Friday, March 22, 2019

Yomim Toivim

“This month will be the beginning of the months for you”
In the middle of the first month it was declared to us that we are independent people.
Released from bondage by other human beings we are now in the position to take the route of our own choice, to shape our own future.
The hints where to go were given, but to get the tool to complete freedom, it takes some work; some preparation. We got 50 days to climb the steps to be worthy of the treasure, we got the guidebook to freedom. Now we have freedom not from other human beings, but freedom from ourselves, our own earthly character.
Freedom engraved-written on the Tablets containing as the sages explain, all of the Toira.
Engraving and freedom spells the same way in Hebrew.
We said “Naaseh ve nishma” – “We will do, and we will listen”.
This declaration and readiness from our side was unprecedented and still is unprecedented but the gloomy days and weeks of summer came, and we lost it, we messed up.
The Awakening came later in the summer. We made a cheshboin haneifesh - the introspection and its culmination came after a month of preparation at the beginning of the civil year, on Rosh Choidesh Tishrei, when we accept once more the Sovereignty of the King.
We made a proper attempt to see ourselves in our full misery and after ten days in anguish we came to ask for forgiveness.
It was granted to us.
Now we were ready to renew our bond to the Giver of life, so we showed our complete trust going out and living without physical protection for seven days.
By dwelling in flimsy structures without a real roof we declared to our Father in heaven and to humanity our confidence and conviction that He is the one who protect us from any harm, and we can’t be harmed unless He withdraw His protection. But we knew that it is ultimately in our own hands. Our deeds have a power to alternate this protection, i.e. we may, in our madness ruin the pledge of His shield.
At this moment of the calendar however, we are too high to fail and after the affliction and cure of Av, Elul and Tishrei we come back to the Source, and once more in the year we take the gift of Torah to dance with in excitement, to learn the steps of the ultimate dance of existence
But first we must understand that it is not an easy task, that besides our own physical corruptive powers there are also outside influences. We must see it in clarity that to fulfill our individual and national task we must carefully separate ourselves from foreign persuasions.
We don’t withdraw from the general society to achieve this, quite the opposite, we declare to the public our confidence in our own values and the power of light invested in us. We declare the readiness to serve the rest of humanity sharing the guidelines to achieve a bond with the Creator, a bond that is uncorrupted by human imagination.
If we achieve this level of understanding…another holiday is given to us, almost at the end of the year, a holiday closing the cycle and concluding the path we stepped on still as slaves.
This one is a true gift, it reveals all what was hidden till now. And the name of the Book that we are reading on this day is precisely such “Megilas Esther” - “Revelation of the Hidden”.
Of course, to get to the heights of this last Yom Tiv we must properly follow and prepare ourselves through all the days preceding Purim. Otherwise we will experience a superficial day of rigid commandments with a slight taste of fun.
What we will miss is the understanding of what the mask is really hiding, what is the true character of reality.
Mathematics, chemistry, biology and music are declaring unfathomable harmony in every aspect of the creation, a harmony impossible without the hidden hand of the Creator.
Theoretical physics are telling us that all three-dimensional surroundings exist against the very same laws that keep this world in existence; that what we see, and experience is nothing but a mask showing or declaring existence but behind the mask there is Truth. Hints of it is given to us in the form of this mask.
If you are not ready for them, you don’t have to go to Sifrey Kabula to understand, that this world is just a virtual reality serving one and only purpose – to find the way back to Eden.

Monday, March 4, 2019

From Alturas to San Francisco, or from San Francisco to Alturas?


In my previous essay I suggested to look for this writing as it is also inspired by the city of San Francisco.
I wrote this essay four years ago but for some unknown reason, I never had it published.
So …here it is:

California is not the state where I usually work. Nevertheless, I was quite happy to find myself in that state at a time when my fellow New Yorkers were experiencing a few weeks of snow blizzards, followed by ice storms.
Alturas is a town that has quite a distance from any other town and requires at least a two hours’ drive to or from its nearest neighbor. Due to the higher altitude, it can be quite cold over there. In Spanish, Alturas means ‘higher place.’
Interestingly, the main route, Route 59, in my home town of Monsey shares the name with this Californian, predominantly Bask and Native American settlement. But Route 59 in NY is quite flat and its altitude is not too high, geographically speaking. I guess something else puts Monsey on a higher plane.
The day after I left Alturas the town was shut down due to a tribal dispute that took the lives of four individuals.
A few days later I was at a business meeting in a store in downtown San Francisco.
While my customer perused my merchandise, I observed the street through the front glass window. Maybe 25 feet in front of my line of vision, there was a fellow seated on the sidewalk. With worn clothing and tired eyes, this unusually skinny Caucasian man in his mid twenties was sitting there without any support to his back. Somebody brought him some cookies to eat, but what he was doing there was simply watching. Watching a busy street of a big city. People were rushing in all directions, cars were passing by, trolleys were ringing their bells while making squeaky noises on the tracks that were barely visible upon the pavement of the street.
He was seated there and just watching.
That could have been me a little bit over thirty years ago. In a politically different reality but a visually similar tableau, people were walking, running, and chasing something that they will never manage to catch in their lifetimes.
In the brief hippie period of my life, I used to sit on the sidewalk or in the mall or at a train station and just watch. I studied people’s walks and tried to understand where all of them were going and where I myself should go.
Now, on that street in San Francisco, a few groups of hippies passed whose appearances were vastly familiar to me. They looked like relics of the sixties, with long hair, loose garish clothing, and badly in need of a shower. I was sadly reminded of my own hippie phase. For a while, I saw being a flower child as an alternative to the conformist society in which the individual didn’t really count and in which rules were forms of restriction.
There I sat in the San Francisco business district, a part of the soulless business world. Am I soulless? I would be, if not for those memories and whole new set of convictions.

Then I noticed someone on the street going from business to business, even stopping passersby on the sidewalk. In a plastic cup he had something that looked like a piece of worthless polished brass, but apparently, he thought he had some precious metal to sell. In his daydream, perhaps this man already counted the money he earned from his sale and imagined all it would buy him. But in reality, everyone else saw something very different in this object of his affection. While he saw treasure in his cup, they saw only a cupful of despair.
I looked at the man, but he couldn’t return my glance, for his eyes kept shifting in all directions. They could not stop and focus on anything for longer than a second. He was on drug hunger; his young but plowed-with-pain face showed everything. There was no human anymore inside of that human-looking shell, but just an animal chasing after something which would fill the emptiness that caused him to look for artificial happiness in the first place. But now, the very result of the chemical consciousness enhancements was this vacuum - a vacuum of humanness, a vacuum of self-consciousness, a vacuum of anything but the animalistic hunger. He was not chasing after a moment of happiness anymore; now he was only chasing after a moment of forgetfulness, in his desire to kill the pain.

I remember from the shiurim of Rabbi Avigdor Miller zt'l, when he often spoke about our Tzelem Elokim. He said that most people still maintain their Tzelem Elokim – their likeness to G-d - which gives them the potential to climb toward a higher spiritual experience and ultimately to higher spiritual existence. But it was clear from his statement that there are also some two-legged, vertical standing creatures that have lost it.
I didn’t understand it then, I didn’t ask, even though I could have submitted my question anonymously on a piece of paper, as it was customary to give to Rabbi Miller after his shiur. To this day, I still don’t know exactly what he meant.
Is it possible for a human being to lose it all? To lose his soul?
Rashi says clearly that what makes us different from other Nefesh Chai is our intellect and speech. But intellect and speech are only two of the tools to the greatest gift of our Creator – free choice. It is free choice which empowers our Tzelem Elokim. Intellect, along with our means of communication, is just the necessary apparatus without which choice would be impossible.
Are there any Bnai Adam – children of man - who lost the ability for free choice?
I would imagine that a person like the one I described a few lines above is such an individual; but can I say it with certainty?
No. I can’t.
Neither I, nor any other human being has the tools to evaluate the balance between chemical intoxication and the intoxication of our DNA, hormones, and other natural factors which our decisions are influenced by.
We don’t have the tools to measure someone else’s level of intellect to ascertain if it is high functioning enough to overpower the desires of the heart and make them submissive to the intellect, as Sefer HaTanya describes it. This battle between Saichel and Lev is our work of life.
Can we give this evaluation to ourselves? I think this is the first and most basic condition for any spiritual progress in our lives. We must find who we are, and where we are in our lives; which direction we should follow and which utensils we should use. But the most important necessity is our acknowledgment of the One above and our imploration to Him for guidance and help.
In Parshas Netzuvim we learn: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life… - Ivuchartu bachaim.” Many before have directed our attention to the fact that it doesn’t say – choose between life and death, but simply ‘choose life.’
It seems to me, that when we are choosing, when we are using our faculty of Bechira – free choice, the benefit can only be life. But when we follow our desires, when we succumb to our hearts, our bodily requests, we are not choosing at all! We just follow what our body tells us to do, engaging intellect only in the process of justification to see ourselves in a better light than just as thoughtless beasts!
Who are we in times like this? Are we the Tzelem Elokim when we put His gift of Bechira aside? Is our intellect serving the purpose of analyzing reality and following the will of our Creator, the purpose for which life was given to us in the first place? Is our speech used to express where intellectual process leads us, and do we use it to inspire and encourage our fellowmen to do the same – to make choices?
Self-evaluation is a fundamental condition to any effort in our life, any meaningful work.
And this is the only way to get to ‘higher places.’

Saturday, January 19, 2019


A Few years ago, at one of our Bnai Abraham meetings, a newly returned Baal Tshuva attended. His name was Shimon.
Oh! I didn’t explain what Bnai Avraham is? Well, it is nothing, it was an attempt to create an environment where primarily gerim and also Baaley Tshuva can come and share experiences; like for example the integration with their FFB’s communities and all kind of other struggles.
Shimon was ex member of the Israeli commando. He was sent by his government to kill some terrorists in Beirut, the capital of Lebanon.
With great pride, he told us the details of his actions including the fact that after the mission came to an end, he came to the conclusion that since he was one of the two out of twenty commandos who survived, that it was a suicide mission. It caused him to think about life … about the gift of life, about the Giver himself.
For almost an hour in some quiet home in Boro Park, the room was filled with smoke, the loud noise of machine guns, the smell of sweat and human blood. His English was good enough to describe his experience with details describing the death of his enemies and friends. But also, his miraculous survival.
It was painful to hear that he still took some amount of pride from the fact that he killed human beings, people who he didn’t know. Somebody’s husbands, fathers, uncles, brothers.
I was afraid to ask if there were any wives, mothers, sisters, aunts…children.
The action took place in an apartment building and everybody in the way got eliminated. Or as they call killing in the nice way.

I met Arieh not long ago. Arieh was someone whose experience was similar to that of Shimons. In his early fifties he lives in California for around thirty years. Although he was covered with thick layers of tattoos on his skin, I saw a precious Jewish soul yearning to connect with what was taken from him in his youth – the connection with his G-d.
Being on the sharp curve of his life he told me:
“I can’t take it off of my body but, I am telling you, when I get my stuff in order, I will go to the mikva. I will let my beard grow, and also my payos. I will not hide my connection to Hashem. I want everybody to see the kedusha. I will keep Shabes and eat only kosher and put tefilin every day. May Hashem help me…”

I wish him the koach - strength and providence to straighten his life up and fulfill his desire that he expressed while choking on tears. Seeing him like this was enough for me to appreciate the Yidishe Neshuma at work once more.

We shared some difficult life experiences and I asked him in a delicate way, how he got to where he is.
He was also a member of the commandos with a mission in Beirut.
They sent us to die – he told me – we were doing crazy things there…
“After that, I told myself I will not defend this f… country I will not let my children do it either. It was crazy…” hes said.

Exactly a week after my encounter with Arieh, I met the senior rabbi who visited President Reagan in his oval office a few days after blowing up an American military base in Beirut by Hezbollah militants.  Some two hundred young people who were told that they are going to defend their country had died there.
The rabbi, when mentioning Hezbollah used some words that we usually add when talking about our enemies, like those who caused many Jewish deaths, physical or spiritual forms of death.
I raised my head in wonder but kept my tongue behind my teeth, out of respect and due to the presence of other people I didn’t ask – Who sent those kids to Beirut? Isn’t it the capital of the other country? If our American fighters would defend Spokane for example, from North Korean invaders, would we call them terrorists? Why did we get involved? Is a war our Jewish business? Don’t we comprehend that this is the two sides of the same coin, with the picture of the straight sword on one side and a curved sword on the other? Eisav’s and Yishmael’s swords?

Shimon’s and Arieh’s government told them to go and kill. Kill the enemies before they kill you.
But they didn’t know those people!
The Jewish principal of self defense applies only when there is situation of life endangerment, but it can not be used as a practical application of Von Clausevitz doctrine!

The Talmud teaches clearly. When you hear the noise and find someone digging under you house you are allowed killing him in self-defense since you can suspect his worst intentions.
When you see someone digging – taking action, there is no time for negotiation, it is to late, your life is only what you have, and you should defend it even if the cost is the life of another human being. At that moment his life has no value since he intends to spill human blood. However, intentions alone can never serve as a justification to kill!

Before Yaacov met his brother Eisav, The Torah says that he was afraid, and he was in distress.
Rashi explains – He was afraid for his life and his family, but he was in distress that perhaps he will have to take a human life.

 What are we doing there… in Beirut… and other places…?