Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Baruch Dayan Ha'emes: William Safire, 5690 - 5770

One could make a compelling case that my writing career took off one Saturday night when my parents received a phone call from a family friend.

"Is that your son in the Sunday Times?" he asked. My parents turned to me with the same question. Without uttering a word, I ran out of the house, hopped into the family car and sped down the street in the (I'll never forget) drizzling rain. I pulled into the driveway of a friend whose parents, I knew, subscribed to the Times (my parents did not) and finding their paper lying unopened on the blacktop, yanked it from its plastic sheath, and rifled through it in search of the answer.

There it was. In the Times Magazine, in the "On Language" column, just below William Safire's byline. My name.

A few weeks earlier, I had written Mr. Safire with a confession: a common phrase I had not previously understood had finally been explained to me, and I was surprised that I had managed to survive so long without being set straight. Mr. Safire dedicated his column that week to phrases that are regularly misheard, and therefore regularly misunderstood.

For a yeshiva boy, with aspirations of being a writer, appearing in William Safire's column, was more than a thrill. It was validation. On that rainy Saturday night, in the dark, on someone else's driveway, I whooped it up like I had just won the pennant.

William Safire, who died Erev Yom Kippur, taught me to love words and to appreciate their power. Moreover, he demonstrated how the right combination of words, arranged just so, could pack a powerful punch. (He would interrupt here, as he so famously did in his column—which was full of tangents, asides, and parentheticals—to point out that the phrase "pack a powerful punch" is cliche and ought not to be used. I know it's a cliche because I Googled it and got over 13 million hits.)

He knew how to connect words in such a way that they danced on the page. His most famous phrase, "nattering nabobs of negativism," which he penned for then-Vice President Spiro Agnew to describe the press corps during the Vietnam era, was the title of a recent post of mine. (Also, incidentally, a cliche by now. Over one million Google hits.)

But for all his seriousness, as a columnist and self-appointed Language Maven, he had fun with words and language. His rules of writing included:
  • Remember to never split an infinitive.
  • The passive voice should never be used.
  • Proof read carefully to see if you words out.
  • And don't start a sentence with a conjunction.
  • (Remember, too, a preposition is a terrible word to end a sentence with.)
  • Don't overuse exclamation marks!!
  • Writing carefully, dangling participles must be avoided.
  • Take the bull by the hand and avoid mixing metaphors.
  • Last but not least, avoid cliches like the plague; seek viable alternatives.
I have always maintained that if Klal Yisrael had just a handful of writers who could describe Yiddishkeit—its values, its history, its laws, its magic—in a way that was simple without being simplistic, dignified without being condescending, intimate without being intimidating, we would go a long way to bringing wayward Jews back into the fold.

William Safire never did make it back into the fold, but his daughter did. I met her once at a retreat for baalei teshuvah. One night the phone rang and I had the good fortune of answering it. It was for her.

"May I ask who's calling?" I asked.

"Her father," he answered.

I thought of introducing myself, but decided it wasn’t appropriate. He was looking for his daughter not a fan.

Tehei nishmaso tzerura betzror hachaim.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Hishtadlus: A Perspective Revisited

One of the difficulties a writer faces is finding that small, self-effacing, soft voice that proclaims a valid, valuable opinion. At the same time, sometimes straight talk—rather than soothing tones—is required to make a point forcefully. A good writer aspires to inspire; he does not wish to come across as a callous, cavalier jerk.

So it was with dismay that I read the following response to a recent post, as it forced me to reckon with the knowledge that I may have missed that elusive mark. Here is what one reader wrote:
    Baruch Hashem you were only hit by the recession/depression. You were lucky enough with Hashem’s help to make it out whole. This is a fabulous attitude to have and think about. But…What about the many who were KNOCKED OUT by the recession/depression, who have lost the shirts off their backs, are unemployed, and living life hour by hour? They don’t see the Hashem club benefits. What can those people hope for???
The purpose of my blog is not to preach to a choir. Nor is it to push people who are already suffering to feel worse about themselves and about their relationship with God. I am well aware, first-hand, of many of the difficulties of living life on God's world. Nevertheless, I have never felt anything less than blessed. Despite many travails, I have lived, so far, a fairly successful life. I was not abused as a child either physically or emotionally. I did not have poor rabbeim who sucked all the happiness out of Judaism and Jewish living. I have never missed a meal, never gone a night without a roof over my head, never wanted for clothing. I still have a job with one of the world’s leading financial firms. Aside from my Dad’s successful heart surgery, thank God, I have never had to face, a major medical emergency in my family, bli ayin hara.

But I haven’t quite climbed out of this economic crisis (yet); my earnings are off by more than half. Nonetheless, I recognize that I still have a job and I’m working my way back up. Meanwhile, there are many people whose income is down a hundred percent. I even know some people who, unfortunately, have been out of work and struggling financially since the 1991 recession.

Some people are destined to live a life of challenges. It is not my place to give mussar or even advice to such people. I can’t tell them how to feel or instruct them in a sure-fire way to overcome their obstacles. Yet, I do believe that if someone has something truthful to say, and can deliver that message in a deferential and motivating way, perhaps everyone can gain—either materially or emotionally.

My answer is that a Jew is simply not allowed to give up on himself. He must always have hope.

But the truth is that as long as you are living and breathing you are not “knocked out.” God is watching over all of us, and we are all playing a role, of one sort or another, in His Divine plan. Everyone is in the "Hashem club," whether or not they perceive the benefits at any given moment.

Prior to Rosh Hashanah, I received the following email:
    Just imagine Baron Rothschild is suffering from amnesia. He's standing on a street corner, dirty and filthy, and he is begging for dimes from every shlepper who walks by. It’s crazy. The first thing this man needs is to remember that he is Baron Rothschild—then he can go wash up, change his clothes, and go back to his palace.

    We are the same. All year long we suffer from amnesia. We forget who we are and how holy we are. We forget who G-d is. On Rosh Hashanah, when we blow the Shofar, we wake up and remember who we really are. On Yom Kippur, we wash up and all ourselves up from the dirt on our souls. Then, on Succot,h we move back into our Heavenly abode—the palace in which we are really meant to live. This year I pray that we never forget how beautiful we are, how beautiful the world is, and how much G-d really loves us.
In a Talmudic discussion over the monetary damages assessed for shaming another Jew, Rabbi Akiva disputes the notion that Jews have subjective measures of humiliation: “Even the poor among Israel are viewed as freemen, whose wealth was lost, for they are children of Abraham Isaac and Jacob.”

This is key. We must view ourselves as the Torah views us, as God views us: Freemen, whose wealth was lost. We are the Chosen People, as we say each day, “asher bachar banu mikol ha’amim—You chose us from all the nations.” If we saw ourselves in that light and not as people who have been permanently damaged by financial setbacks, no matter how debilitating, we would have a great deal more strength to deal with the challenges ahead.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Hishtadlus: A Perspective

God has blessed me with, among many other things, wonderful friends who challenge me to think and provoke me to improve. During Elul, I called up one such friend and, simply to initiate conversation, asked how he was doing. He answered me in a grave tone: “The Director has me playing the role of someone who is having a bad day.”

My friend, whose hashkafah rests upon a bedrock belief that “all the world’s a stage,” sees himself as nothing more than an actor in God’s Divine play of life. He would never come right out and say “I’m having a bad day,” as that would, in his view, indicate a lack of faith that “Kol de’avad Rachmana letav avad—Everything God does is for the best.”

We all have our good days and our “bad” days, as well as plenty of nondescript days to round out the calendar, but my friend’s description of his day—his attitude toward what had been a setback in his livelihood—got me to rethink how to approach each day, and how to prepare for the new year.

The Talmud states, ”Mezonosav shel adam ketzuvim lo Meirosh Hashanah—A person’s livelihood [for the year] is set on Rosh Hashanah.” This alone should impel all of us to take seriously our prayers on the Yom Hadin. But more important than the actual words we read from the machzor is the attitude we need to reinforce on Rosh Hashanah and carry with us throughout the year.

Rav Chaim Friedlander, in his classic work, Sifsei Chaim, writes that the operative word on Rosh Hashanah is not teshuvah, but malchius. The main objective is not so much to ask for things or to beg forgiveness from God, but to acknowledge God’s complete control over the world. “First and foremost, we must desire that through us, through all our actions, His Kingdom will be revealed.” We spend much of these first two days of the year in prayer, declaring God’s sovereignty.

As a financial advisor, there is very little about my livelihood that I control. Rumors to the contrary notwithstanding, I have no influence on the daily direction of the financial markets. I cannot foresee when a client will drop a million dollars into my lap for investment, or when a client who had previously done so will ask for it all back.

All I can do is show up at the office, read the financial papers, talk to clients and prospective clients, and behave honestly and ethically. This is my hishtadlus, the sum total of how I “earn” a living. The actual dollar amount that flows from these behaviors into my paycheck is entirely at God’s discretion. Thus the greatest advantage of my occupation is that I am privileged to see the Hand of God supporting me every day.

As we begin to crawl out from last year’s economic meltdown, even those who earned the proverbial “steady” paycheck have lost their jobs, had their salaries reduced, or otherwise borne witness to the reality that we are all dependent solely on God for our daily bread.

Last year, after the market began its drastic decline, I had a significant setback with my biggest client, who liquidated his entire portfolio on the first day of chol hamo’eid Sukkos. I went into Simchas Torah without much joy, and tried very hard to change my mood, fully aware that whatever God had planned for me, I needed to embrace it. But the intellectual recognition of something does not induce an abrupt emotional response.

During Yom Tov, the rav of my shul spoke of the verse in Devarim, with which we begin the hakafos—“Atah hareisa ladaa’s ki Hashem hu haElokim; ein od milvado—You were shown in order to understand that Hashem is the Lord; there is nothing but Him.” The rav encouraged us to focus on those three words as we sang them, “Ein od milvado,” and to imbibe its meaning—our need to rely on God exclusively.

The first question that one is asked in the afterlife is, “Nasasa venasata be’emunah?—Did you conduct your business faithfully.” The simple translation means, Were you honest in business? But I believe that emunah here is more accurately understood as faith in God. In other words, did you conduct your business dealings with the faith that God was overseeing your success? If so, you would have no reason to cut corners. You would not be anxious as to when your next client would arrive. You would not be overly worried by financial setbacks.

This year, may we all embrace the message of malchius, bowing before the crown of our Creator, recognizing that “ein od milvado.”