BROKEN COMMITMENTS

Here is the thing about commitments, they are made to be broken (and repaired). I had pledged to myself to write an article/blog once a week for 52 weeks and that was going well until it wasn’t.

Nothing in particular, other than life got in the way. Usual work/family drama (yes, even rabbi’s have that) and then a lackadaisical energy that doesn’t promote the creative juices.

After missing my deadline for a couple weeks, I knew that I need to do something different if I had any hope for a different result. So, I packed up my trusty little iPad and keyboard and went to one of my favorite North Shore spots. The Lynch Park in Beverly, where you have water on three sides.  (See picture) There is something calming and soothing about the water that gives a general reset.

So what is it about commitments to do good that don’t seem to have the staying power? Why is it that I don’t need motivation and encouragement to eat cheesecake an ice cream regularly, yet for things of worth it is so challenging?

I suggest the answer might be found in the command to say the Shema prayer (3 times) daily. Why is there such a law? If we read it yesterday, presumably our awareness of that information has not disappeared or dissipated so quickly that it needs such a refresh.

Perhaps a once weekly reminder would suffice? Yet that is not enough? We are obligated to say it day in and day out? The answer is, that Hergel Naseh Tevah, getting used to something makes it second nature.

This cuts in both directions. At times it works in our favor, that by doing something religiously (pun intended) you just get used to it and do it regularly. Think gym, and other similar good things that while difficult can become part of your daily routine. On the flip side, we can adopt bad habits, like that cheesecake and ice cream habit I referenced a moment ago.

However, then there is something in-between. Where your rote in doing something makes you start to take it for granted. For example, prayer, and specifically the Shema prayer. This prayer, which focuses on the essence of our faith, and acknowledging that Gd is the All Powerful One, can also become robotic and without meaning to the person saying it.

That is the great danger with all commitments. What begins as passion, dies or goes into a comatose state, and not for lack of usage. Just lack of reinvestment in the original intent.

When that happens, you need to a) identify it b) commit to doing something different to get a different result.

If it is prayer, you need to revisit what you started to pray, what that prayer means to you, and how to reignite the original passion again. Look inward and realize how many blessings you have, and to express gratitude and thanks, and conversely, how many blessings you still need and focus on Who can provide them.

If it is a blog, you need to reconnect with the origins of why you started to write and how to keep that passion going or, in some case light it up again from scratch. In my case, to open the creative juices I know are flowing in my head.

And if it is a diet/bad habit, like the cheesecake and ice cream we’ve been discussing, to revisit why you agreed or endeavored to stop that behavior in the first place.
***

So, goodbye dear ocean – you can be sure I will be back to see you again and again – and know that I will learn from you.

Your waves lap against the shore, and that happens again and again and again, regardless of weather conditions or internal and external factors. Regardless of life’s dramas, stresses and ever changing realities, you continue to splash on the sandy shore with the same original passion as the last gazillion times. I pledge to emulate your ways in all my ways (the blog being the least of them) and recommit myself to the things that got me started in the first place.

Blog 31/52 Picture my iPhone

Dear Gd, Here we go again

Dear G-d,

Here we are again. Last we spoke, it was right after the Pittsburgh Massacre. There you told me, how you weep with me, and how if I could understand Your ways (which I cannot since I am not GD), I’d be less pained.

Yet you cried with me, at pain the Jewish family was enduring. The loss of life, the carnage, the insecurity that Your children were experiencing. You seemed to walk this fine line between being the Adult in the room, who knows what He is doing, and the empathetic parent who cries with their child who is going through the pains of growing up.


Lori Kaye’s daughter, Hannah at her memorial service. Photo AP

I walked away from our discussion, feeling that while my questions were not answered, I knew you were on top of things, and there was order, where it seemed like chaos to us. I walked away somewhat comforted knowing that you hadn’t abandoned us, notwithstanding the facts on the ground, mixed with blood and tears.

Yet, now I am here again. Knocking on your door asking you why? Why would a sister Chabad Center in Poway, California, a home dedicated to love, and compassion, a home that is but a branch of nearly 4000 similar homes, be targeted by a hateful and vile individual. How could you allow it? Why there? Why anywhere? In the past month, there three major faiths in the world had their houses of worship attacked, and we just proceed on. Are you in charge or not?

We just finished Holocaust Memorial Day, where the images if the greatest mass destruction of our people in the History of the world dominated our news cycle, our social media feed, and all the pain, anger and mistrust has risen to the surface again.

Perhaps my greatest consternation is this pacifistic, soft response I am hearing from all those Chabad Rabbis. A little light pushes away a lot of darkness. Or the “we fight evil with goodness and kindness” and a plethora of other Chamberlain-ian responses? I get that they mean well, but wouldn’t they be better off learning from history and getting gun licenses and other aggressive proactive efforts?

Sorry for taking your precious time,Gd, but I really need your help understanding all of this.

Dear Son,

Oh my son, you are so wise and you ask such difficult questions, but I won’t shy away from your tough questions. If I am truly the father that you see me to be, I will guide and instruct, and hug and cry with you, in every scenario I will do what I deem to be the right response for that time.

Today, I will hug you for your fear. I will cry with you for the loss of dear Lori and the Rabbi and those injured in Poway. I will remind you to be responsible and protect yourself and your Chabad Centers as the responsible people that you are.

However, I want to answer your last question. I want to remind you, that your Rebbe, my trusted servant answered this already, and I am only going to remind you what he already communicated.

There was a time in history, that the modus operandi was that you fight evil with evil, and only once evil is vanquished can you start to focus on the good.

The classic chassidic analogy had been when dealing with sin. “You don’t bring furniture into the house, while the house is still dirty.” Or as it relates to this discussion, you can’t work on spreading love and light until you have crushed the enemy of love and light.

We live in a different time. We live in a pre-messianic era where the rules of the game have changed. Not simply because I willed it so, but because after generations of constant beating at the evil, the evil HAS been softened. We build on that, or sustain our accomplishments and even further our work by doing those acts of goodness and light. That is the radiation that doesn’t allow the cancer to come back.

(Even if today it doesn’t appear so. Today you are hurting, but next week, when you have had a chance to process a bit and see the world through different lenses, you will see that there is an immense amount of goodness out there. There is care for the wounded, programs for those with physical and emotional challenges. There are nations who are dedicated to not only promoting peace and democracy in their own borders but around the world. The world IS a better place.)

So, all those Chabad Soldiers, my Shluchim, from Peabody, to Poway, from Kathmandu to Crown Heights, they are correct. You no longer need to wait until you have banished evil to promote light. Do a good deed, and it further melts a softening evil world. Light a Shabbat Candle and the darkness that gets banished is not just the physical darkness in that room, but the darkness in our souls and the souls of those who have true deep seated darkness.

That greatest mistake would be to allow your questions, to stop you from being the beacon of light I created you to be. You have a job, you have a responsibility, to be brave, even while scared, to convey this message to the world. Your Rebbe did it since 1951. He is counting on you to keep on doing it.

It’s not a slogan, it’s not a cliche, it is a fact. Random acts of kindness, little acts of light, do indeed combat evil and darkness.

Farewell my son, I hope not to see your tear streaked face knocking at my door ever again. Let’s meet at our other happy and uplifting gatherings.

In fact, lets meet at Shul this Friday night or Shabbat?

Blog 30 of 52

Merging Worlds

I first met the family some 7 years ago, when I was called to perform a bris on their newborn son.  A mutual friend had connected us, and was agreeable to do the bris, regardless of what they could pay.

I recall finding it interesting at the time, how a family that had been intermarried so many times, the women’s husband was not Jewish nor was her dad, still cared that a bris be done, and by an orthodox Rabbi/Mohel no less.

I chalked it up to a line I heard my uncle (Schwartzie) say often, that during the three major lifecycle events of a person’s life, even super secular non practicing Jews, reconnect with their roots. Hatch, match and dispatch. Birth, marriage and death.

I basically forgot about them until a few years later I got another call, that my mohel services were once again needed. I noted how the grandmother of the baby, was not present at bris one, but was at bris two. I was told that she was not well and didn’t think much more of it.

A few years later, (at this point, we were friends on facebook) I realized that baby one is now Hebrew School age eligible. So I reached out, and not long thereafter, child one joined our Hebrew School.

With time, the friendship developed and we got to know each other better, they spent a shabbat meal with us, and they were now in the orbit of our Chabad and lives. Making friends with other Hebrew school families and I was able to monitor their Jewish continuity, whether it was Chanukah or other Jewish holidays and activities.

Then I received a message, grandma, the one who missed bris one, and who had battled illness for the past 20 years had passed very unexpectedly. Can I help?

Of course I agreed to do whatever I could and thought nothing more of it.

When the funeral home called to confirm my availability I immediately agreed, and said yes, of course. That was until, I got the details.

She said, you are an orthodox Rabbi, so I assume you will want Taharah (ritual cleansing of the deceased – a very important part of the burial process) done? Yes, of course I said.

However, the woman from the funeral home said, that the family who were not practicing/observant Jews,and the husband who was married to the deceased, was a fine Italian man, and didn’t see the need or value in the Tahaha. Since it was all so sudden, the expenses were huge and unexpected. They didn’t see a need for the extra expense.

That made sense to me, so I offered, to trade my Rabbi’s honorarium for the Taharah. That would cover the cost with a bit to spare. The woman at the funeral home was so moved by the gesture and the fact that it was so important to me, agreed to co-sponsor the Taharah.

Problem one, solved.

Then in going over the details, she said that the service would be held at the Chapel, and the internment at the xxxxx Lawn Cemetery. I was not super familiar with that cemetery, but I knew it was not a Jewish cemetery. This again presented a halachik issue.

Not wanting to hurt or distance this family that we’d had come quite close with, I asked for some time to do some homework. I then made a flurry of phone calls, until I reached one of the top experts in this area of Jewish Law, R. E. Zuhn, and was given a special exemption based on various factors and assuming I be be able to put a few things in place. With this matter resolved, we were able to proceed.

I later met with the family, and as we went over a few details about the funeral, and reviewed the life of the deceased, it was clear, that everyone (the family, the funeral home, and myself) had joined together to ensure that this woman be buried in the holiest of manners possible.

Next on the agenda shiva. The family intended to spend a couple days sitting shiva, in whatever manner that was meant to be. However, making a minyan and saying Kaddish was certainly not on the agenda.

As Hashgocha protis (Divine Providence) would have it, I had yarhtzeit for my mother on the day of the funeral. I myself was having trouble putting together a minyan for mincha, as it had to be concluded earlier than many finish their work day.

I suggested that we merge forces, and do a shiva and yahrtzeit minyan at their home after the funeral.

They had the men needed for my minyan, and they were fine with saying Kaddish, and they were already assembling that afternoon. I needed to say Kaddish as well so everyone would gain.

Indeed, this is what we did. I gave a few basic instructions of what was needed for them to do, and the minyan began. Many of the minyan barely knew of or identified with their Jewish identity, but all donned Yamukah’s and said Amen at the appropriate places.

As I left the Shiva house a bit later, I reflected at the magnitude of what just took place.

You had two worlds, that seemed so diverse with no apparent areas for intersection, yet, when all was said and done, not only had we gotten together for mitzva, but we had crossed that narrow bridge that divides the orthodox religious world, and that less observant world, and managed to meet, and join, for the greater good of both.

I imagined the Baal Shem Tov and Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Barditchev, two of the greatest lovers of the Jewish people, looking at this ragtag group of Jewish in suburban Boston, joining forces for the greater good of the Jewish people and then grinning happily with broad smiles on their faces as they witness the fulfillment of Ahavas Yisroel at its greatest.

May the soul of Chaya Bina Bas Yitzchok be bound in the bond of life!

Blog 29/52

Knock out his teeth – Chabad’s Secret of Love

As we near Passover, there are two major events that mark the Jewish calendar. One is the birthday of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the lover of Jews, unparalleled since Moshe Rabeinu and the Baal Shem Tov, and we prepare for the Seder. As the noise and sounds in the kitchen die down, we can focus on the Haggada and all the rich text. The words of the Haggada so precise, rich and flavored, they match the kugels and kneidelach in their savory depth.

Perhaps the most frustrating passage in the Haggada is the line, to “knock out,” or “blunt”the teeth of the wicked son who doesn’t appreciate what is going on at the Seder.

Here is the text:

The wicked son, what does he say? “What is this service to you?”7 [By saying,] “to you,” [he implies]: “but not to himself.” Since he has excluded himself from the people at large, he denies the foundation of our faith.

Therefore, you should blunt his teeth and tell him: ….. “Had he been there, he would not have been redeemed.”

The frustration is, what gives? Ok, he doesn’t know what’s going on? Or perhaps, he doesn’t like what’s going on, so he takes himself out of the community and thus we are told to knock out his teeth? We add insult to injury by telling him, that had he been there in Egypt he would have not been redeemed? Rather harsh, don’t you think?

Certainly, the Rebbe, the Baal Shem Tov, the lovers of the Jewish people cannot be ok, with such harsh treatment of this “wicked son”? He is clearly hurting or unhappy about something, so he is acting out. Beating him, and telling him that he would have not been saved had he had this pugnacious attitude back in the day, is not going to motivate him or bring him back into the fold? 

Particularly, in today’s world of “safe spaces,” and – appropriate – hypersensitivity to those who are struggling, we need to approach these “at risk” youth with a different approach than our parents generation who would deliver a “frask” – Yiddish for a spanking, and expect things to improve. That may have worked for that generation, but does not work for ours.

So what gives?

I’ve heard this critical question explained thus, and I am channeling my inner student of the Rebbe, to present what I think his sentiments would be, using my verbiage. 

There is rarely such a thing as a wicked child, or a wicked Jew. It happens, but it is too rare for the Haggada to spend it’s precious space addressing. What the Haggada is talking about, is the child who behavior is wicked but his core, the neshama, the soul, is pure. It is not able to be contaminated. So you have a pure soul, that has gotten caught up in something that is making them act out in a way that appears wicked. 

For some it’s an abusive home, others an abusive experience by a teacher, friend or family member, others is the Gd given gift/challenge of emotional difficulties and demons that they need to battle. For other its a traumatic experience, the loss of a loved one or any other crisis that creates frustration, pain and suffering. 

What they all have in common, is that they are not at peace with themselves. This child (either literal or figurative child) is suffering. They are hurting and don’t have the tools to work through the situation on their own. So their “behavior” looks like the wicked son. However, their soul/essence remains as pure as their holy wise and righteous wise brother.

The words “Since he has excluded himself from the people…” is a statement about how this suffering child feels about those around him who he hoped he could have relied on to help him through his struggle. He feels excluded by the world, so he excludes himself.

The Haggada then advises us what we must do to fix the situation. Blunt his teeth. NO, don’t knock them out, and beat him further, Gd forbid, but blunt them, grind down the sharp edges, soften the poisonous vitriolic anger and angst this child is struggling with. 

Love him, hug him, embrace him and remove the the sense of exclusion from the community of family and peoplehood that he thinks he does not belong to and has removed himself from (incorrectly).  Let him know that he is not only a part of the family but an integral piece. So much so, that the obligation to do the Seder – “vi’higadita li’bincha – you shall tell your children” – cannot be completed without him. 

I need YOU my dear son. Despite your pain and hurt, I need you, I want you. You are important. Maybe even more important than your other siblings. 

Engage him, help him see his eternal value and worth. Show him how you cannot be complete without him. Show him how much he matters. Then you will have removed some of the bitterness that he is feeling and will have begun to help him heal. You will have helped him reach his person redemption, from his personal Egypt. You will have helped him realize that he belongs and needs only to adjust his behavior to become one with soul, his essence and his true and ultimate worth.

He was hurt by life, let’s show him some compassion and show him how life is really very good. This is what is meant by blunt his teeth. Soften his blows, and show him his own beauty. Show him, that he too is the wise and righteous son at his core. 

This is hinted in the numerology in the term “blunt his teeth.

Rasha/Wicked (son) = 570 
Tzadik/Rightous (son) = 204 
Shinav/Teeth = 366

If you take the “Shinav/teeth – 366, the bitterness/anger/sadness/pain/frustration away from the the Rasha/Wicked -570 – the pained and struggling child, you are left with Tzadik/Righteous – 204. A calm and at peace child who is ready to heal and embrace their inner awesomeness!

***

This is how the Rebbe looked a “rasha.” He said, let’s show them how beautiful they are. Let’s introduce them to their neshamah, their truest essence and then the misbehavior and negative self imaging will fall away.

Thank you Rebbe for your novel approach to seeing life and showing it in every aspect of Torah. You are balm for a hurting world. 

We, your students miss you, and will continue to endeavor to keep you legacy of positivity and optimism alive!

Happy Birthday!

Credit @theyeshiva.net & Rabbi YYJacobson

Blog 28/52

Dear Mommy

Dear Mommy,

It has been 33 years now, and we are celebrating yet another yarhtzeit. It’s sad, its happy, its life. There is a strange feeling that descends on me each year on yarhtzeit. It is an angst of sorts, though that is not a perfect description. It’s a reflective feeling, but an active feeling.

I am not quite sure. A part of me wants to run around the room like a 4 year old having a full blown tantrum, crying that it is so unfair! I want to pound the floor, and scream at the top of my lungs? Not fair, not fair.

On the other hand, I am not only too old for that, but I have had too much therapy to know that this is narcissistic and self-pity, and for me, certainly at this stage of my life, would be foolish and pointless. In fact, perhaps a bit damaging.

The other part of me that, is at (relative) peace all year long with your being gone, that has accepted that this is what is. That this is Gd’s will. That this has made me grow up. That this has molded me into a better, more compassionate human being, and all these other (true) cliches and platitudes, is just not accepting of that today.

So what am I to do? I can’t have a tantrum, but I am not a peace? I picked a fight with everyone in my immediate area, and that didn’t help distract me. I don’t smoke dope, so that’s off the table. I did mishnayos last night, but that too didn’t settle me. So what am I to do?

I know what I am going to do, and that is to distract myself, with a funeral (that happened to have fallen out today), a shiva house, making a mincha minyan in the Peabodian boondocks, hand out as much matza as people will take and other “acts of goodness and kindness.”

All of these will do me good, and be good deeds, but they won’t and don’t settle that hole deep inside.

I will reach out to my siblings and wish them all a long life, and I will wait impatiently for this day to end, and let what has become my new normal to return to my life.

I will still be upset by the celebrations that you missed. The wife that you never met. The grandchildren you never hugged. The advice you never gave. The shoulder that was not there for crying on. The fact that I didn’t see you kvelling in Atlanta last week at your first grandchild’s wedding.

I will still be frustrated that I have no idea if I was vaccinated against the measles and given a booster, since my immunization records are missing, and my father’s memory doesn’t work for things like this. (I don’t blame him, mine doesn’t either register this kind of info.)

I will still miss you when the normal has returned, and I will go back to relegating your passing to a painful piece of the past that I have figured out how to work within.

But today, for one day a year, I will again, tantrum on the inside, smile on the outside, and behave like an adult even if I feel so so sad on the inside.

I miss you mommy. Happy Yartzeit

Blog 27/52

Why I hate Pesach – The pain of confronting reality

Ok, sorry for that shocking name of the article, but here goes. I hate Pesach. There, I said it. No, it is not for all the cleaning needed. Though, that really is not my favorite thing, I can handle that. It isn’t even the exorbitant spike in my credit card bill as this holiday comes and goes, though that too is not my favorite thing. The reason I hate Pesach is because to really do it right, you need to confront your chometz/leaven. You need to look inside yourself, and let’s face it, who like doing that?

Let me explain.

We will soon be gathered around the table talking about the four sons, and this is often an emotional call to parents to explore their success and failure as a parent, as to which “kind” of son they did/are raise.

I have four sons, but they are all the righteous one, so for me this is merely an exercise in theory. Seriously though, I think there is powerful conversation to be had here. Indulge me for a moment here.

***

Parenting, which comes with no manual, is amongst the highest on the list of difficult things.

It often seems that regardless of what is going on, we are not getting it right. Are our kids happy? If not, why not? If they are, we ask ourselves other questions, all in an effort to to attain perfection for them, and thus for ourselves. Why aren’t they more driven and motivated? And if they are, we look for something else. We work ourselves to the bone trying to make them happy, and most often, our efforts to improve things are met with responses like, “just mind your own business” or “stay out of my life!” So, what is going on?

My book on parenting is coming out, so for a more thorough deep dive into this, you are going to have to wait for the book, but for now, let these paragraphs suffice.

I recently listened to a podcast in which Dr. Phil, of the famous Dr. Phil Show, was being interviewed. Most of what he said was common sense, including what struck me, perhaps the simple Southern way in which he said it, finally made it click for me.

He described a scenario that often comes up in his show, where there is a 30-something-year-old, living at home, abusing various substances, and parents are frustrated and don’t know what to do with their failing child/adult.

He continued, that often there is a complex situation, with traumas and other mental health disorders that require delicate handling, but more often the situation is quite simple and easy to explain and fix. The parents don’t want to live with the worry that their child is on the streets, perhaps being taken advantage of, perhaps they are cold, perhaps they may take their substance abuse to its (G-d forbid) worst case scenario. So rather than feel all that fear, the parents will provide their child with a roof over their head, food to eat, a cell phone to call – just in case of emergency – and pay for the insurance on their car – because Gd forbid they will have a car accident and be arrested or be on the hook for major financial obligations – etc.

Basically, they are anxious about the child’s anxiety.

In truth though, in that scenario, the parents “helping” their kid are not doing their child any favor. (They are selfishly only trying to do themselves a favor. The favor of a less anxious night’s sleep, and hurting their kid in the process.)

Kids want to be parented and pushed. They crave boundaries and borders. When they say, back off, what they may often be really saying is, I need some space to figure out all these feelings I feel inside. So please allow me some time to process what you just said or did, while I work this out on my own. I want to be an adult someday too, and I can’t get there if you are always butting in.

They often don’t have the words to express those intense and unfamiliar feelings, but they don’t want us to simply do things for them, so that we can have tranquility for ourselves.

Often it is our own anxiety that is steering the ship of “help” on their choppy waters. If so, we are are actually not saving them, we are making it worse.

I wonder, and that is all this is, me wondering, if this is what is going on in our lives, as viewed from Gd’s perspective. Perhaps our pain, parenting, faith, health, or any other challenge, is the pain of growth. Perhaps the things that appear difficult, are the things that are exactly what we need, and like our children, we need training to push through. These are the challenges we are facing, and simply surviving, will make us thrivers?

Perhaps, the goal is only to make us better and stronger, and while it feels painful down, here, it is really the growing pains of a full and meaningful existence?

(To be clear, this doesn’t make it less painful while we are in it, and crying and kvetching is normal and the healthy reaction usually, but it is not a destination in itself.)

***

The Passover season, the story, and the modern day program of Passover is filled with so much investment of time, energy and emotion. Sometimes we wonder if all the hassle is worth it? I am suggesting, perhaps it is a part of the process of growing up as a people; mimicking our growing up as a human, as a child. We need to feel the pain of childhood to grow and become an adult. Perhaps, in fact, this is the essence of Pesach? The journey to be free? This is perhaps the deeper meaning of the struggle of the four sons?

So you want to know, why I hate Pesach? Because, confronting these real world ideas, is as real as it gets. When we talk about searching for chometz and getting rid of it, it means to not only rid ourselves of our physical chometz, but of our internal chometz. Our struggles and worries. To get rid of it, you have to look for it, find it, fix it and dispose of it. Now who wants to do that?

Having said that, I would not trade it in for anything. Once you have confronted your chometz, there is no better feeling than that. (Oh, and don’t worry, there will be a new batch of chometz right after Pesach.)

Blog 26/52 Picture credit beartales.me

On Turning 40-Something

When are you old? I remember being a kid in Shul and seeing some of the “old people” in the Shul with white hair and thinking, wow, those people are old. Then, as I grew up a bit, and looked at those same people from the vantage point  of a 30-something-year-old, and thinking wow, those people are really old. Realizing, that when I thought they were old as a child, they may have looked old to me, but they were clearly not that old. Which exacerbates my question?

When are you old?

So when do you get old? When your hair starts or turns white? Uh oh, in that case I am in trouble. That started a few years ago and has only picked up speed. My children will often point out more whites on my head or beard, or comment as I krechtz (groan), when I will get up after sitting in the same position for a while, that, oh man, you are really old.

Now, I know that I am not old. Based on average life expectancy, I am barely middle aged. So what does it mean to be old? Are you old when you slow down in certain areas? Are you old when you can no longer run those 4 miles in under 10 minutes a mile? Are you older when your body starts getting older? Or is there more to the the term “old” than the bodily experience?

If I have good genes, and my hair stays jet black until I am 70, and I am in good physical health and I can run marathons in my 80’s, does that mean I am forever young?

My step mother often says a good line. What is the opposite of old? And everyone answers, young! Then she carefully corrects them and says, nope. The opposite of old is new.

That my friends is the answer!

You are old when you stop becoming new. When you stop being creative, stop being open to new ideas and things. When you will no longer exit your comfort zone to grow as a person, thinker, doer etc. When you are no longer willing to be new at something, introduce something new into your life, then you become old.


There are some very biologically old people who I know who are still reinventing themselves and in this way, they are still young and energetic, full of life and vigor.

On the flip side, there are many younger people who have stopped growing. They are completely at peace with where they are at. Financially, socially, spiritually and behaviorally. They do seem to be at ease. Free of worry and angst. They don’t fret, as they are in a state of tranquility, but still, they are old. They may be young in their years, and young in their body, but they are old in their being, as they refuse to be new.

So, as I continue deeper into my 40’s and more whites start appearing, I still sweat the small stuff, I still spend too much time worrying about things that I know at this point I have no power to control. I am frustrated that at this point in my life I am still not mature enough to have surpassed many of these things. However, there is one thing I do know for sure, I am not old. I am still trying new things. I am not sitting and calmly smoking a pipe on my rocking chair. There too many more mountains to conquer, to many new things I need to do or at least try.

So, no matter my age, I am definitely still not old.

L’chayim to never being old.

Blog 25/52 – Picture Credits – Clip art

No one said life was going to be easy. A Purim Soliloquy

I was chatting with a family member, who was venting about some of the burdens of their life. Nothing earth shattering, but enough sleep deprivation, cranky kids, and a tight budget were enough that they were on edge.

I did my empathic listening, and mirroring, and tried to just be a friend in a time of their need when I realized that they, myself, and really many (all?) of us have this incorrect perception that if fixed, really solves a lot of problems.

Why are we kvetching? No one said life was going to be easy!

There is a notion out there, pushed unintentionally by millennial’s, but in some senses believed by all, that we are entitled to, and can expect that life will be good and easy. Then when life does not turn out that way, in fact, we are disappointed and let down.

I turned to that family member and said, we are under this misperception that life is supposed to be easier. Who said so? Perhaps life is supposed to be difficult? Or at least the notion that it shouldn’t be as difficult as it is, at times, is just false?

With Purim just around the bend (easily my favorite holiday), we find a parallel and a very clear life lesson, I believe.

To sum up the story of Purim, as the old jokesters like to say, they tried to kill us, Esther saved us, lets eat, and drink and be merry. So merry, in fact, that the Code of Jewish Law instructs us to imbibe to the point that we cannot distinguish between blessed Mordechai and cursed is Haman.

Wow, that has got to be the greatest of miracles, and happiest of occasions, for the law to instruct us to celebrate and tell how hard to pound back the drinks!

Yet, if you look at the story, after the dust settles, and the genocidal pogrom is averted, things are not all that pretty in Shushan. 

Esther is still in a loveless marriage, married to the ogre Achashveirosh, the Jews are still under his dominion. The Temple has not been rebuilt, there are no choirs of beautiful people singing into our ears as unicorns fly distributing candy to one and all.

Rain (or snow if you live near me) still falls, the sun is still hidden behind clouds at times and there are dark dreary days, and things are just not perfect?

Is this the great celebration that our sages teach us about? Is the bar for happiness so low, that not-being-killed is cause for over-the-top celebration? Shouldn’t we be celebrating all that is good (amazing) in our lives, not the lack of our being eradicated?

In fact, that Talmud tells us that Akati Avdi D’achashveirosh Anan – We were still servants to Achashveirosh, once the story was over, which is (one of the reasons) why we don’t say Hallel on this holiday.

So what gives?

My supposition. Yup, no on said life was going to be easy. In fact, often it is going to be super hard. But there is always a silver lining to find and hold onto. 

Yes, Esther’s life was still pretty lousy even after she saved the Jewish people, but she chose to focus on what was good in her life. Her rough circumstances enabled her to become a major player on the world scene and save her brethren. Even if she wasn’t to have the marriage to a great Torah scholar like her uncle Mordechai, with a bunch of little cute chassidic kids singing Shabbat songs at her table on friday nights.

We too must find a way to find that silver lining in our lives. Or as that relative who I was chatting with said to me.

Thank Gd I have a great marriage. It’s because I have such a great partner, that I can get through my tough child rearing challenges. I add, perhaps, be thankful that you have children. Many others don’t have even that, as much as they pine for children. 

Here is the bottom line. No one ever promised us an easy life. All that we are told, is that if you have a win, no matter how large or small, it is a cause for a celebration. It’s worthy of writing a Megilla about it, and being grateful and merry.

Even if after the dust settles, there is still pain and suffering in imperfection in your life. There is always a silver lining to hold onto, to make things a bit more manageable.

Esther teaches us many lessons. Perhaps the greatest of which is to focus on what is right in your life, not what isn’t!

It will make you a lot happier with your lot.  

Blog 24/52

My Day At Driver Rehabilitation School

Ok, lets face it. We all mess around a bit behind the wheel, unless you are like my grandmother (who never actually did drive). Some people occasionally will text (Oy) others will go a teeny bit over the speed limit, and others may forget to get their inspection sticker done in the requisite time.

It is shameful indeed. But here here is the worst of it, Rabbi’s too are guilty of this, at least this rabbi is. Well, it finally came time to pay the piper. Thus I found myself in class at the Massachusetts Driver Retraining Course earlier this week.

In fairness, I did learn a lot that day. Most driving related, (but since I am prohibited by law to share any actual course material) I will share some of my own driving reflections and some of the other funnies that comprised my day.

For starters, the eclectic makeup of the group is a story unto itself. (I’ll get back to that in a moment.) When asked to share what brought you here today, the answer ranged from expired inspection stickers, and speeding tickets, to too many insurance surcharges which is what brought me in.

The winning answers however were for sure the gal who admitted that she had hit a parked car on the street and saw no one so she drove home, only to find out that the car she hit was her neighbors’. Or the guy that had not had his license since 2007, and was involved in high speed chases (plural) to avoid getting arrested. He failed. He was arrested.

There was a break out session, where we had to split into groups to problem solve, and I learned that I could be as intersectional as the next. Our group consisted of a bearded yalmukah’d rabbi, and golden chain wearing gang banger, to a very pierced up young woman, and not so well dressed, and very tattooed mechanic. We passed our little test with flying colors.

***

The teacher was pleasant and focused but she was all business. She threatened that if you are even one minute late to class, after a recess or lunch break, you will not be allowed back in, or if she couldn’t see your eyeballs – you dozed off – that you’d get an automatic fail, and have to retake the class.

Well, she was true to her word. There are two folks who will be redoing this class for one of each said offenses.

Lesson: Rules are rules.

***

Being the diligent student that I am, I of course had pencil in hand ready for important notes to be taken. Invariably I found myself writing some of the funnies as well. Some comments included the following.

“I drive really good drunk.”

“I haven’t been in prison in over ten years.”

“I don’t get tickets, my problem is driving on a suspended license.”

***

On a more serious note, since the above funnies, are really not very funny. Peoples lives are at stake. The Ba’al Shem Tov teaches that whatever situation we are in there is a lesson to be learned (and shared), so here are a handful of what I will call fun facts, though they are more like real truths.

The Left lane is ticket lane.
If you don’t submit to a breathalyzer you lose your license for 180 days.
Just because you get there first, doesn’t mean you get to go first.
Saying the name “Nechemia” correctly is not possible for people without a Semitic background.
The aggressive move is a ticket-able offense.
The only one who can control your behavior behind wheel is YOU!
Slow down, no emergency will be resolved if you are dead.
Better late alive than dead on time.

In closing, while driver rehabilitation school was not what I had in mind for the day, every one occasionally needs a “wake up call” and this was one for me.

It was educational and informative, but most importantly, to taught me, to quote the instructor, “Slow down Rabbi, and put your phone down, the world needs you and your sermons.” (That’s a direct quote – I didn’t add anything of my own in that quote :-))

SLOW DOWN AND PUT DOWN THE PHONE! (I am talking to myself, and anyone else who wants to listen in.)

Blog 23/52 Photo Credit My Iphone X

Stuck – Getting Out of Ourselves

I recently watched a YouTube (not sure how it came to my attention) of a fellow who tried to commit suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge.

It was a sad story of a fellow who was struggling with a deep depression and he describes how all he wanted was for the pain to end.

He took a bus to the bridge, and described how no one, not even the driver or fellow passengers cared how miserable he was, no one even asked him if he was ok. He was hoping someone would just acknowledge him, or ask him how he was doing, but alas, everyone was busy with their own lives.

The moment he leaped off the bridge, he continued, “all I wanted to do was live.” Well he did live. When he was fished out of the water by the Coast Guard, they told him how lucky he was, despite his completely broken body. “We fish out some 60-70 bodies a year, and they are all dead. You are the first one I’ve ever pulled out who was alive. GO LIVE! You have a lot to live for.


This fellow turned his life around and is now a motivational speaker and encourages people to find what they DO have to live for. He also encourages people look around them, and see the people next to them. If they seem agitated, ask them how they are doing.

***

Last night, I was in BIG Y picking up drinks and other supplies for this weeks Shabbat Dinner. There was a fellow behind me on the line hopping from foot to foot, looking agitated and sad. Red and tearing eyes, and seemed out of sorts.

I saw that he had one item and I had a whole conveyor belt of stuff and offered him to cut the line ahead of me. After refusing a few times he thanked me and did so.

As he was fumbling for his payment, he still seemed so sad, so I asked him if everything was OK. He kind of half nodded and cried a bit harder.
I said, “hey, can I help? I am a rabbi, I don’t know if you are even Jewish, but I do help people, perhaps I can help?”
He walked over to me, shook my hand, and said, “pray for me rabbi, just pray for me”

***

He left the store, and I wondered what the end of the story was.
Was he so down on his luck that perhaps, like in the YouTube, I may have saved his life?
Was just in the midst of a bad break-up and this was a non-event? Who knows? I certainly would never know the end of the story? I thought that was end of it, and hurried to our Chabad House to give my Torah class before I was late.
***
Well, I got home from class later last night and the following email was waiting for me.

Hello Rabbi Nechemia, My name is xxxx, and I was the guy purchasing flowers at Big Y tonight. I found this email on google and wanted to reach out and thank you again. There is no doubt I had a hard day.I spent most of the day with my mother at the hospital. She is currently battling cancer and has been going through chemo treatments since October.Today was hard for her and she was sad and crying for a lot of the visit. Most of my energy was spent trying to keep her positive and happy.After I left the hospital my first stop was Big Y to buy flowers. The flowers I purchased were for my girlfriend and her mother. 9 years ago today my girlfriend lost her father to cancer. From what she’s told me about him, and stories I’ve heard from family and friends, he was a kind man who went out of his way to do nice things for people, even if he didn’t know them. When you offered to let me go in front of you, as well as offered to help I could tell you truly meant it. It was a pretty special moment. So that you know I’m not in need of help, but your offer and kind deed to a stranger was much appreciated and made my day a lot better.
Thank you
xxx xxxx
P.s I think I have the right Rabbi.
***
So, you never know. Just ask… Sometimes, you will save a physical life, another time you may just help a struggling fellow human being having a difficult day, and sometimes you may be asked to mind your own business.
The reality is we are (self) absorbed with our own lives, our own problems, and our own to-do lists. Life is busier than ever before and there just isn’t space for extra things on our plate.


The fact of the matter is, despite apps like InBoxZero and other things meant to give us more time, there never is enough time. So the endless to do list will remain without a few check marks.

However, if we are so stuck in ourselves that we cannot see another, and try to help, we will miss out on those once in a lifetime opportunities to make a difference forever.

Blog post 22/52 Photo Credits – Huffington Post