to see if he will live out the year he should light a candle in a wind-proof room during the Aseres Yemei Teshuva.  If it does not go out, he knows he will live out the year.  But what if it goes out?  The Gemara doesn’t say.  The Maharsha says, “If it goes out, it doesn’t mean anything.”

You see, simanim and signs can only be for good.  If a person sees what he considers a “bad omen” and then something bad happens, it’s because in his fear and trepidation about the bad sign, he has somehow negatively affected his “mazel” and that’s what caused the trouble.

This knowledge is of great use!  That means that if you see something as a good sign, your happiness improves your mazel, leading to good things too.  I’m reminded of the story about a multi-millionaire who used to stop and pick up pennies on the street.  Someone asked him why he needed the penny.  Showing him the letters on the small coin, the rich man said, “You see what it says here?  It says ‘In G-d We Trust.’ I know it isn’t me who made all this money, it was G-d’s benevolent hand.  Whenever I see a penny, I just know He put it there to send me a message and remind me that He’s watching out for me.  Isn’t that worth picking up?”

By taking even the smallest occurrence as a good sign, we can ensure that good things happen.  And if we think something is a bad sign?  Remember, “it doesn’t mean anything!”

So, now that I’ve created an article that’s “written well,” let me “seal” it by wishing all my loyal readers (and even those folks who wish I’d hang up my keyboard) a kesiva v’chasima tova  and a sweet new year.

Posted by: R Jonathan Gewirtz | August 22, 2018

Do the Math

Math

My grandfather used to be a bookkeeper and he used to always tell my mother to do math in her head, not using a calculator, which is something that she used to say to me.  I hated it but followed her lead, and now I do math in my head, and it comes in handy all the time.   I tell it to my kids also, and they roll their eyes, but when they can figure out the change in the supermarket faster than the cashier who’s using the register, even they have to admit it’s pretty cool.

I know, some people say, “Aha! Another day gone and I didn’t use Algebra,” but I think some types of math are really important.  When my mom wanted to buy something but thought it was too expensive, my father would put it in perspective.  Let’s say it was a $900 refrigerator.  My dad would say, “If it lasts ten years, that’s ninety dollars a year, less than two dollars a week, it’s like a quarter a day.  That’s not a lot of money to have fresh food.”

I used a similar rationale when I did the cost-benefit analysis for putting a back-up generator in my home.  If my freezer defrosts and I lose a couple hundred dollars of food, that’s money saved right there by preventing a meltdown.  And, of course, there are other types of meltdowns possible.  I won’t cast aspersions at my wonderful wife and children but let’s just say that the stress of being without power can be pretty difficult.  With an extended power outage, the necessary follow-up therapy alone would cost more than the generator!  Doing the math helped make the decision easier.

There are other ways we can do the math.  If you need gas and one place is close but is more expensive than the farther station, figure out how many gallons you need now, and the price difference.  See if it is worth your time.  If you’re getting ten gallons at twenty cents more than you might have paid, decide if your time and inconvenience (not to mention extra mileage) is worth more than two dollars.

If you can do a favor for someone, figure out how much it will cost you (an extra five minutes?  Two minutes?) and weigh that against how much it will help them or make them feel good.  If you make someone’s day, to quote my wife’s grandfather, “Could you buy that for money?”

Of course, as I’m required by contract to mention shopping carts at regular intervals, figure out how long it will take you to push the wagon the extra fifteen feet before you get into your car and compare that to how long it will take someone else who wants to park in that spot to get out of their car, move it, and get back into their car before they can do so.  It’s at least four to five times longer for the next person, so who but a creep would put them through that?

You can take that to all different scenarios as long as you remember that everyone has a common denominator: time stops for no man.  If I can transform my time into a mitzvah because I’m saving someone else time, I’ve put it to a better use than I probably will if I’m callous towards others.  And there’s more.

A friend of mine suggested that I upload my weekly Parsha sheet to a certain website in Israel that hosts hundreds of Diveri Torah sheets.  I actually had a fellow who lives near me ask to be on my mailing list (as can any of my readers, e-mail me at info@JewishSpeechWriter.com and put Subscribe in the subject) because he saw it there.  That man sends out Divrei Torah, so who know how many more people are reading it now.  But distributors aside, according to the site, since my friend recommended it a year ago, I’ve gotten over 2500 downloads.  With an average of 1,000 words per sheet, that’s over TWO AND A HALF MILLION words of Torah, (each word being greater than all the other mitzvos) which my friend gets credit for simply from giving someone an idea.  If you do the math, you’ll see how quickly things add up!

[Since this was originally published, the downloads have risen to 12,964 or nearly THIRTEEN MILLION words of Torah and still going.]

In life, we are supposed to make a cheshbon hanefesh, a reckoning of our souls.  We’re supposed to weigh the benefit of a sin against how much we will lose by committing it, and the relatively cheap cost of a mitzvah against the incalculable reward we will get for it.  Who knew that such a cheshbon could include actual arithmetic?  I sure didn’t, but it works, because when you put the facts on the table, the answers are simple and clear.

You can put the calculator on the shelf because these calculations must be done in your head and heart, and I guess that about sums it up.

Posted by: R Jonathan Gewirtz | August 8, 2018

Watermelon Doesn’t Grow on Trees

If you’re the type who reads a lot into the title of an article, you’re probably thinking, “Thank goodness watermelons don’t grow on trees! Someone could get hurt.” You’d be absolutely right, but I’m going somewhere else with this one.

I’d like to share a fantastic childhood memory with you. It isn’t mine, but it’s still so memorable that it’s worth retelling. A woman I know used to live in the Deep South. Her birthday is in July, and for her tenth or eleventh birthday, her parents arranged a watermelon eating contest for her whole class.

Watermelon

They were smart enough to do it outside, and when they were done, they just hosed off the driveway from all the pits and juice and watermelon pulp. She still remembers with glee how the next year their yard was full of watermelon plants!

As childhood memories go, I think that’s an amazing one. The magic of thinking that these watermelons (a special summertime treat for many people) sprouted and filled up her yard as an extension of her birthday celebration is enough to make even the most hardened of cynics smile in spite of themselves at the joy and optimistic jubilance of youth.

I don’t know the end of the story. Since watermelon plants can grow up to 20 feet long, they can wreak havoc on a yard. Perhaps her parents had to spend a lot of time pulling them out, or hiring a gardener to do it. She didn’t mention anything about having watermelon for lunch everyday so I’m assuming that they didn’t let the plants stay, and that being a child she didn’t remember that part since it was more mundane.

What I found especially magical about it, though, was how something so wonderful came along so unexpectedly. Here, they were simply trying to clean up a sticky mess, and they got a wonderful result that was more than they could have imagined.

Thinkers often speak about seeds. For example, one adage says, “Any fool can count the seeds in an apple, but only G-d can count the apples in a seed.” The potential in a seed, like the potential in people, is often overlooked. Not because it isn’t important, but because it is unfathomable. We can’t imagine the potential results, so we miss them.

Now, when a farmer plants a tree, he likely can guesstimate how many apples or oranges or avocadoes it might produce. Perhaps he knows how much a typical tree produces in a given time, and how the rainfall can affect it. He might not be surprised at the end result, but that’s because he’s looking at the dollars and cents of it. The tree is his livelihood and he has to have an expectation of what it will do. But watermelons don’t grow on trees. They are more unpredictable. Each seed may or may not produce. When you plant several at a time, you thin them out and choose the best one. Some of them will die and others will not be pollenated. It’s a toss-up and you won’t know until they grow.

Thinkers also speak of “scattering seeds.” The idea is that you put out kindness, holiness, and love into the world and those “seeds” will produce fruit you didn’t expect or couldn’t foresee, much as the woman’s watermelon plants.

Many of you have heard of John Chapman, better known by his nickname, “Johnny Appleseed.” He was famous for traveling through Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Ontario and nearby areas planting apple seeds. He is credited with enabling the large apple crops that area is blessed with. There are two facts about Johnny Appleseed that most of us don’t know but are rather important.

First of all, he was a very religious man. He had a strong faith in his god and he actually converted many Native Americans to Christianity. His devoutness is important because when putting effort into something whose outcome is not certain, you have to believe in what you’re doing. If you are trying to spread the message of how a servant of HaShem lives (and that’s a big part of our job as Jews) then you have to expect you’ll get pushback and disappointment. A strong faith will help you withstand the discouraging moments.

Second of all, John Chapman didn’t scatter seeds. He actually made nurseries, that is, small groups of viable plantings, usually surrounded by a fence to keep the animals away. When the trees in these nurseries grew, someone else would sell them to farmers for use in their orchards.

This is significant because it’s not enough to just throw some seeds here and there and hope they take root. If you want to see success, you have to be focused in what you do and put in the effort to get it started properly. Whether it’s an investment in a sapling or a sibling, a tree or a person, the more you put in at the beginning the better result you will see.

Watermelons don’t grow on trees, and in this case they got lucky that they took root. But life isn’t about luck. It’s about taking the time to sow the things you’d like to reap, and recognizing that the potential for growth is unmeasurable.

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