Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Lesson of the Departed -- In Loving Memory of "Litch."

Yesterday upon opening up Facebook, I discovered that one of my friends from highschool one "regular" morning just didn't get up. A soul yanked out of this world at 22 -- and we are left shell-shocked.
I haven’t been in touch with him for the last few years, but my heart is filled with many fond memories. He was a very special person. A man of strong character and a golden heart.

I looked, with growing sadness, at his Facebook wall, which is now covered in sweet words of consolation and stories revealing the greatness of the young man who is no longer in the world.

I sat with my eyes downcast. How unpredictable life can be, I thought. One day you're here, the next you are not. No guarantees, no promises.

It was quite the wake-up call before Rosh Hashana, when we proclaim that today we are all judged as to "who will live and who will die." We simply do not know what tomorrow will bring...

Many of us have dealt with loss; some have dealt with it very close to home. We all die -- that is the great curse of man. "For you are dust, and to dust shall you return." (Genesis 3:19)
We must never become complacent when we hear about death. To do that would be to disregard the last lesson the departed left us with: The preciousness of life, of living.

Yoni Netanyahu, after being injured in battle, writes with powerful articulation about the need to cling to every moment of life: "You want to embrace it [life] and go on with it, to escape from all the blood and death, to live, live, even without hands and feet, but breathing, thinking, feeling, seeing, and taking in sensation."

To breathe in some fresh air. To smell a newly-blossomed flower. To dance to new song. To hold a loved one. Life is made up of a limited number of moments whether we use them or not. Whether we are thankful for them or not.
This Rosh Hashana, let us remember to appreciate the countless kindnesses we have received and still receive. Let us be excited to be alive. Alive, to begin another year.

So, in honor of all the souls who are not with us this year, let us breathe some fresh air, appreciate a sunset, hug a loved one, end that stupid feud with our neighbor; and make this year a year of life!
May we all be written in the Book of Life. Amen.

This post is in memory of my dear friend David "The Boss" "Litch" Litchfield TZ"L (חיים דוד בן ר׳ יצחק מאיר הלוי) May his special soul rise to the highest heights of Heaven where he can dwell in the splendor of the One G-d. May his family and friends be comforted among the mourners of Israel.

Friday, August 16, 2013

From Fear to Freedom II -- Jump #4

(Note: There is no need to read the first one of this two-part post to enjoy this one. The first one explains however the whole detailed experience of my jump whereas this one focuses more on my personal emotional experience. If you are interested please check out: From Fear to Freedom.)
"Even as I walk through the valley overshadowed by death, I will fear no evil for you are with me." These powerful words of King David became my mantra as the plane took off and I was strapped with yet another parachute on my back. 
I was preparing for my fourth military jump, and everytime, it is absolutely terrifying. The idea of leaping into open space, placing your trust in the work of an eighteen-year-girl and her ability to pack a chute seems just about insane. The brain screams at you, repeating the undefiable laws of gravity. Your mind fills you with worry about the chance that the chute won't open and you will fall in an approximate twelve seconds to your death. Your heart pounds in your chest. You nervously laugh and chatter with your friends so as distract yourself from the reality that the plane is airborne. 
I didn't write about all my jumps. Each one was an experience in itself, but I felt it would become somewhat repetitive to write about each jump. (You can read about my first jump here.) 

However after yesterday, I feel what I experienced needs to be retold, even at the risk of being boring.

Since I haven't jumped in over year, I was a bit nerve-wracked. Our two-hour practice didn't make me feel much better. And in recent months, I have become somewhat more afraid of falling 1200 feet to my death... Hey, marriage will do that to a guy.

The next morning we woke up at 3:30 and began the tedious preparation that a military jump requires. Only at 7:00 AM did we finally board the plane. I -- after giving up on the hope of a canceled jump -- began psyching myself.

To double my fear, it "fell out" that I would be first to jump of my group. What that means essentially is that I must stand in the door for almost half a minute staring at the blurry earth passing beneath the mighty plane awaiting the order to jump. (After the first guy is out the rest follow,and are ordered out the door less than a second after reaching it.) It is a place coveted by the "life on the edge" crowd, and feared by the more "safety-first" oriented. I am of the latter.
I used the verse mentioned above as a mantra to prepare myself mentally. It was clear to me that this was a message from Hashem. I was to face my fear, stare him in his ugly red eye, wait until the eye turned green, and leap, like a young bird attempting his first luck at flight, into the open sky.

My group was ordered by the jump instructor to stand and approach the open door. The roar of the engine and the speeding winds made it almost impossible to hear, but his hand motions made his intentions clear. I found myself standing at the door, at first stricken with paralyzing terror, and then, if only for a moment’s time, I was cleansed from all my fears.

I stood invincible, on top of the world. I continued reciting my mantra but now with ease and absolute awareness of its truth. Though the jump instructor told me not to look down, I did, and with a smile pasted on my dry lips. The muscles in my legs twitched much like a panther preparing to pounce upon its prey. My prey was fear, and I was ready to tear him apart. In the climactic seconds before the light turned green, and I would be given the order to jump, I let out a scream. A roar from deep down in my soul thundered from my throat. I was free. Free from worry or doubt. Free from the fear of danger. It was a magnificent moment. A divine experience. One that I could only attempt to explain in these limited words.

And with that, out of the plane, and into uncertainty, I leapt...
As my body hit the sand below, I just lay there. It was a graceful landing due to the very light breeze. The sun beamed through the morning clouds, as if smiling at me. The sky was painted a light pink. I thanked G-d both for a safe landing and for allowing me such a spiritual experience. "Give thanks to G-d for He is good, the whole universe is His kindness."
Though it may be the last time I jump from a plane, I pray it's not the last time I feel that way again.

Friday, July 26, 2013

What the Heck is Baseless Love?

Speech after speech, blog after blog (including this one), and at the end of almost every d’var Torah around a Shabbat meal, the need for baseless love is repeatedly highlighted. Seemingly to no avail...

The expression is a play on the words that the chachamim used in the Talmud to explain the reason our Temple was destroyed and our subsequent exile from Israel. The rabbis teach: "It was because of sinat chinam (loosely translated as “baseless hatred”) that the Temple was destroyed. (Talmud Bavli: Tr. Yoma: 9)

So, at some time in history, an unknown great man (the expression is attributed to just about every rabbi imaginable) said that the obvious remedy to "baseless hatred" is baseless love. How clever! So clever was this line that, as mentioned above, it has become quite the Jewish colloquialism.

However, overtime the meaning of this powerful play on words has all but oozed out of it. People preach a certain "love of all Jews" that many times sounds like the creed of a 1970's hippie commune.
We “love” all Jews, as long as they agree with our understanding of the Torah. We "love" the Jewish nation, but abhor our Jewish neighbor. We "love" all types of Jews, so long as they don't hang out around our kids.

These glaring hypocrisies are a direct result of the misunderstanding of the true definition of love. (Attention: Possible marriage advice ahead.)

The true meaning of love is respect. To "baselessly" love someone then, is to respect who he is, and how he thinks, no matter what. His opinions are valid, just as I would like him to consider my opinions valid. Baseless love does not mean if he agrees with my prejudice or ideology. It means, regardless of what he believes, or the rituals he does or does not perform, he is a person just like me, and therefore he deserves his perspective to be respected.
I feel it important to note here, lest I be accused of liberal propaganda (Heaven forbid), I am in no way saying that we should allow people to harm others because that's what they feel is right! For if he deserves respect to live his way, you certainly deserve the respect to live yours.

Living with respect of one’s fellow is also the most logical approach to intellectual living. Socrates has been quoted many times as stating: "The only thing I know is that I know nothing." The brilliant Greek philosopher meant that the goggles with which we see the world were given to us at birth and were refined and tuned according to the surrounding ideologies. We therefore cannot claim to know the truth, since we are victim to countless outside influences. The best we can do is present the amount of research we have done on the subject. We can thus conclude that the only thing we know is that we know nothing at all.
By far the greatest way to search for truth is by gazing at it through the goggles of others -- a task only accomplished through healthy discourse between man and his fellow. Only by respecting, hearing and challenging our fellow's opinions or ideologies will we ever have a chance at finding the "right way." Perhaps this is what the Talmud meant: "Either [I should have] a study partner or [I should have] death. (Tr. Taanit 33)"
"Proper social conduct precedes Torah (Vakira Rabbah 9:3)" is a somewhat forgotten Jewish mantra. The verse can be explained: Without proper discourse with your fellow man, you will never stand a chance at reaching a true understanding of the Torah. Torah than, stands secondary to respect.

To love is to respect. Respect is what we need to strengthen between all of mankind. Respect will allow us, as a nation, to reach common ground and healthy compromises. Respect will build the third Temple.

It's really that simple...

Friday, July 19, 2013

From Sorrow to Strength

This past month three babies, in three different incidents, in three different parts of the Israel, died as a result of being forgotten by their parents in the cars. Each death came as a devastating blow to the heart of the Jewish people. Some blamed the parents, some sympathized, but everyone, everyone, felt the pain of three precious and innocent souls being taken out of the world before they were able to experience it. 

Almost instantly the Jewish people were in a frenzy. They asked: "How can we fix this? What technology doesn't exist that can prevent this from happening again?" 

And just like that, ideas began flying from mouth to mouth. Inventions and innovative new safety precautions were being posted all over the Internet. Israel, as a nation wiped the tears from these tragedies and decided to use these horrors to fuel movement to create new ways to protect our children in the future.
This is not new. This is how the Jews have always been. We get beaten, persecuted, and exiled, and yet as soon as we get to the next country, instead of wallowing in our plight, we rise from the ashes and become successful movers and shakers of the future. The nations have tried time and time again to destroy us; and every time, the Jew stands up, wipes the tears and blasts forth into the future with a renewed vigor. 
This is what the world saw in 1948 when a battered, bloodied and bruised nation crawled from the gas chambers and barracks of the concentration camps and became a respected and strong nation among the nations of the world. 

This is the Jews’ mantra: "Be strong and courageous!" Every time darkness swarms down upon us, somehow, someway, we rise from depths and create a better and brighter world.
John Adams, second President of the United States, highlighted this attribute when he remarked about the Jew: "I will insist the Hebrews have contributed more to civilize men than any other nation. If I were an atheist and believed in blind eternal fate, I should still believe that fate had ordained the Jews to be the most essential instrument for civilizing the nations... They are the most glorious nation that ever inhabited this Earth. The Romans and their empire were but a bubble in comparison to the Jews. They have given religion to three-quarters of the globe and have influenced the affairs of mankind more and more happily than any other nation, ancient or modern." (From a letter to F.A. Van Kemp Feb. 16, 1808) 

I am proud of you my people. Never give up. Never stop bettering the world. The spirit of the Jew is unbreakable, and with G-d's help, will always be. Be strong and courageous!

And as the darkness of the fast of Tisha B’Av concludes, we must renew our spirit. We mourned the destruction of our holy Temple, now let's begin planning its reconstruction.

"(נחמו, נחמו עמי יאמר אלקיכם. (ישעיה מ:א"

Friday, July 12, 2013

Av: A Month to Mourn the Temple, and Fight with Jews... wait, what?!

Once again the Jewish people prove we haven't learned anything from these 2000+ years since our Temple was destroyed. On the first day of Av --the month we mourn the destruction of the Temple -- we witnessed the slow yet steady destruction that is happening amongst our people.

This month, א' אב תשע"ג, as has happened in recent months, many Jews gathered against the Women of the Wall (aka WOW). Some 5,000 orthodox Jews gathered and prevented the monthly prayer service of the WOW.  Insults were shouted back and forth, violence occurred, and on the beginning of the month we cry over the Temple torn apart as a result of baseless hatred, hatred from Jew to another escalated.
Later in the week a Charedi soldier was attacked by a gang of "religious" Jews on his way to visit relatives. Jews being beat up by Jews! It doesn't matter your reasoning, one may never hit a fellow Jew! When Moshe our teacher, saw two Jews striving, he calls them wicked just for raising an arm to their fellow (Exodus 2:13 see Rashi). How wicked it must be to actually strike another Jew!
I am furious at you, my people! When will you learn! The Temple will not be rebuilt on the grounds of violently lashing out against people with varying views; and no, it will also not be rebuilt because of stubborn dedication to a feminist cause.

What use is the Kotel if it becomes a battleground for a civil war? What use is a remnant of a Temple, if it will, because of our actions, never to be rebuilt, G-d forbid?

Are you so lost, my people, that you truly believe assaulting a Jew verbally or physically is going to bring the Divine Presence to return to the Temple Mount? Have you truly become mad?

As for you, outraged "Fighting for G-d" religious Jews: did you not learn anything from the love, patience, and concern with which Moshe our teacher treated the Jewish people? Did you forget the part where Moshe challenged G-d and defended the Jewish people even after the sin of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32:31)? Forgive me, but don't you think that the majority of the Jews worshiping a molten calf is worse than a few women donning Tefillin?
And for you, stubborn revolutionary Women of the Wall: Are your motives pure? Are you truly trying to glorify G-d's Name? Even if I accept your motives, isn't there a way to compromise that would cause peace in our nation instead of war?

You, the evil men who attacked the soldier: I have no respect for you at all. You have caused shame to our people in the eyes of the world. Your hatred for the State has caused you to beat up a soldier. Woe to those who share your company. May you have the clarity to beg the soldier, and your people for forgiveness in your lifetime.

What has happened to you, my people? When will you wake up? When will we end this cycle of baseless hatred? Is it even possible?

Our actions caused the Temple to be destroyed. That means that our actions have the power to rebuild it. The fires of hate burned our holy Temple to the ground; only through the strength of love shall it be rebuilt. Please let us make Av a month of building rather than destroying.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Sex, gods, & The Epidemic of Ignorance

“Is Ba'al one of the Jewish gods?”

That was the question I heard while sitting in a class with other Israeli soldiers today. We were learning about something nicknamed “the Agriculture of Ba'al.” Once, we were taught, the Canaanites, who worshiped many gods, would pray when they wanted rain to the god called Ba'al. Their faith was their agricultural method. There was no need for irrigation or pipes of any kind, just stronger prayer.

Hence, in modern times the method of relying on rain for the watering of your fields is called the Agriculture of Ba'al.

One of the soldiers in the class -- who wears tefillin when he can and has a basic understanding of Judaism -- asked: "Was Ba'al a Jewish god?" The teacher explained to him that it was not.

I sat there stunned. How could there be a Jew in the world who would think that Jews could believe in more than one God??
It reminded me of something I mistakenly read two days ago on Facebook. What I read made me so upset I had trouble sleeping.

Essentially it was an article someone wrote and posted to someone else's website. The article was followed by the website director's angry response.

I will paraphrase so as not to waste your time.

The first writer spoke at first of his annoyance at his young self (13) for naively thinking that his life would work itself out and that he would have an easy time finding his "perfect match." His "wise ancient self" (23 years old) knows better. He sees that he is not going to have an easy time getting married, and so he proposed a solution to his "lonely" problem. He called it “Shomer Ahava” or "Guarding Love." He decided the clear Biblical and rabbinical prohibition of not touching or sleeping with girls was no longer important, and that if one loves the girl he then is permitted, in accordance with the “law” of "Shomer Ahava," to touch, kiss, and sleep with her without being married.
Any Jew with a basic respect for the Torah and its eternal commandments would be sickened by this weak, temptation-driven rationalization.

But wait! There's hope. We see that the clearly religious website director is furious at this atrocious presumption and casting aside of Jewish law. We hope that he will "save the day" and offer the true Jewish perspective.

However as we begin reading our hopes are quickly extinguished. The second article is spent reprimanding the first author on his "Christian idea that sex has anything to do with love." The second author goes on to refute such thought and claim that in Judaism sex is exclusively for the purpose of procreation. He mentions certain esteemed rabbis, and then rhetorically asks: "Do you really think they slept with their wives out of love?!"
I felt sick to my stomach. It is clear to anyone that these two men have an ignorant view of Jewish thought. Even more than that, there are many Jews who, if asked the Jewish perspective on love, sex, happiness, depression, or war, would have a weak response with few supporting proofs,if they have a response at all.

Many if not all of us are guilty of this. We hear things. We accept things. We cast things away. All without the research required for understanding classic Jewish thought.

We are in an epidemic of ignorance in Judaism!
We must return to being "wisdom-seekers." We need to delve into Jewish thought. To study, challenge, contemplate and internalize.

The Torah comes from the word "hora'ah," meaning "instruction." It is a manual written by the Creator of the universe, with life instruction on how to have a great and meaningful life. Within it are the answers we seek.

But we must choose to seek them out...

Saturday, June 22, 2013

When "G-d" Means Nothing

"How are you?"

"Great, Baruch Hashem! You?"

"Praise to G-d, life is great."

"Are you flying overseas?"

"Be'ezrat Hashem, yes."

"May Hashem watch over you."


It is commonplace to hear two Jews in Israel talking in this manner. The interesting part is that all Jews talk like that! From the most religious, to the completely secular. It's an Israeli colloquialism to recognize G-d's Name throughout your daily conversations.

The other day when discussing after-army plans with a fellow soldier -- it's a coping mechanism, okay -- he closed off his plans with: "I don't know, whatever G-d wants for me."

I stood there for a moment and contemplated this statement. The boy was without a kippah and without much connection to Judaism. I wanted to say: "Don't you think G-d wants you to do what He says?" but I bit my tongue, knowing that it would have been a counter-productive remark.

How perplexing, I thought, how could he say something like that without caring about its obvious implication?! Why bring G-d into it if he doesn't actually mean it?!

And then I woke up the next morning...

And I davened. Or rather, I mumbled out the prescribed prayer between yawns and mild dozing. And then it hit me...

My tefilla is much like my friend’s statement. It is a ritual. A habitual reaction to a circumstance. Empty words that can be easily replaced with words like: fate, luck, Mother Nature, etc.
Yet isn't that the paradox of all religious service? Man is expected to feel an outpouring of his feeling towards G-d at a set time and place. A timed and controlled emotional and uplifting experience. Is that really possible?

Certainly one must always be striving for concentration, but I have yet to meet the Jew who can claim he has accomplished a constant focus in all his prayers. So those times we don't feel, what's the point? Is there any worth in a completely secular person making "Baruch Hashem" part of his daily expressions?

Allow me to bring a poignant example I heard from HaRav Noah Weinberg. Why do we teach our children to be courteous -- to say things like "please" and "thank you" -- long before they are able to comprehend why these words are important? When they are young, their manners are not based on the understanding of every person’s inherent value, but are based on years of child-rearing. We train our children to get into the ritual of being polite so that when they get older, those empty words will be filled with the meaning only adulthood can teach them.
This is the solution to the religious paradox. We pray. We say many empty words. The idea is to get into the ritual, the habit, and somewhere down the line, to fill those empty words with meaning.

So when my friend said: "...whatever G-d wants for me," he didn't mean it now, and truly the word "G-d" could have been replaced with many other words; yet hopefully somehow, someway, that word will fill up, and he will hear its powerful meaning. Just as water must have a vessel in order to be captured, so is true with wisdom.
May G-d help us fill our prayers and our religious service with meaning, but mostly give us the strength to keep the rituals alive until that time arrives. Amen.