Thursday, June 23, 2005

Siz Shver Tzizein Ah Yid

There is a famous Yiddish expression, which, like all Yiddish expressions, is more of an emotive groan than a declarative statement: "Siz shver tzizein ah Yid--It's difficult to be a Jew." The expression may not be ubiquitous today, but decades ago it was a catchphrase of American Jewry. It is said that Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt"l, recoiled when hearing the expression; he felt that the attitude it presented led many Jews astray.

Rav Moshe believed that the joys and privileges of Judaism were being ignored by well-meaning parents, who did not understand why what they saw as noble sacrifice was viewed by their children as fruitless toil. Children, hearing their parents krechtz over their religion, were being trained to view Judaism as a burden. From there it was a slippery slide down the slope of assimilation. After all, who in their right mind would want to embrace a burdensome life? This was America! Consequently, these parents were rewarded with non-Jewish grandchildren.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that Judaism does present its difficulties. But what are they? Not working on the Sabbath Day--which was the ultimate test for an American Jew in the 1920s and 30s--is no longer one of them. Neither, for that matter, is keeping a kosher home. With the proliferation of hundreds of thousands of kosher products over the last thirty years, it's more difficult to avoid kosher foods than to embrace them.

So what's our problem?

The following is a list of the five most difficult charges that a Torah Jew faces:

1. Limiting, delaying, or otherwise squelching sexual urges: According to Maimonides, "there is nothing in the entire Torah that is more difficult for most of the nation than separating from arayos and illicit sexual encounters. The Sages teach that when the Jews were prohibited from arayos, they cried and accepted the command with trepidation and tears."

2. Being completely honest in all financial dealings: Robbing banks is not the only method of stealing. If you run a business or work in a sales capacity, you are constantly faced with gray areas. Did you give the discount as promised? Does the quality of the product meet its advertised standards. But it’s not only businessmen; everyone is confronted with corner cutting—especially on April 15. The mishnah states that one may wear kilayim to avoid appearing before the tax collector laden with goods. The commentaries all rush to point out that the mishnah must be referring to a disreputable collector, because one is not allowed to cheat the legitimate taxman, as "Dina demalchusa dina—The law of the land is the law." Yet, how many of us agree to get paid "under the table"—and then talk about it as if it's a legitimate way of making money? How many times has a store owner told you, when you pull out your credit card, "If I take that I have to charge you tax." I remind them that they have to charge me tax when I pay in cash as well.

3. Avoiding Chillul Hashem. You don't need to commit fraud or molest children to give Jews and the Torah a black eye. Whether it's cutting someone off in traffic, acting rudely in public, or simply forgetting to say thank you, your behavior reflects on the G-d of Israel. When you wear a yarmulka or a long skirt outside, you are advertising yourself as a member of the Chosen Nation, and you need to behave accordingly.

4. Praying. I don't know about you, but I find prayer to be one of the hardest mitzvos to perform properly. Here I am talking to G-d and I'm thinking about everything from movies to business to the phone call I have to make once I've taken my three steps back. A person of my educational background ought to remember that "Everything is in the hands of Heaven, except the fear of Heaven." When praying, one ought to pray. And sincerely so. Do you really believe that your life is in G-d’s hands and that you are talking directly to Him? I once heard a rav explain that one's day doesn't begin at 9 a.m.; by 9 a.m., it's effectively over—the die has already been cast through your morning prayers. Phoning in your prayers is not only a worthless exercise, it's also damaging because it's so disrespectful.

5. Not speaking loshon hara. We have seemingly come a long way on this one, what with the Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation and all. Certainly this prohibition has been taken seriously by the education system. Nonetheless, the proliferation of communication devices, from telephone to internet, has created endless opportunities for chatting. And chatting leads to chatting about people. Other people. Combined with a secular culture that revels in trash talk and gossip, the sin of slander doesn't always impress us as the evil that it is. One solution, however, when confronted by such discussions is to do what I do. Simply say, "I’m sorry, but I would much rather talk about myself."

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Russell Crowe Meets the Baal Shem Tov

I stayed up the other night to watch David Letterman interview Russell Crowe. Crowe surprised me with a sincere appeal for teshuvah.

For those of you who don't live in New York and/or don't follow entertainment news, Russell Crowe was arrested last week for throwing a telephone at a hotel employee. Not that throwing a phone is a crime in New York, but this particular phone hit the man in the face, sending him to the hospital for stitiches. Crowe was upset because, while paying $4000 a night to stay at the Mercer hotel (note to Russ: I'll let you stay at my place next time for half that), he was not able to get a phone call through to Australia, where his wife and young son are.

Crowe was contrite but tried to give people some insight to his thought process that evening. "There's nothing you can say to people to explain the combination of jet lag, loneliness, adrenalin.... [N]ot being able to tell your wife that you're home and safe and you're okay is frustrating, particularly with the time thing. I'm, you know, trying to fill my basic obligations to my wife who needs to know that I'm at home, I'm in bed, I haven't had too much to drink and, primely important, that I'm alone," he said.

Still, Crowe was not making excuses. "One thing that I don't want to do is imply that I'm trying to make out it's somebody else's fault," he said. "It's not, I know it's my fault, I've got to face up to it and deal with it. This is possibly the most shameful situation I've ever gotten myself in in my life, and I've done some pretty dumb things in my life. So to actually make a new number one is spectacularly stupid."

"I'm at the bottom of a well. I can't communicate how dark my life is right now," Crowe said. "I'm in a lot of trouble. I'll do my best to solve the situation in an honorable way. I'm very sorry for my actions."

So far so good. Despite being an Academy Award-winning actor and possessing a famously volatile temper, I genuinely believed he was repentant. But what really stunned me was a comment not quoted in most papers. That moment came when Dave, doing his best Dr. Phil impression, tries to analyze how Crowe will go from feeling sorry to making the necessary changes in his life.

Then Dave asked, "How can we change the behavior? You say you can sort it out – I mean, how will you do that now, because I know that changing human behavior is the most difficult thing a person can do?"

So there's Dave quoting the Baal Shem Tov, who famously said that breaking one character trait is more difficult than studying the entire Talmud.

And to this Russell Crowe answers: "I don't think it's necessarily a matter of change; it's a matter of emphasis." And I thought, "Wow. He really has something there."

The Torah teaches us that G-d "created the evil impulse and created the Torah as it's antidote." At least that's how it's taught in most yeshivos.

But the Hebrew word used in this oft-quoted phrase does not mean "antidote." The word is tavlin, which literally means "spice." In other words, Rav Shimon Schwab, zt"l, once explained, the Torah is not a medicine, per se, for the elimination of the yeitzer hara, but rather a "spice," a means of changing the "flavor" of one's natural, "evil" impulses.

The Talmud states, for example, that a violent person should become a butcher. It's a matter of emphasis! Where do we place our passions--for good or for evil?

I don't know where Russell Crowe will end up. Will his teshuvah be accepted or will he land in jail? My guess is he won't be named the mashgiach ruchani of a yeshiva anytime soon. But for now he has taught a valuable lesson.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Make Aliyah, Not Parades

I am actively opposed to the Salute to Israel Parade.

There, I've said it.

Now, I'm not trying to start trouble, nor am I an anti-Zionist. But every year, when June rolls around and the buzz for the parade begins to grow, with ads appearing in Jewish periodicals and announcements being made by Jewish organizations, my usual warm 'n fuzzy self begins to fade and I feel my ire start to pique.

I do not like this parade one bit. There are two reasons for this.

First, it is wrong to fly the flag of a sovereign nation on United States soil. Let me say that again: It is wrong to fly the flag of any country other than the U.S. here in the U.S. State flags are fine; so are the flags of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, and even the little-known Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. The flag of an organization or trade group may fly with pride anywhere in our land. So may the ubiquitous black flag proclaiming allegiance to American soldiers supposedly Missing-in-Action.

But not the Israeli flag, not the Czech flag, not the Australian flag, not even the Canadian flag should fly in front of one's home or inside one's synagogue.

These United States of America have been a land of religious freedom, a haven for many Jews for centuries, and home for many Jews today. The same is true of all immigrant groups. No, this country doesn't have a perfect record in accepting immigrants, both before and after they land on these shores, but the U.S. has the best record of any nation in the history of mankind when it comes to accepting foreigners.

Jews, who adhere to Jewish standards, must respect the blessing they have received in being allowed to be a part of this great country, and it is a slap in the face to this country—and a chillul Hashem to boot—to wave the flag of another. Root for Israel in the Olympics if you so desire. Dye your hair blue and white. But the flag you wave in public better be the Star Spangled Banner.

Don't misunderstand—I'm not saying it's illegal to do so; I'm not even saying that it should be illegal. I'm just saying that it's wrong.

Plain wrong.

I used to work on Fifth Avenue in midtown Manhattan and often I would work on Sundays. It seemed that every weekend there was another parade. One Sunday, I was trying to get to my office and I had to wade through the crowd assembled along the sidewalk for the Polish Day Parade. Throngs of young Poles, presumably Polish-Americans, were waving the Polish flag and screaming "Polska!" at one another.

And what did I, a man with nary a xenophobic sinew in his system, say to myself? "If you love Poland so much, why don't you go back?!"

Because, dear friends, they don't love Poland. They love Polish culture; they love the stories their grandmothers tell; they love the nostalgia. They, too, may even root for Poland in the Olympics. But the political entity of Poland they don't love as much as that of the United States. That's why they are here and not there.

And that's why you are here.

Which brings me to my second point: The Salute to Israel Parade is an exercise in intellectual dishonesty.

Can someone really claim to be "supporting" Israel by marching in Central Park? Does wearing a t-shirt and carrying a banner fulfill the mitzvah of making Aliyah?

Proponents argue that the parade shows our support for Israel and shows the world that the Jewish State is not the monster that many in the foreign media portray her to be. I find this argument weak. If AIPAC, the O.U., Agudath Israel, and CAMERA can't do that job effectively, I really can't see how hanging out in Central Park is going to do it.

And I don't thnk I'm alone. I have a sneaking suspicion that Ariel Sharon, sitting in his Knesset office, watching footage of the parade on Israeli television, snickers. "You call this support?" he thinks. "My life has been on the line for decades in the service of my country, and you guys are listening to Soulfarm on the Great Lawn?"

Let's face it. Jewish Americans who don't take Zionism seriously come to the parade the same way that Jews who don't take Judaism seriously show up to shul on Yom Kippur. It's a once-a-year guilt-off-my-chest event. And then we can go back to doing whatever it was we were doing with the lazy, comfortable knowledge that we’ve done our share for the Holy Land.


You haven't done your share. Not even close.

I have never marched in the parade here in New York (though growing up out-of-town, I did march in our city’s version), but I am sorely tempted to go. I would carry my own signs and pass out my own t-shirts. They would say:





and my personal favorite,

For those of us stuck here in America for reasons real or imagined, there are many things you can do to support Israel. You can buy Israeli products. You can visit Israel. You can learn and daven for the welfare of the chayalim.

But don’t think that showing up to the parade on Sunday earns you your stripes.