Thursday, August 31, 2017

Winds of Change (Elul 5777)

Since my father passed away, I’ve taken it upon myself to read park bench inscriptions which more often than not, commemorate the lives of friends, family, and loved ones.  Putting me in deep contemplation mode, thinking about my friends, family, and loved ones.  Wondering who the people are that I will touch and be touched by most deeply, please G-d until 120, to inspire a park bench inscription. 

This mode feels contrary to the last few days of summer, yet quite appropriate for the time on the Jewish calendar:  Elul.  The month before Rosh Hashanah, the day of Judgment not just for the Jewish people, but for the entire world.

Historically, this has been a time of trepidation, with complete awe and acknowledgment that as much as we like to control personal and world events, so much is out of our hands.   And often follows an unpredictable course.  Just looking back at this past year we saw:   

·       The election of Donald Trump as President of the Untied States – much to the chagrin and surprise of liberals across America – and some Trump voters too
·       The Cubs winning the world series after 108 years in tie-breaking 10th inning overtime – ending what Major League Baseball called the longest drought in professional sports
·       The New England Patriots defeating the Atlanta Falcons in the greatest Super Bowl comeback in history
·       A never before made Oscars mistake that led to the producers of La La Land announcing the true winner of the Best Picture Oscar, Moonlight

All lending credence to this quote from the Gemara:

Never give up hope even when there is a sword on your neck. -- Berachot 10a

Was all that decreed on Rosh Hashanna? 

According to Jewish theology, the answer is yes.   Which just adds one more layer to the age-old question about fate vs. free will.  Answered by our fathers: 

Everything is foreseen, yet the freedom of choice is given. -- Pirkei Avot 3:19

It’s something my father used to say all the time.  Not in those words exactly.  He would say “it’s programmed in.”  Yet at the same time he would often say “it’s up to you.”  Meaning – we don’t know what’s programmed it so we still have to make choices.  And we can only do so with the best information that’s available at the time. 

The time when my father went to the hospital was the 7th day of Passover.  The 7th day of Passover commemorates the day of the splitting of the sea.  It’s a day of miracles.  It was a miracle my father didn’t die that day based on what we learned at the hospital about his condition.  

He needed a new heart valve, and three major arteries were between 97-99% blocked.  My father kept speaking about the “collaterals” compensating, which I thought he was something he made up.  He didn’t. 

They can be thought of as the heart’s ‘back-up system’ as they are essentially invisible until activated, when they can enlarge their diameters in order to carry significant blood flow and bypass blockages. 

Which right there is proof of G-d. 

The doctors at the first hospital said he needed open-heart surgery.  My dad wanted a second opinion and a shot at a less invasive procedure.   It was his freedom of choice to do so.   Yet those first doctors foresaw the outcome for sure. 

Despite them being “right” – I feel like in many ways the last few months of my father’s life played out with divine intervention.  And gave my family tremendous opportunity to to spend time with my dad we wouldn’t have otherwise had. 

If I had the same level of clarity of G-d’s intervention in other areas of my life, I would never find myself crying about work or boys. Of course it’s easy to have clarity looking back.  When we were in the middle of trying to decide which course of treatment for my dad, things weren’t so clear at all.

It reminds me of something my dad used to say about marriage.  From my vantage point, because it hasn’t happened yet, it looks like a giant mountain to climb. But when looking back, after it’s happened, it will seem like a tiny hill.  

My dad said really awesome things all the time.

Part of me wondered what he would have said about the Eclipse.  If he would have marveled at its wonder, or just thought it was too much hype.  He definitely would have said it was a bad idea if I mentioned I contemplated driving to South Carolina to see it.  He was very much against situations involving long-distance driving and sitting in traffic.  

This is how he saw the world.  We all have our ways of seeing the world.  More often than not, we act like our way of seeing the world is programmed in. 

Tuesday night I went to a Torah class in Manhattan, probably the best Torah class I’ve been to since moving to Manhattan.  The Rabbi, Rabbi Daniel Sherman of WSIS, challenged me to see the world a bit differently. 

He started with this question:  Why do we read Psalm 47 before the blowing of the Shofar?  I loved that I didn’t know the answer.  I knew an answer.  Just not his answer. 

The Psalm starts:  For the Conductor, by the sons of Korah, a Song. (47:1).  What is notable about this Psalm?  It wasn’t written by David. 

King David is famously known as the author of Tehillim.  Yet 3 of the 150 were authored by the sons of Korach.  And Korach, according to the bible, was despicable. 

He organized a rebellion against Moshe.  He saw everything Moshe did as a sign that he was trying to usurp power, not be a true representative of G-d.  In the end Korach and his followers were swallowed up by the earth.  And his sons? 

Apparently they wrote three Tehillim. 

The Gemara in Sanhedrin – still quoting Rabbi Sherman – said that in the swallowed earth – some version of Hell, Korach’s sons could be hear saying this:  Moses and Torah are truth, and they, referring to themselves, are liars. 

Meaning, it’s never too late to see things differently. 

There is a famous Jewish quote from the Gemara Rosh Hashanah 16b, change your place, change your luck.  We think it means physical place.  Sometimes it does.  It can also mean our vantage point too.   

Another famous quote says insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.  Which means insanity is seeing things the same way over and over and expecting things to be different.      

Since my father’s passing, I have seen him differently.  I have heard stories from the women he worked with, how much they loved working for him, how much his patients loved him – something I would have never have known since my dad was not emotive in that sort of way.  I saw him buried with military honors, and a man presenting my brother with a meticulously folded flag and words starting with this:  “On behalf of the President of the United States. . . “ 

I saw his 9-year old grandson, my nephew, spontaneously deliver a eulogy for him, with no notes, acknowledging the good things my father did for him.

My father was so much holier and more awesome than I ever realized.  A viewpoint solidified when my brother told me a story that in one of the minyanim, a service that my brother leads daily to say a special mourner’s prayer, the former Chief Rabbi of Israel and current Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, Rabbi Yisroel Meier Lau, was in attendance. 

How in the world did that happen? 

Everything is in the hands of Heaven except the fear of Heaven (Berachot 33b).  

The word for fear in Hebrew is yirah.  Also translated to awe.  Also related to the word Re’eh, to see.  We fear things based on how we see them.  And we are in awe of things based on how we see them too. 

My goal this Rosh Hashanna is change the way I see things.  It was during the eclipse pandemonium that I freaked out that I might have damaged my eyes, contemplating how difficult life would be if I was unable to physically see.  Now is the time when I need to get a grasp on how hard life is when I can’t spiritually see.  My goal this Rosh Hashanah is to let G-d know that I want to see things with the right lenses. 

The Scorpions remind me:

The future's in the air
I can feel it everywhere
Blowing with the wind of change

And world events remind that too much wind will Rock you Like a Hurricane.   

May you be inscribed and sealed in the book of life for a good and sweet new year!

Monday, August 7, 2017

Confessions of a Mourner (Tu B'Av 5777)

I am sensitive right now.  Even more so than I was before, which for some people is too sensitive.  Sensitivity, in our culture, seems to have become a four letter word.  Parents read books about raising the “sensitive child.”  Someone says you’re sensitive as an insult.

When did it become so terrible to be sensitive?

Isn’t it a good thing that I can hear footsteps behind me, long before you can?  Or I can feel things going on in my body even when doctors tell me it’s nothing? I can see things other people don’t see, feel things other people don’t feel, hear sounds when others think its quiet.  Isn’t that actually a good thing?

And now, with the passing of my father, I am even more sensitive than ever. 

I am sensitive to the fact that in your voicemail, you say you will come for Shiva – and then don’t show up.  I am sensitive to the fact that you text me that you want to visit – and when we make plans, you disappear.  I am sensitive to the fact that you say, I would have come for Shiva, but I forgot.  Forgot?  Please just say I’m sorry for your loss and walk away.  Quickly.

Because this isn’t just about sensitivity.  It’s about being a good human. 

What distinguishes us from animals is the power of speech.  Some will argue dogs speak, dolphins speak, birds speak.  But they don’t with the same sophisticated language that we can.  And I’m guessing dolphins aren’t writing blogs about speech and sensitivity.  Maybe they would if they had fingers. 

Last Tuesday – my last day of sitting Shiva for my father – was Tish B’Av.  Tish B’Av is a day on the Jewish Calendar that is plagued by tragedy and sadness – because of a misuse of words. 

When the Jewish people were wandering in the desert, they designated 12 leaders of the tribes to investigate the land of Israel.  The source is Parsha Shelach, which we read about two months ago: 

Hashem said to Moses, saying, “Send forth men, if you please, and let them spy out the Land of Canaan that I give to the Children of Israel; one man each from his father’s tribe shall you send, every one a leader among them.”  (Bamidbar 13:1-2)

Now here’s the thing – G-d kept promising the land of Israel to the Jewish people, so you’d think if people really believed in the G-d that got them out of Egypt, they could trust the land would be fine. But people are people, even when they witness G-d’s miracles.  And had to check things out themselves. 

After 40 days of “spying out the land”, they returned and “They reported to him and said, “We arrived at the Land to which you sent us, and indeed it flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit.  But – the people that dwells in the Land is powerful, the cities are fortified and very great, and we also say there the offspring of the giant.  (13:28-29).  Oh yes, and Amalek is there too.  Amalek is the great great grandpa of Hitler, Y’mach Shmo.  May his name be obliterated. 

Not surprisingly, the people freaked out.

“The entire assembly raised up and issued its voice; the people wept that night.  All the Children of Israel murmured against Moses and Aaron, the entire assembly said to them, “If only we had died in the land of Egypt, or if only we had died in this Wilderness!  Why is Hashem bringing us to this Land to die by the sword?  Our wives and young children will be taken captive!  Is it not better for us to return to Egypt?”  (14:1-3)

Sticks and stones may break some bones but words can really hurt you.

G-d was not pleased – with the report or the reaction. The Talmud in Taanit 29a says:  “Today you cried for nothing; in the future I'll give you a real reason to cry.”  And He forever made Tish B’Av a day of crying for the Jewish people.

As a nation we commemorate Tish B’Av as the day of the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem – the site where currently sits the Dome of the Rock.  Personally it was my last day of sitting Shiva for my dad.  I felt like the whole nation was mourning with me. 

Right after the false report, G-d made a decree:  40 years of wandering in the desert, one year for every day of seeing the land inappropriately. Men 20 years and up would die – but not before 60, because death was the decree, not premature death.  Meaning at 60, one was mature enough to die.  I’ll get back to that later.

Every year the men would dig graves on Tish B’Av, lie down overnight, and the next morning many would die.  In the last year, everyone woke up.  Thinking they had miscalculated the date, they did it the next night.  Again and again until Tu B’Av, the 15th of the month when there is a full moon – and they had clarity that it was the middle of the month and the decree was over.

That’s why Tu B’Av is a day of celebration.   And is the modern-day Valentine’s Day, a day of love. 

All over Manhattan are Tu B’Av events, most notably the annual white party at the Boat Basin on the Hudson River.  It’s a bit chaotic, and I’ve never met anyone new there – so I’m sort of glad that during this period of mourning, I’m prohibited from going to those types of parties.  Not that I am really in the mood to schmooze like that anyway.

What I am in the mood for is deep, meaningful, one on one interactions with friends and loved ones.  Which is why I yesterday was so disappointing. 

After posting a heartfelt plea on facebook -- Dear Friends: I'm very fragile right now. If you say you'll call, please call. Or visit, please visit. Thank you. – the two friends I thought I had plans with reached out to apologize. 

But it’s not apologizes I want.  I just want to not feel alone. 

So many people have reached out to me in a variety of ways to offer comfort.  I appreciate all of it.   I really do.  Some have been more comforting than others, maybe consciously, maybe unconsciously.  I don’t know.  What I do know is that I don’t think anyone has bad intentions.  I just think we could all just be a little bit more sensitive. 

I am trying to be more sensitive to the fact that not everyone is as sensitive. 

So, I will try to explain how I am feeling, in a way that perhaps will help people understand.   And perhaps be more sensitive.  And understand why every single thing that is said, every action means something to me – for better or for worse.

The loss of my father now marks the loss of both parents.  My mother passed away 13 years ago.  Losing one parent is different than losing two. I have already been through this once. . . though every single loss is different.  Any comparison to any experience you might have had with loss is not the same as mine at all. 

When my mother passed away, my father said, I’ll be your mommy and daddy now.  And he really stepped up and became a person who would listen to whatever trivial or major problem I had. And to him, nothing I was upset about was trivial. 

Who will be mommy and daddy now?   

My dad never forgot about my existence, and would always call me back.  The only time he didn’t was when he died.  Which is why now, more than ever – I really need people who say they’re going to do something to actually do it.

I need people to say I’m sorry for your loss more than advice on how they dealt with their own.  I need people to sit with me while I eat more than I need people to send me food. I need people to remain quiet if an absence is due to absentmindedness.  I need hugs more than anything at all.

But if I am to heed my own advise, to be cautious with my own words, to be sensitive to the way other people might be feeling at my time of loss, I must remember this lesson from Pirkei Avot: 

4:3:  Do not be scornful of any person and do not be disdainful of anything, for you have no person without his hour and no thing without its place.

So for anyone who has offered apologies in the last week, know that I accept, and I just really want you to give me a hug.  And hug me like you mean it. 

May this Tu B’Av bring love and comfort to everyone who needs it.  Which is everyone I think.