Posted by: R Jonathan Gewirtz | July 12, 2018

Gee, That’s Too Bad

Walking into a truck stop on Route 80 in our youth, my friend Yosef and I were keenly aware of a song playing loudly on the radio or speaker system.  With high-torque riffs and a grinding melody, the singer belted out the unforgettable words… “I’m b-b-b-b-b-b-bad — bad to the bone.”

tough-biker-image

We joked about it and imitated it when back on the road, and from time to time, it would come up in conversation with a shake of the head and a deprecating smile indicating our feeling towards the ridiculous lyrics.

Over the years, the song gained in popularity and was used in many different media outlets to announce the arrival of a “bad guy” in the story.  However, it isn’t usually a completely negative connotation.  Instead, it comes across rather proud and powerful, making the villain seem cool and with it.

I noticed that I never heard a song that went, “I’m g-g-g-g-g-good – good to the core.”  It would seem that being good isn’t so exciting and isn’t something that people want to announce.

We have expressions such as “bad-boy good looks.”  What is that?  Do the black eye or missing teeth make him more attractive?  Not at all.  What they usually mean is this is a guy who doesn’t care what people think about him, who will wear his hair messy, his clothes unkempt, and is arrogant enough to “know” he looks good that way.  There’s something appealing about that brazen sassiness, something that people find attractive.

Again, we have no phrase for the person who wears neat, appropriate clothing, who is careful to conform and speak pleasantly.  We might call him a nerd, or a nebbish, or a goody-two-shoes, but those are not complimentary terms.

Why is it that when someone dresses like he shouldn’t, we’re ok with it, but when he dresses properly, we wryly suggest his mother dressed him that way?

How about the way he speaks?  Usually the one who is chutzpadik is viewed as the chacham, even if the phrase wise guy isn’t entirely flattering. (Though it is considered high praise in certain Sicilian social circles I’m told.)  The fellow who is polite and speaks softly and considerately is once again viewed as having somewhat diminished mental capacity, and definitely no social standing.  It’s an embarrassment to be seen with him.  What’s going on; why is it this way?

It’s pretty simple actually.  When we see someone who is rebellious yet prosperous, wild but self-assured, nasty but popular, we begin to think that we can behave that way and get away with it.  In other words, it’s just another trick of the Yetzer Hara who makes people see things upside down.

He wants us to view mitzvos as something old-fashioned, nerdy, or to be embarrassed about.  He wants us to feel we can do what we want, when we want, with no qualms and no repercussions.  It’s not a new concept, just updated packaging.

If we were to stop a moment and realize that this tough guy can’t fit in with society, and his manners rival those of a lower life form, we might stop idolizing him.  Sure, the motorcycle and sneer are exciting, but would you want to be married to that?  What will happen when he’s sixty and still acting like a seventeen-year old?  What will he contribute to the world and how will others feel about themselves after an encounter with him?  What trouble will he get into and what price will he have to pay?

We romanticize characters like Robin Hood who stole from the rich and gave to the poor (any resemblance to politicians living or dead is purely coincidental) but in plain truth, he was just a thief!  You can’t steal and then give tzedaka with that money.  It’s called a mitzvah ha’ba b’aveira, a good deed that comes through a sin, and it’s not a mitzvah anymore.  By Jewish standards, in fact, Robin Hood, or people like him, cause G-d more work by making Him put things back where they belong.

The world around us pushes pirates, gangsters, punks, and tough guys as models for us to emulate.  There is a glitz and glamour to it; it is shiny and has bling.

But that is just misdirection on the part of our Evil Inclination, who is trying his hardest to keep us from being good, wholesome, righteous people.  We don’t often see people treating tzaddikim or those who serve HaShem as role models.  And that’s a pity.

If we were in the right frame of mind, THESE are the people we would be emulating.  Now, I’m not advocating a “Steipler” T-shirt or “R’ Ovadya Yosef” designer sunglasses, but I must admit that when I get a call from R’ Moshe Meir Weiss or R’ Paysach Krohn I feel like I’m talking to a rockstar.  Here are people who are out there doing what HaShem wants, trying to teach and inspire people; how can that not be the coolest thing on earth?

When you see a person stand there in silence, maintaining equilibrium and even a sense of pity, while someone verbally abuses him with rancor, can there be a tougher, stronger, wiser guy than that?

I hope that I’ve been able to change your outlook just a bit, and that now when you see these stereotypical characters being showered with praise you’ll recognize it for the falsehood that it is.  If not?  Well, I guess that’s just too b-b-b-b-bad.

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Posted by: R Jonathan Gewirtz | July 5, 2018

Air is Free

There’s an old joke that goes like this:

Q: Why do Jews have big noses?

A: Because air is free.

freeThe humor is built upon the fact that Jews are known to value money, and in a derogatory fashion, the idea is that they will take a lot of something if it doesn’t cost them anything.  In truth, it is a compliment to us that we value the money HaShem gives us and what can be done with it.  Even our forefather Yaakov (Jacob) went back for his bottle deposit.

Jews have big noses because air is free.  So here’s MY question: Why is air free?

OK, so it’s not my question.  It’s actually the Chovos HaLevavos (Duties of the Heart, written by R. Bachya ibn Pakuda in approximately the year 1040) who answers that question.  He explains that the more necessary something is for life, the more abundant it is and the lower the cost.  Therefore, air, which is needed constantly, by everyone, is available everywhere on earth, and it is free (for now, at least.)

Water, which is still very necessary, just not as much as air, is relatively available, and is cheap.  Gold and silver, by comparison, are rarer and more expensive, because we don’t have a real need for them.

It got me to thinking.  In the last few years, we’ve seen an economic downturn of epic proportions.  Whereas in years past, people were making money hand over fist, and the world on the whole had a lot of money, now people are without work and money is very hard to come by.

I wonder if HaShem is trying to tell us that money isn’t as important as we think it is.  Of course, we need money for necessities like food, shelter, tuition, and tzedaka, but the money available for luxuries and whimsy is just not as abundant as it used to be.  Family time is much more abundant than it used to be, even if people wish they had jobs to spend long hours at to be making the money they used to make.  That tells us that family time should be recognized as something important to our continued existence.

Using this same logic, that the more abundant something is, the more important it is for our good health, I have noticed a dramatic increase in one area that many of you have likely noticed, but may not have made the connection.  It would seem to me that this has become ubiquitous and cheap, if not free.  The commodity to which I refer?

Torah.

Thanks to today’s technology, we have so many people publishing Divrei Torah in electronic mediums.  You can read thousands of pages of Torah a week in your e-mail or on the web, and we’re way beyond Dial-a-shiur.  You can watch or listen to classes from around the world at the touch of a button, download them to your smartphone and take them anywhere.

Torah has become like air.  It is abundant and free, and that should tell us something.  THIS is a necessity, and THIS is what we should be seeking out.  When people don’t know what to do, they often say, “G-d – Give me a sign!”  Well, HaShem has given us a sign.  He has made it possible for us to accumulate Torah easier than bending down to pick money up off the street.  That tells us that this is essential for our lives as Jews, Members of the Tribe.

Whereas people looking for information used to open a book, which meant going to a library, now we just search for things on the web.  When we wanted to learn, you had to have a sefer, which meant carrying around heavy books, or going to a shul or Bais Midrash to find what you need.  Today, you can access millions of pages of Torah in the palm of your hand and you don’t even have to buy the sefer.

R’ Akiva famously compared the Jew to a fish who could not live out of water.  It needs to be surrounded by water or it will die.  We are surrounded by Torah like air.  In fact, the air around us is full of Torah data flowing through wi-fi networks.  All we need to do is realize this and breathe it in.

The more abundant something is, the more necessary it is for our existence.  Torah today is more readily available than ever before in history.  To me, this can only mean it is more necessary than ever before, whether to protect us from the falsehood of modern society, to prepare us for the advent of Moshiach, or both.

You can find hundreds if not thousands of sources for Torah on demand.  Make it happen for yourself because it’s more vital than you can imagine.  Torah is everywhere – take a deep breath and savor it.

Posted by: R Jonathan Gewirtz | June 27, 2018

Close Your Eyes

Have you ever walked in when your child was trying to prepare a surprise for you?  You have to close your eyes, turn around really fast, and pretend that you didn’t see anything.

Boy hiding his eyes

Even if you see pipe cleaners, glue, glitter, and construction paper all over, and she asks what you think the surprise is, you have to guess something like a cupcake or a new car.  When your son says, with a big grin on his face, “You’re going to be really upset with my score on the Chumash test,” you have to scowl and feign consternation until he “shocks” you by telling you that he really got a great mark.

Let’s say you see someone dancing at a wedding and he splits his pants.  You quickly avert your gaze and pretend that you didn’t see him.  Or someone rushes to come in to shul but had the time wrong and just catches the end of davening.  You look away and pretend you didn’t see him so he shouldn’t be embarrassed by realizing that you witnessed his misfortune.

Say you’re getting an oil change and the people in the shop are watching the game on TV.  You have no interest (because it’s not your team, or because it’s the World Cup and Nigeria is playing Uganda.)  You tune out and calmly go about your business of reading the old car magazine you found there touting the latest technological advances (“Announcing a portable GPS system for your car!”)

What this means is that we have the ability to selectively see things.  We can tell our brains to edit out certain things which we deem unimportant, valueless, or harmful.

It is ironic, then, that when it comes to other people, especially those who are “different” from us, we often ignore their best qualities and focus on what we dislike.

Say someone says dumb things.  She speaks arrogantly and doesn’t talk nicely to people.  You can write her off entirely, or you can say, “I know that she helps out a tzedaka organization and is very devoted to her family.”  We should accentuate the positive and simply close our eyes to the negative, unless we can help her change, or warn others not to act that way.  Either way, we should never negate all that’s good and wonderful about her.

Maybe the fellow next to you in shul doesn’t wear a hat and you do.  Or you don’t and he does.  And maybe he’s talking when he should be davening.  While that is an awful thing (the talking, not the hat) if you only had nine men in shul and he walked in, you’d be overjoyed to see him because he completes the minyan.  In that case, you’d be able to close your eyes to your differences and focus on what’s similar.

I heard an amazing story about a fellow in a taxi in Israel.

The cab driver was smoking and the man said, “It hurts me that you’re smoking.  It’s terribly unhealthy.”  The cabbie sneered and made some remark about the man being a Chareidi and why should he care about the cab driver’s health.

“My Rebbi taught me that we’re all brothers,” said the man.  “I truly care about you and do feel pain that you might become ill.”   “Oh yeah,” replied the taxi man, “Who is your Rebbi?”

“His name was Adolf Hitler,” replied the passenger.  “He said it doesn’t make a difference how you look or what you observe.  When they put us into the ovens, we Jews were all the same.”

Whoa! Now THAT’S a perspective on Ahavas Yisrael.

When Bilaam tried to curse Klal Yisrael, one of the things he said was, “Lo hibit aven b’Yaakov,” HaShem doesn’t see sin in the Jewish People.  That is not to say that there isn’t sin, but that HaShem often chooses to look away and focus on the good in His people.

If HaShem, Who is responsible for reward and punishment, does this, shouldn’t we, who are not supposed to judge our fellow man, be looking away more frequently?  If someone isn’t the same “type” as we, does that make them less of a child of HaShem?  Absolutely not!  There are twelve tribes, and each has its own way of serving HaShem.  Who’s to say that any one way is “the right way” or that another way is wrong?

It is strange that when dealing with people who have never been exposed to Yiddishkeit we are happy to accept them as they are and we go out of our way to befriend them and help them see the joy of being a Jew, and yet, when we deal with people who are practicing Jews, but they don’t look exactly the same as we do, or don’t share all our opinions, we are ready to call out the dogs on them and cast them into a flaming abyss.  Shouldn’t we feel that they, too, deserve our warmth and love at least as much?

Klal Yisrael is compared to a bundle of sticks.  When we are bound tightly together, we are unbreakable – even if some are straighter, some are more bent, some are lighter, and some are darker.  When we are divided though, even the most perfect, straight, and smooth stick can be easily snapped in two.

We are now in the Three Weeks, the time when we mourn the losses of Kedusha in Klal Yisrael.  The Luchos, the korbanos, the Batei Mikdash.  Nearly all the tragedies that befall us could be prevented by unity.  So what keeps us from that?  The fact that we’re constantly focused on our differences, instead of our similarities.  If we were to avert our gaze, and try to see the good in others instead of being judgmental, we could be blessed by HaShem in kind and He would look away from our sins.

Posted by: R Jonathan Gewirtz | June 20, 2018

Find Your Calling

One day at shul, a friend’s pager went off.  He quickly darted out the door.  Knowing that he’s a doctor, I mused that when he gets a message it is important because it’s from a hospital and someone’s life is at stake, as opposed to me getting a text at the office from my wife because she needs me to pick up eggs on the way home from work.

But then I stopped myself, as I am wont to do, and realized that that assumption simply wasn’t true.  Yes, his calls are very important, but who says mine aren’t important too?  If I have the opportunity to do a chesed for another Jew, shouldn’t I jump at it?  And if that person happens to be my wife, who HaShem wants me to be closer to than to anyone else on the planet, isn’t that an earth-shaking responsibility?

Sometimes we get a call or a message and it’s someone asking a favor, or just a piece of information.  Even if the person is a nudge or nudnik with a silly question, the fact that it’s we who got the call means it’s our job to answer it.  By doing so, we’re fulfilling our role on earth.

g-dcalling2

Which brings me to another point:  I recently had the pleasure of meeting a Rebbi from a local Yeshiva, R’ Yonah L.  Aside from telling me he enjoys reading my articles, already showing that he’s a man of great intellect and discerning taste, he shared with me a great play on words which I have to pass along.

We talked about how each person has certain abilities and talents and that they have an obligation to use them to serve HaShem and Mankind as best they can.  He said, “You must respond to your abilities. That’s why it’s called “responsibility.”

While you may not be a brain surgeon, you have something special about you that the world needs and that’s YOUR calling.  You have been imbued by the Creator with special skills, insights, strengths, or emotions that nobody else in the world can replace.  We each have a role to play and by doing so we are sustaining the world and Creation, making what we do every day a matter of life and death.

There’s an old proverbial rhyme which many of us have heard:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

It implies that little failures can lead to big losses, but I look at it a different way (as I do most things.)  To me, it seems that no matter whether you’re the nail in the horseshoe, the rider, or the king, you play an important role in what happens to the rest of the kingdom.

So, it may not be the hospital or the President of the United States on the other end of the line, but when I respond to the things that need MY attention, I’m heeding the call and playing my part in the world.

Sometimes we feel we’re nobodies, that we’re insignificant.  When we look at it the way I’m suggesting, we realize that such a thing is impossible.  We can all make a huge difference, even if we don’t realize it at the time.  Let’s go back to the poem.  It says that because of a nail, the shoe was lost.

Let’s say the farrier (that’s what you call the guy who shoes horses) was having a bad day.  He burned himself on the anvil and he couldn’t find any lotion to soothe the burn.  In his pain, he dropped the horseshoe nails on the floor and when he bent down to get them, he banged his head.  Could this day get any worse?  Then he realizes that one nail rolled across the floor and he can’t see where it went.  “Forget it!  This horse is just going to get one less nail in his shoe.  It should be fine without it and next time I’ll bring extras.  I don’t have the strength or patience to deal with this right now.”

Now, in his mind, it doesn’t make such a difference.  In reality though, the entire war hangs in the balance of his decision, and we who know the poem can already predict the outcome.

What just happened was that he missed his calling.  His job was to be the best farrier possible, and to do quality work.  Because he chose to blow off that responsibility, the repercussions could be huge.

We don’t necessarily have pages and text messages to alert us when an opportunity to make a difference comes along.  Sometimes it’s just something we “happen” to notice, or an offhanded comment that gets thrown our way.  Sometimes it’s an exasperating request when we’re already stressed and overloaded.  We can easily see these things as unimportant, or figure that they can be handled by someone else.

The challenge though, is to take “response-ability” and ask ourselves if this might be a direct call over a dedicated line, just waiting for us to get the message.

Posted by: R Jonathan Gewirtz | June 13, 2018

Looking Back

All set? Comfy? Buckled? Great.

Yeah, it’s rough out there. It’s nice when you have a comfortable car to ride in, out of the heat or the cold or the rain. What’s that blue butterfly on my rear view mirror? It’s funny you should ask. There’s a great story behind that.

BlueButterflyOne day, I had taken my girls to the doctor, probably for well-visits, or more likely for shots, since those are generally MY responsibility. After behaving well, my daughters, then about two-and-a-half and four-and-a-half respectively, received a number of stickers.

While showing each other the various ones they had and discussing trading, my little one picked up a pretty blue butterfly and declared, “Daddy gets a sticker!” She handed it forward, and I affixed it to my mirror. I knew that way she would see me “use” it, and I could remove it more easily than I could from the dashboard.

But I never did remove it. Every time I look at it, I see that sweet little girl, overflowing with love and generosity, feeling that Daddy is good enough and loved enough that he deserves to have a sticker and she’s going to make sure he gets it.

Sometimes, when she’s driving me crazy, or when she misbehaves, I’ll look at the sticker and start to calm down. It takes me back and reminds me that deep down, she’s genuinely loving, caring, and generous.

Recently, that little sticker gave me an insight into a famous phrase. Jeremiah 2:2 tells us that HaShem says, “I remember the kindness of your youth, the love of when you were a bride, when you followed Me in the desert, in a land that was not sown.”

Let’s think about that. What does it help to remember that someone USED to be good to you, when now they’re rotten? HaShem remembers us when we were devoted to Him, and therefore takes us back even after we’ve betrayed Him. How does that work?

Before I explain, let me tell you another story. One day, my wife called me very upset. My pre-teen daughter had balked at eating some sort of green vegetable which was served for dinner and simply refused to taste it. The situation devolved into both parties getting upset. When my wife told me about it, I started laughing.

Astounded at my insensitivity to her frustration, my wife asked me what exactly I found so funny. I paused, then said, wistfully, “We’re back to corn and sweet potatoes,” referencing the only baby food we had been able to get our beloved baby girl to eat when she was an infant. Not peas, not green beans, nothing green – just the small orange jars of corn and sweet potatoes.

My wife’s heart melted and she couldn’t be mad at her baby anymore. It wasn’t her fault; this was how she was made from the beginning!

Just like my sticker, it reminded us of what lie inside of our daughter in her youngest years, and that it still existed inside her today. And that’s the message of the verse.

HaShem says, “I remember when you were enamored with Me; when you clamored to be close to Me. I know that though we’ve been driven far apart, that desire of your youth still resides within you and can resurface with great force.” Even though we think we’ve changed permanently, deep down, He knows we really haven’t.

I like to think that it has broader applications too. Remember when you were young and idealistic? When you thought you could change the world and were willing to give your all to make things happen? Remember when you found joy in the simple things in life, and you weren’t concerned about “stuff” or jealous of others? You might have to go way back to when you were a toddler – when playing with a big box and your imagination could be an all-day event.

Think about the people in your life who give you a hard time, or make things difficult for you. Maybe it’s a parent or grandparent who needs care, and you’re feeling resentful. Maybe it’s a spouse who you feel was nasty or insensitive to you. Go back to when that person made your life sweet, or when they were caring and good, and see if you can bring back some of the good feelings and be forgiving.

See, what I’ve realized is that it’s not too late to look back and see that inner child, the one who was so sweet and innocent. It’s not too late to bring back the kid who was so proud to read the Aleph-Bais or recite a Dvar Torah he learned in school. You can still find the little girl who shared so nicely and was happy when someone else got something she liked; who wasn’t jaded or cynical.

So, that’s why I keep that sticker there, to remind me that all our potential isn’t just in the rear view mirror, it still lies ahead of us, as long as we keep it in our sights. That doesn’t only go for us, but for everyone – HaShem said so.

Well, I’m stopping here, but at least you’re a little closer to your destination now. Safe travels, and just keep taking this road straight ahead. You’ll get where you want to get; I’m sure of it.

Posted by: R Jonathan Gewirtz | June 6, 2018

Memory Overload

In a former life I was a computer technician.  It was my first job and I got into that field because the specific training for it didn’t take too long and the salesman for the school assured my father and me that I would be making a very high salary straight out of school.  The salesman was exaggerating, but Baruch HaShem my first job in the NY area was working for a computer firm.

I didn’t end up lasting in that business because the technology changes so quickly that if you don’t love it, you can’t keep up.  I didn’t and I couldn’t.  While I did learn some things at that job that I have carried with me since, I would never call myself a technical expert. One day, a friend in that field asked if I could stop by his client’s office to pick up a check.  He had gotten caught in a meeting and would not be back before the office closed.  Happy to do a favor for a friend, I agreed.

memory_chipWhen I got to the office, I informed the receptionist that I was there to pick up the check for “ABC Computing” (not the real name.)  She ushered me into the office of the manager, who handed me the check and asked me, “Will you be looking at the hard drive we called about?”  Realizing that she assumed I was a computer tech, and trying not to let on that I didn’t work for the firm, I told her I thought one of the other fellows from the office was going to be taking care of it.

She commented that they couldn’t do any work on the computer at all because the hard drive was bad, so I figured I could at least take a look at it and call my friend on the phone for a little remote diagnostic work.  At the very least, it would make him look good to the office manager.

I sat down at the computer and pressed a key.  I got a strange message.  It said there was not enough space on the hard drive to perform another action.  I looked at the C: drive statistics and saw that of the 450 Gigabytes of hard drive space, there remained only 1.2 Megabytes left.  That’s .00027% of the otherwise massive hard drive!

Seeking to recoup space, I ran the disk cleaning utility and found an astounding fact.  350 Gigabytes, more than three-quarters of the hard drive space, was taken up by temporary files.  Temp files (usually ending in .tmp) are typically created by a program for backup purposes while you’re working on something, and last until you save the file.  They may also be created as part of a software installation but usually they are deleted soon afterwards.  In some cases, these temp files remain, possibly due to a programming error, and take up valuable space, like in this instance.

I’m happy to report that I was able to delete the temp files and the PC was back up and running in a few moments.  I showed the manager how to clean them up and impressed upon her the need to regularly purge them.  As I took leave of their office, I began to reflect on what had just occurred.

Here was a machine capable of tremendous functionality, brought to a halt because it wasted its memory on useless files from the past.  In a clear parallel, I realized that as human beings, capable of much more complex behavior than a computer, we can get bogged down by useless memories as well.

When we harbor resentment, bear grudges, and hold on to hurt, we are merely clogging our brains and hearts with old data that is no longer relevant.  They build up and inhibit our ability to function.  Were we to let these feelings go, we could remain highly-functional.

Now perhaps, when the situations arose and the bad feelings were created, we may have needed them to protect ourselves from harm, but later on, we should have moved on and purged ourselves of them.  The only one hurt when we keep ourselves angry is us.

Without even going into the fact that bearing a grudge is a Biblical prohibition, the truth is that bearing a grudge is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.  It doesn’t hurt him; it just prevents us from living happy, productive lives.

Elul is a time when we ask HaShem to forgive us; to look away from our failings and move on.  We don’t want Him constantly rehashing our sins or focusing on them.  If so, why do we feel we should do that to others?  We often feel that if someone wronged us they bear a debt to us which they must repay, but we don’t want the Al-mighty to be so exacting.

The best way to get HaShem to overlook our flaws is by doing the same for others.  Each night in the Shema recited before going to sleep, we include a paragraph in which we forgive anyone who has wronged us.  Before Kol Nidre, we have a similar paragraph, and people ask each other for forgiveness.  By being forgiving of others, we earn that commensurate behavior from G-d, and He forgives us.

I learned a lesson that day that we would all do well to remember.  Many thoughts, feelings, and emotions lose their importance with time, and we must be diligent to purge them from our systems and our memory banks.  We should not remind someone of something they did wrong to us ten years before, or even ten days before.  We must be able to move forward and give others, and ourselves, a chance at a clean slate and a cleared memory.  Then we’ll be able to function at optimal performance.

Posted by: R Jonathan Gewirtz | May 30, 2018

Stop the World; I Wanna Get Off!

Like so many of my articles, this one popped into my head in an instant, as I was driving across the Tappan Zee Bridge after a long day at work.  The box truck next to me said, “Carousel Cakes” on it.  I thought about carousels and the happy childhood images they conjure up.

carousel

Who didn’t love merry-go-rounds as a kid?  If my memory of home movies is correct, I had a plastic merry-go-round on top of my birthday cake as a toddler.  In fact, I think many adults still enjoy the magic and majesty of merry-go-rounds, and their even more elegant-sounding moniker: carousels.  (Even the sound of the word is magical!)

So I thought about it.  What makes these rides so special?  Antique carousels often have intricately carved horses, zebras, tigers, and other animals to ride on.  Even more modern ones are often bedecked with elegant curves, glistening crystals, and regal fittings.  And then there’s the music!  Oh, the pomp and ceremony of riding a carousel, as trumpets blare and musical notes tinkle lightly in a symphony of sound that suggests you are royalty.

As you move slowly around the circle, rising high in the air, then gently dipping lower, you feel the breeze on your face and you can’t help but smile, as you imagine a crowd of adoring fans waiting for you just ahead, hoping to catch a glimpse of you and perhaps merit a wave of your hand in acknowledgement.  As you go around and around you become giddy with glee, enjoying this interlude of fantasy and whimsy.

Now back to the bridge.  Sorry to pull you from your reverie, but the point I wanted to make was just that: it’s a reverie; it’s a dream.  The merry-go-round isn’t real; you’re just going in circles but not getting anywhere.  It’s nice entertainment, and it’s so easy to escape into that temporary reality, but at some point you should grow out of it.  And that’s when it hit me.

Isn’t the world just a big merry-go-round?  We spin around, fast as you please, rushing through time and space.  We encounter all sorts of pretty things to look at, sights and sounds that transport us to a mythical world but are we really getting anywhere?

It seems to me that like on the carousel, we have our ups and downs, and we care so much about the horse we ride: is it the prettiest, the fastest, the biggest, does it have the right bow or saddle on it?  Only in life, it may not be a horse, but a house, a car, a job, or something else that is but a creature comfort.

The glorious intoxicating music plays.  These are the distractions that take our mind off of where we are and why we’re here.  There is a famous parable about a farmer who saved the king’s life and was rewarded with an hour in the treasure room to take whatever he wanted.

The king was afraid that he would be left with nothing, until a wise advisor gave him some advice.  “Play some music by the vault.”  Sure enough, when the simple farmer walked in, the royal orchestra began playing a masterful symphony.  The man was enchanted.  He had never heard anything so sweet, so powerful. He stood there transfixed for a few long moments.  Eventually he regained his senses and continued down the hall to the vault.  On the way, a lone harpist sat strumming a golden instrument.  The farmer paused again, mesmerized by the lilting notes.  When he finally remembered why he was there, nearly half an hour had passed.

He began striding down the hallway purposefully, and was greeted by a band of musicians playing such lively music that he felt compelled to dance.  He danced as they played and kept dancing and twirling.  Finally, they stopped playing as a large gong sounded.  There stood the king, holding a clock, announcing that his time was up.

The man was beside himself.  He had gotten so focused on the music and distractions along the way that he missed his ultimate goal of gathering a fortune to take home with him.  I don’t need you tell you what that is a parable for; it’s pretty clear.

And that’s why I look at the world as a carousel.  It is fun to ride, and transports you to another place, but you’re really not getting anywhere or accomplishing anything if you spend all your time focused on the pretty toys or music.

It’s time to grow up and recognize that the beauty and majesty of the carousel called Earth is just a façade intended to stop us from proceeding down the hall to where the real treasure lies, locked inside the Torah and Mitzvos, waiting for us to gather them up.  It’s time we refocused our efforts and said, “Stop the world; I want to get off – and get on with making my fortune for the next world.”

Posted by: R Jonathan Gewirtz | May 24, 2018

Make Lemonade

After a particularly exciting and boisterous Shabbos in our home, replete with guests and children running in and out of the house to play, snack, eat, and play some more, we began what we like to call, “Operation Take Back the House.”

My aishes chayil, knowing I’m very big on challenges and personal growth, gave me the honor of cleaning the highchair which our friends’ baby had used.  As I approached the highchair with purpose, I leaned down and scooped an empty candy bag off the floor, where one of the children had undoubtedly placed it with the strategic intent of not having to go put something in the actual trash can.

Gingerly, I removed the tray from the highchair and brought it to the kitchen.  As I looked at the tray and its “babified” remnants of a delicious meal, I realized that A) I did NOT want to touch any of that stuff, B) and it was pretty stuck, so it wouldn’t fall off on its own if I tilted over the can.  In an instant, it came to me.  I held the tray over the garbage can with one hand, and used the empty bag in the other to push the delightful kugel and chicken cutlet mélange into the receptacle.  That’s when the idea for this article hit me.

I had an unpleasant task, but by utilizing whatever I had at my disposal (no pun intended), I managed to get the job done and keep my hands clean.  The message to me was pretty clear: make the most of what you have.  Do something with whatever life sends your way, because presumably that’s what HaShem sent it to you for.

How often do we get frustrated because things seem not to be to our liking?  Let’s say you have a nasty neighbor.  Perhaps it’s not a punishment from Heaven, as much as a challenge to overcome your ego and reach out to them.  Maybe it’s an opportunity to grow a thicker skin and not be upset by things that people say to you.

Maybe you look around at your friends’ cars and feel bad that your car is a few years older, a good deal more beat-up, and you wonder why you have the mazel to be stuck with a clunker.  That is, until someone sideswipes you in a parking lot and drives off.  If you had a new car, you’d be irate, but maybe with the older one you figure another scratch just adds to the “character” and “history” of the car. You come to realize that having this older car was actually a favor to you.

People like to complain about things, but how many of us try to fix them?  “I can’t daven in that shul because this guy davens out loud, even by silent Shmona Esrai!  And that guy reads along so loudly when he gets called to the Torah that I can’t hear the chazzan.”  Did you think that maybe you could gently tell him the halacha that he need not hear himself when laining along?  Or that though he should hear himself during Shmona Esrai, he is precluded from doing so if others can hear him?  If you haven’t tried, maybe you’re not using the frustration properly.

A fellow once came to the Steipler Gaon z”l complaining that his wife was a terrible housekeeper and he wanted advice.  The Steipler told him, “Take a broom and sweep!”  We aren’t supposed to wait for other people to fix things; we are supposed to take the tools at hand and put them to good use.

There’s an expression that says, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”  The homespun wisdom behind that adage is that even though you’re suffering through a difficult situation, you should make the best of it and find some way to ease the pain.  Just as a lemon is sour but can be turned into something sweet, so can you make the best of a difficult situation and find some aspect of good about it.

I think there’s more to it than that.  Yes, when life gives you lemons, you should definitely make lemonade, but not because you’re simply finding the upside of a down situation.

No. When life gives you lemons, it’s precisely because G-d wants you to make lemonade!  It’s the mission He laid out for you and that’s why you have the tools and supplies for doing it.  I think I once mentioned something I read in an Aish HaTorah fax that bears repeating:  “There’s one thing that G-d doesn’t do well, and that’s Second-best.”

Everything in this world is precisely calculated and arranged. If you’ve got lemons, you’ve got to think what you can do with them.  It may be lemonade or lemon-meringue pie, or even a nice, warm glass of tea.  The main thing to keep in mind is that if it’s in your pantry or on your table, and you’ve got it on hand, it’s meant to be used for a special recipe that only you can make.  Lemonade_033195_

Posted by: R Jonathan Gewirtz | May 16, 2018

Kiddush on Sour Grapes

sour-grapesI generally don’t write halacha in my columns, and this one will be no different.  Despite the title of this article, I’m not going into the topic of what is suitable for making Kiddush on Friday night.  True, wine that smells bad is not fit for Kiddush use, but that’s not what I mean here.

Many of us have heard of Aesop, the Greek slave who may or may not have really existed, but to whom hundreds of fables are attributed.  These stories have a lesson in them and even if you’ve never heard of Aesop or his fables, you’ve likely heard the phrase, “The moral of the story,” which is common in their English presentation.

I’ve long felt that there must be some reason why he warranted such fame, that thousands of years from his death (or supposed life,) people would still quote his name and his lessons.  To me, it seemed pretty simple that many of them contain Torah or hashkafic concepts that work.  One of his most famous ones, for example, has as its main characters an ant and a grasshopper, which definitely has Jewish connotations vis–à–vis the meraglim.  But that’s not for now.

One of Aesop’s stories is about a fox who wanted to get some grapes. This short version was originally written in Latin: “Driven by hunger, a fox tried to reach some grapes hanging high on the vine but was unable to, although he leaped with all his strength. As he went away, the fox remarked ‘Oh, you aren’t even ripe yet! I don’t need any sour grapes.’ People who speak disparagingly of things that they cannot attain would do well to apply this story to themselves.”

The point made is that when people are jealous of something and frustrated in their attempts to get it, they will disdain the item and speak ill of it.  One psychological approach is that this is trying to reduce the strain of cognitive dissonance, holding two opposing views, that of wanting something and not being able to have it.  By saying the grapes were sour, the fox was lessening his desire for them, thus easing the contradiction.

Most people view this as a negative trait.  The fox was upset he couldn’t have his way so he trash-talked the object of his desire.  Most folks would say he should have risen above his pettiness and been able to say, “It’s not meant to be and I’m ok with it.”

Now, we often tell my kids, “You get what you get and you don’t get upset,” and that HaShem makes sure you get what you are supposed to and nobody can take it away from you.  [If you disagree with my last premise, please take your argument to R’ Bachya ibn Pakuda who wrote the Chovos HaLevavos.  I got it from him.]  It’s a great level to be at, but one that is hard to achieve.

When I look at the fox and the sour grapes, I don’t recommend bad-mouthing the items or persons who are causing you frustration but I do suggest that the approach isn’t all bad.

The last of the Ten Commandments is not to covet, meaning to desire or yearn for, the possessions of another.   Some say that you can’t control the jealousy and the prohibition is to do things to try and get the item for yourself.  Since feelings are natural, you can’t be commanded to simply “feel” differently.

I’d like to suggest that there are things we can do to control our feelings.  Did you know that when you smile you are activating pressure points that relieve tension and anger?  Simply putting a smile on your face, even if you don’t feel like it, can start you off on feeling better.

The fox story gives another method.  If you don’t have something, it’s because HaShem doesn’t want you to have it.  It isn’t right for you.  The jealousy you feel is ridiculous because if it was good for you, you would have it.  If you don’t, it must not be.

By recognizing that for you this item is sour, or unfit, you will lessen your desire for it.  I’ve looked with envy at some fancy, expensive sports cars, then laughingly realized I’d never fit in them.  Presto! I no longer coveted them!

When you see something (or someone) that you wish was yours, remind yourself it’s like a pair of shoes two sizes too small for you that may look nice but would pinch and cause you pain.

For me, the moral of the story is: When something is out of your reach, but you think it will make you happier, the smart thing to do is remind yourself that it’s out of your reach for a reason, then praise HaShem (that’s the Kiddush) and be happy you’ve been spared the suffering.

Posted by: R Jonathan Gewirtz | May 9, 2018

After the Cheesecake

CheeseCake2Someone I spoke to before Shavuos ended an e-mail with, “I’ll talk to you after the cheesecake.”  He didn’t have to explain further, as I automatically knew he meant after the Yom Tov of Shavuos.  The food is so integrally associated with the holiday that the term cheesecake was almost interchangeable.  In fact, not only did it get the message across, but it did so in a light-hearted way that made me smile.

This isn’t the only holiday that has associated foods.  Purim has Hamantaschen, Chanuka has Latkes, Rosh HaShana has apple and honey and Shabbos has its chicken soup.  Let’s face it, as the joke says, most Jewish holidays can be described as, “They tried to kill us; we won; let’s eat!”

Traditionally, there have been “Jewish” foods over the years though they differ in different regions. Gefilte fish was created specifically to provide a fish with no bones to avoid transgressing the sin of borer/separating mixtures on Shabbos, and, just as the world learned at the 2013 Scripps Spelling Bee that a “knaidel” is a German-Yiddish word for a round, leavened dumpling, those of us in the know could have told you that Matzah Balls are a uniquely Jewish food.

I wonder.  What’s so important about food that it becomes inextricably linked to our Jewish observances?  Why should the focus of the holidays be on the food?  Isn’t that cheapening the experience of holiness that we should feel?  Isn’t it time I started answering questions instead of asking them?

The first point to make is that as Jews, nothing is purely physical.  Our job in this world is to take the physical and uplift it.  We eat food which is a physical act, but we make a blessing over it, which raises it into the realm of the spiritual.  We don’t just break bread.  At certain times the bread is flat and unleavened because of a miracle that took place (Pesach) and sometimes we have two loaves (Shabbos) to commemorate the Manna HaShem gave us in the desert.  By associating a food with a spiritual aspect, such as eating cheesecake on Shavuos because the Jews at Sinai ate dairy since their previously-used pots were not Kosher, we are doing much more than just consuming the actual food.

However, even if you remove the spiritual aspect or reason for the food, there is a great reason to celebrate Chag HaCheesecake.

We find in the Torah that food is a strong producer of positive feeling.  We are told that Yitzchak loved Esav because of the fresh meat he provided his father.  While there are other, less literal, explanations of this posuk, the simple one does not go away.  It’s likely the source of the expression, “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.”  Because we associate good feelings with food, the source of that food also gains a fondness in our eyes.

That said, when we celebrate Shavuos by eating cheesecake, the cake itself is making us happy about the holiday, and in turn, about the Torah.  The mitzvah of being happy on Yom Tov is what guides us to eat meat and drink wine for Chazal say, “There is no joy without meat and wine.”  Is this true? Would one absolutely be unable to be happy on a holiday without these items? Perhaps not, but certainly one who enjoys a meal complete with meat and wine will be in a good mood and this positive mindset will spill over into the Yom Tov.

Much as a child riding a bike downhill gets enough momentum to help him keep going when he reaches the bottom of the hill, the external forces that give us joy can be converted into energy to push us forward in our performance of mitzvos with a smile.  It is said that Rabbeinu Tam, one of the authors of the Tosfos commentary on the Gemara, had an interesting practice when faced with a difficult piece of Torah that he needed all his strength to get through.

He would take out a stack of gold coins and start counting them.  The joy that he got from this, not just seeing on a spiritual level how much HaShem had blessed him, but from the simple satisfaction of having some money in his pocket, enabled him to focus better on the task at hand.

When approaching Judaism, the Torah, and the Mitzvos, the most powerful tool for finding joy in them is recognizing the opportunities they provide us for basic pleasure.  Eating delicious foods on Shabbos, enjoying conversation around the table (no Lashon Hara of course), spending time with people we love and who love us, and even getting dressed up for the holidays, are all ways for us to find tangible joy in our Yiddishkeit and use it to enhance our relationship with HaShem.  After all, He’s the reason for our celebration.

If you want someone to see the beauty of Shabbos, don’t talk about it.  Just give him a steaming bowl of cholent and a big smile.  You’ll get a lot farther that way.  And if someone wants to know what’s so great about being a Jew?  Tell him you’ll answer him after the cheesecake. 🙂

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