Thursday, December 6, 2012

Of Prostitutes, Paternity and P'tilim; Reflections on Parshat Vayeshev5773

How are we to understand the bizarre encounter between Tamar and Judah in Genesis Chapter 38? 

("Oh Mildred, it's just another of those whack-a-doo Bible fables. It don't mean nuthin'.") Is it, though? 

The essential facts are these: Judah's oldest son marries but dies, leaving behind Tamar, a childless widow. Judah instructs his second son to fulfill the obligation of levirate marriage with Tamar, and he too dies. Judah sends his daughter-in-law packing, still childless and still in her mourning clothes, back to her father's house, with vague promises of an eventual levirate marriage to Shelah, Judah's last remaining son, as soon as he is old enough to do the deed.

She waits. And waits. And waits. She waits for years. She waits until it is self-evident that Judah has (rather conveniently) forgotten her. So she cooks up a plan to entrap Judah in a tryst that would result in her long-desired pregnancy. The trap works. Judah reluctantly acknowledges paternity, and this union is sanctioned in Heaven; indeed, the Davidic/Messianic line is to ultimately come this most unlikely liaison.

At first blush, this story seems more suited for the Montel Williams Show than the Torah. It certainly does not cast Judah in a positive light. Why is this story presented here, embedded in the saga of the selling of Joseph; indeed, why is it related at all? What is the deeper lesson of Tamar & Judah?

Judah was the ringleader in selling Joseph into slavery, at a time when slavery meant probable death. Once the cash was counted and the gravity of his act begins to press upon him, Judah, like Lady Macbeth, freaks out. He flees, trying to outrun his guilty heart. And where does he go? To a place called Adulam, which in Hebrew sounds like Ad Olam, "to the end of the earth." And he befriends a fellow named Hirah, which sounds a lot like the Hebrew word Herut, which means freedom.
So he runs away to re-invent himself, someplace where he and his famous family are unknown. He wants to be free of his past. He throws off his true identity. He tries to bury the cry of his guilty heart with booze, with showgirls, with diversions of every type. He gains a reputation as a rake, as a party animal's party animal. He was the kind of guy who couldn't take even the shortest drive in the car without the radio blaring, because he dreaded the whisper of his soul that could be discerned in the cavernous emptiness of his heart.
Does any of this sound even vaguely familiar? How many Jewish teens run off to college to re-invent themselves, to gain distance from their family, to party hard, to forget their past (there's plenty of time to worry about the future later...) I remember working with the Hillel advisor at the University of Maine, where there were hundreds of Jewish students, but only three or four active in the Hillel. When I asked him about this, he said, "Jewish kids come up to UMaine from all over the country precisely to forget that they're Jewish."
And what of Tamar? In contrast to Judah, Tamar knows exactly who she is, and where her destiny lies. She is determined to graft herself into the Abrahamitic line, and in so doing contribute to the greater destiny of the Jewish people. But despite repeated attempts, her ambition is thwarted. She understands that the key to solving her problem lies with Judah. So she has to come up with a plan.
What plan is most likely to succeed? She knows Judah's nature all too well. She doesn't come around disguised as a seller of holy books; no, her best chance of cornering Judah is as a fille de joie, the tawdry underbelly of life that she knows Judah is not unfamiliar with.
And so Tamar seduces Judah on his way to Timnah, to the county fair, for the annual sheep-shearing. The county fair! Just think how much trouble you can find there if you're looking for it! And for Judah, the party starts early. As they negotiate a price, Judah pledges his signet ring, a p'til and his staff as guarantee of payment after the fair. The Kli Yakar, R' Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz, points out that these three items represent his rejected former life. The signet ring ('chotam') symbolizes the Covenant of Abraham (circumcision); p'til recalls the p'til t'chelet, the blue thread of the tzitzit which we wear precisely to remind ourselves not to engage in improper behavior; and his staff represents his position of leadership within the clan of Jacob. By giving them away, he was saying, in essence, "I would gladly trade these symbols of my former life, which I despise, for a few minutes of pain-numbing intimacy with you."
And what is the significance of the place-name Timnah? Three generations earlier, a woman named Timnah wanted desperately to join the clan of Abraham, but for whatever reason, Abraham rejected her as a convert. Ultimately she fulfilled her goal by becoming a concubine of Eliphaz, Esau's firstborn son. So Timnah and Tamar were soul-sisters on a certain level.
When Tamar identifies the father of her baby with the pledges, Judah is absolutely gobsmacked. He is put on the spot, and he has to make a choice: continue the lie that is his new life and deny paternity, or admit to it, and in so doing, admit to all of it - who he really is, and finally deal with the consequences of his choices.
In that instant Judah has a blinding flash of clarity and purpose. Tamar's behavior teaches him something fundamental: although we may run, we can never hide from our true identity, from our true destiny, from our true selves. Gcd's Will in the world will be accomplished with or without our help. In admitting paternity of this child (twins, as it turns out) he takes back his pledges, the symbols of his real life; he spares an innocent woman her life; and he resolves to return home and rebuild his shattered family.
He now confronts the painful realities he has been avoiding for years. In that instant, his path is laid out for him, and he realizes what he must do. Perhaps he cannot undo the selling of Joseph, but he can re-unite with his remaining brothers and make peace among them. The time for petty rivalries is long past; the survival of the Abrahamitic mission is very much in jeopardy. Reuben, who is well meaning but a little soft in the head, is not up to this task. Shimon and Levi will always be suspect by their father after their bloody over-reaction to the rape of Dinah. Judah is the next in line. If he doesn't step up, who will? So here we see the emergence of Judah's role as leader, and ultimately king, of Israel.
Every one of us is put on earth for a reason; every one of us is intended to partner with Gcd to help perfect the world He started. It is our job to define the mission of our lives and execute on it. We all have to make Judah's decision for ourselves. We can run for a while, but we cannot hide forever. If we refuse the mantle of leadership, the nations of the world will force it upon us: "Ten men from each of the Seventy Nations will grab the Jew by the hem of his garment and say, 'Let us go with you, for we have heard that Gcd is with you.'" (Zechariah 8:23)
Especially today, in the troubled times in which we live, the world needs the message of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob more urgently than ever before.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Trial of Jacob Isaacson - Reflections on Parshat Toledot 5773

"Order in the court!" The sharp cracks of the gavel echoed through the crowded courtroom. "I will have order in my court!"

The packed courtroom gradually settled down to a restive silence. 

"Counsel, proceed with your summation."

"Yes, your honor. My client, Ya'acov (Jacob) Isaacson, stands accused of being a thief, trickster, con-artist and schemer; specifically, that he wrongfully acquired the birthright from his older brother, and later conned his blind, ailing father Isaac into giving him the blessing Isaac had intended for Esau. It is said that an oft-repeated lie becomes the truth; and because these scurrilous charges went unanswered for so long, they have been magnified, perpetuated and hurled at my client's progeny by their enemies to advance their own pernicious agendas. 

"I would like to lead the jury through the facts in evidence to demonstrate categorically that not only is my client innocent of these charges, but that the real deceiver is none other than his primary accuser - his twin brother Esau Isaacson."

The jury sat a little straighter, while the spectators in the courtroom shifted nervously in their seats.

"Let's begin with my client's parents. My client is accused of conspiring with his mother, Rebecca, to swindle the Blessing from Isaac; that somehow the mother and father were on opposite sides of this intense fraternal dispute. And yet we have been presented evidence that that they were, in fact, an exceptionally close-knit couple. Eyewitnesses report that when Rebecca first laid eyes on her future husband, she was so smitten that she fell off her camel! Isaac returned her love with a passion and depth that even eluded Abraham and Sarah, his parents. Later on in Gerar, they are seen trading caresses, confidences and private jokes the way only young lovers do - so much so that it was obvious they were married and very much in love. 

"Isaac was orphaned at a relatively young age, and Rebecca was an immigrant, completely cut off from her family in the old country. Isaac and Rebecca had only each other upon whom to rely, and by all accounts, they were inseparable in both thought and deed. I ask the jury to consider: is this a couple that would abide secrets and dissension between them?

"Now let us turn to their two sons: Esau and Jacob. As you know, Esau, the elder, became a proficient hunter, but perhaps 'predator' is a more fitting term. Rabbi Shlomo came all the way from France to testify before this court that Esau acted more like the wild animals he hunted: he was guilty of murder, rape, extortion, blasphemy and idol worship. Damning evidence, indeed! But when he came home, he would tuck a book under his arm and pepper his father with intricate ethico-legal questions, in order to convey the impression that he was just as thoughtful and scholarly as Jacob. Is that the behavior of an honest man?

"Ladies and gentlemen of the jury: I now ask you to cast your gaze upon my client. He is an "Ish Tam" a simple man, incapable of artifice or chicanery; a contemplative young man whose best friends were the books he surrounded himself with day and night. Through his academic studies he was animated and inspired by the exploits of the grandfather he barely knew, the towering personality of Abraham. He desperately, passionately wanted to carry on in those footsteps. More than anything else in life, he wanted the Blessing of Abraham, through Isaac, to be bestowed upon him. He knew that somehow it was his destiny. And for my client, that Blessing was inextricably entwined in the birthright. (In the original Hebrew, the words "my birthright" and my blessing" are anagrams of each other. Genesis 27:36)

"Let us turn now to the first charge: that my client wrongfully acquired the birthright from his older brother. I will re-create the scene, but before I do, let us recall the testimony of Rabbi Ibn Ezra, who stated that despite the grand wealth of grandfather Abraham, by this time the family had been reduced to penury. This was the reason my client was cooking rice and beans - it was the only food they could afford. This also explains why my client later left for Labanland without a drachma to his name.

"Picture the scene if you will: as my client is cooking his lentils, in bursts Esau - dirty, exhausted and ravenously hungry from a day of predations. Without so much as a 'hello' or a 'bid thee well" he imperiously demands the red porridge my client was cooking. Thinking on his feet, my client offered an exchange: the food for the birthright. The evidence has shown that Esau viewed his birthright as being of no financial value; true the firstborn normally receives a double portion of inheritance, but as we have seen, Isaac was impecunious, so Esau reckoned that double of nothing is still nothing. Something for what amounted to nothing? The deal was quickly struck.

"Ladies and gentlemen of the jury: a valid and binding sale took place on that day. Each party to the sale thought that they had the better end of the bargain. Esau - because he had traded something of no value (his birthright) for something of tangible value (food); and Jacob - because he believed that he had secured for himself his life's goal - the Blessing of Abraham.

"We now turn to the most serious charge - that my client, Jacob Isaacson, tricked his blind, ailing father and stole the Blessing of Abraham that Isaac intended to bestow upon Esau." 

A low murmur began to ascend through the crowd. One bang of the gavel brought the murmur back down to a simmer.

"Now let us review the relevant testimony regarding the alleged swindle.

- Isaac bids Esau to go out and trap a deer; dress, prepare and cook the venison; and finally serve it up in order that Isaac may bless Esau before he dies. 

- Rebecca casually overhears these instructions, and rushes to alert Jacob that Isaac is preparing to bless Esau. 

- Rebecca devises an elaborate plan, seemingly on the spot: she will quickly cook some goat meat for Isaac. Jacob will serve it, bluffing through this charade as Esau, and receive the blessing Isaac is preparing to give.

- Jacob objects that Esau is hairy and smelly, while he is smooth-skinned and fair. He is certain his father will see through this transparent hoax and will curse him instead of blessing him. Rebecca suggests putting goatskins on Jacob's arms and neck to "hair him up," and dress him Esau's clothes to "smell him up." Despite my client's objections, Rebecca is completely confident this improbable plan will work. Somehow, she's not worried about a negative outcome.

- My client reluctantly yields to his mother and the plan proceeds. Incredibly, Isaac falls prey to this slipshod hoax, eats the goat meat and never notices that it's not venison. He blesses his "first born" with a generic blessing of strength and abundance. Jacob quickly exits.

- Just then, Esau enters with his prepared dish. Isaac trembles when he discovers the deception. He claims to have no blessing for the real Esau, and then scares up a blessing not dissimilar from the one he granted Jacob a few moments earlier.

- Esau seethes with rage, vowing to kill Jacob after their father dies. 

- Isaac and Rebecca dispatch Jacob to Labanland to escape the wrath of Esau. Before he leaves, Isaac bestows upon him the Blessing of Abraham. 

The defense attorney paused, and cast his eye for a long moment across the judge, jury and gallery.

"Your honor, ladies and gentlemen of the jury: I must confess, that in all my years at the bar, I have never heard a more outrageous and frankly unbelievable story than the testimony presented to us in this case. Why, may I ask:

- Did Isaac request venison for dinner, when something simpler would have sufficed? How does Rebecca dream up this hoax on the spot? Why she is assured of it's success? Why is Isaac taken in by the crude and childish deception of the goatskins? Why does he not notice that the goat is not venison? Why does he give both brothers a rather generic blessing during the hoax? And most important of all:

- Why, after the hoax, wasn't Isaac upset with Jacob? Instead of demonstrating feelings of anger and betrayal, Isaac protects Jacob and bestows upon him his most precious legacy: the mantle and blessing of Father Abraham.

Perhaps...the request for venison will get Esau out of the house for several hours.

Perhaps...Rebecca's embellishes Isaac's words to Esau by adding  "before God" as she relates what she heard to Jacob in order to spur him to action.

Perhaps...Isaac is taken in by Rebecca's hoax BECAUSE THEY DEVISED THE PLAN TOGETHER, IN ADVANCE!!"

Bedlam erupted in the courtroom. After fifteen minutes of gavel banging and the appearance of several armed bailiffs, a semblance of order was restored to the courtroom. 

"Mr. Orekhdin, do you realize that you are exculpating your client by implicating his parents in a massive conspiracy?"

"Your honor, I can see no other way to account for all the facts. You see, Although Isaac was visually blind, his other senses were actually heightened. Furthermore, he was, by all accounts, a very holy and wise man, and it is well known that sages become even more perceptive as they get older. Esau thought he had his father fooled, but Isaac had Esau's number from the very start.

"However, Isaac and Rebecca had a problem. Esau had married two Hittite women - both of whom were known idolaters and possessed of - ahem - a rather colorful and scandalous reputation. This act confirmed what they knew all along: that Esau was not the intellectual and spiritual heir of Abraham. They had to devise a ploy to give Jacob the Blessing, and yet protect themselves and Jacob from Esau's uncontrollable and bloody rage. And so this elaborate ruse was conceived.

"As further evidence, your honor, I respectfully direct you to the transcript, where Isaac and Rebecca facilitate Jacob's escape. They charge him in the strongest possible terms not to marry a Canaanite woman, but rather to find a bride among the kinsfolk of Rebecca in Labanland. They expect him to be home again very soon, after Esau's temper has cooled and he was once again distracted by his normal appetites and diversions.

"Ladies and gentlemen of the jury: justice and history demand that you acquit my client, Jacob Isaacson, of all the charges leveled against him. The defense rests."

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Long and Winding Road: Reflections on Parashat Lech Lecha 5773

The Long & Winding Road was the last song the Beatles recorded together. It always struck me as a very fitting, profoundly moving farewell to the band that so shaped my musical sensibilities. But what do the Beatles have to do with Abraham & Sarah?

Let's start with a "Cliff's Notes" summary of Parashat Lech Lecha:

Gcd says to Abram: Leave everything you know and go to some super-secret mystery destination. Trust Me, it'll work out, and you will be blessed with children, money, land and fame.

OK, off they go. They arrive in mysteryland, Canaan, only to hit a brick wall…there's no actual food there, as they arrive during a famine.

OK, off they go…to Egypt to get food, only to hit a brick wall…Sarai is abducted for the Pharaoh's hareem. They escape with their lives and are unceremoniously escorted under armed guard to the border. (I don't think that's the fame Gcd had in mind…)

OK, off they go…back to Canaan, in fact, right back to the exact place they started, only to hit a brick wall…turns out their nephew Lot is a cattle rustler and is giving Abram a bad rep with the locals.  Furthermore, it's becoming clear that Lot is not the heir through which Gcd's promises to Abram will be fulfilled. So Lot's got to go.

OK, Lot exits stage right, eastward. Their efforts to settle in hit yet another brick wall…Lot is abducted and Abram is dragged into somebody else's war to jailbreak his wayward nephew.

OK, back to working the plan, but still no heir, a major brick wall there. So Sarai comes up with a plan to have her handmaiden be a surrogate mom, so Sarai could raise the baby as her own.

But…the plan hits a SERIOUS brick wall. The surrogate mom decides not to give the baby over and demands co-equal status with Sarai as Abram's wife. Rebellion, chaos, and violence ensue in their home. Niiiiice…and this hellion child Yishmael is self-evidently not going to be the heir they had hoped and prayed for.

Oh and by the way…you and your sons should forever cut off a piece of your delicate anatomy as a symbol of the eternal covenant between Gcd and (now renamed) Abraham. 

At this point, things look pretty grim for our hero. Unless something changes fast, Abraham, the first monotheist and progenitor of the Jewish people, will die without an heir and his life's work will be reduced to a yard sale some sunny Sunday morning on the Plains of Mamre.

Here is the Beatles tie-in: Abraham & Sarah traveled a very long and winding road; theirs is a story of a life that quite emphatically does not go according to plan. The road of Life keeps detouring on them.  Everything they try to build is knocked down. Theirs is a story of obstacles, crises and diversions. There is no discernible pattern to their experiences. It is a story of frustrated hopes, dreams and aspirations. Even the shapes of the Hebrew letters which comprise the words "Lech Lecha" betoken ups and downs, detours, sharp curves and bends.

From the song:

The wild and windy night that the rain washed away 
Has left a pool of tears crying for the day 
Why leave me standing here, let me know the way 
Many times I've been alone and many times I've cried 
Anyway you'll never know the many ways I've tried 
And still they lead me back to the long and winding road 

And punctuating every setback, the A-lmighty "doubles down" on His assurances to Abram & Sarai, making the eventual fulfillment of those promises even less likely and more miraculous. 

Can't we all relate to this experience on some level?. Haven't we all experienced blunted hopes, shattered dreams, and setbacks along the road to what really matters to us? Haven't we given it our all, and yet find progress elusive? Haven't we all watched our goals become more remote in spite of our hard work to achieve them? And how tempting it is to throw up our hands in frustration and give in to despair! But that is not the Jewish way. Abraham and Sarah show us a different path.

When we, mere mortals, resolve to go from Point "A" to Point "B", we draw a straight line between the two: efficient, simple, and pleasing to the eye. And then we expect life to conform to our pretty little line. But the A-lmighty doesn't work in straight lines. "For My thoughts are not your thoughts, and My paths are not your paths, says Hashem." (Isaiah 55:8)  Gcd is called the "Zokef Kfufim" the One that straightens out those who who are crouched down. The human form is vertical. We stand straight up and down, but can you point to one bone in the human body which is truly straight? Somehow, straightness emerges from complex curves, bends and arches. That is Gcd's way - straightness emerging from the bent, simplicity from complexity, clarity from chaos. Detours are not really detours, and every curve has a purpose.

Gcd says later, "…For I have loved him (Abraham) because he commands his household after him that they keep the ways of Hashem, doing charity and justice, in order that Hashem might then bring upon Abraham that which He had spoken of him." (Genesis 18:19) We look to Abraham and Sarah as role models precisely because of the way they dealt with their adversities. They didn't despair; through all their travails, they never once doubted that Gcd's promises would be fulfilled - somehow. Nor were they ever bitter, angry or resentful. To the contrary, they are known as the paragons of kindness and open hearts to all who crossed their doorstep. The setbacks they endured make their faithfulness and kindliness even more exceptional. For that is the true Jewish path: to be loving, giving and thankful, even - or perhaps especially - in the midst of confusion, chaos and trouble. Because Lcrd knows we've had a bellyful of that in our history.

Abraham and Sarah whisper encouragements to us from four thousand years ago: keep moving forward, you're doing fine. Yes, it's a long and winding road, but trust Me, it'll all work out.

Shabbat Shalom.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Reflections on the Rosh HaShanah Liturgy: The Great Shofar

Reflections on the Rosh HaShanah Liturgy: The Great Shofar

In the Rosh HaShanah prayers, we read the following: 
"And the Great Shofar will blow, and the still small voice will be heard; and the angels on high will tremble, proclaiming: the Judgment Day is at hand!”

What “Great Shofar” is the machzor referring to?

On Rosh HaShanah 1933, shortly after Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany, Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaKohen Kook delivered a famous sermon on this subject in the Old City of Jerusalem.

He explained as follows: According to Jewish Law, there are three types of Shofarot:
Best: Min Hamevuchar – the ram’s horn;
Better: From any kosher animal (except a heifer [think golden calf, duh])
Minimally acceptable: From any animal, even a non-kosher animal – but no brachah
These three shofars of Rosh Hashanah correspond to three 'shofars of redemption', summoning the Jewish people to be redeemed and redeem their land.

The preferred 'shofar of redemption' is the divine call that awakens the people through holy motivations — out of faith in Gcd and the sanctity of the people of Israel. This form of awakening corresponds to the ram's horn, recalling the holy dedication of "Akeidat Yitzchak" (the Binding of Isaac). The inspiring call of this 'shofar' brought Maimonides, Nachmanides, Rabbi Yehuda HaLevy, Rabbi Ovadia of Bartenura, the disciples of the Vilna Gaon, and the Hasidim of the Baal Shem Tov to return to the Land of Israel. It is for this "great shofar", an awakening of spiritual greatness, that we pray.

There exists a second 'shofar of redemption', a lower level of awakening. This shofar calls out to the Jews to come to the Land of Israel, to return to the land of our ancestors, our prophets, and our kings. It beckons us to live as a free people in our homeland, educate our children in a Jewish environment; where being Jewish is normative, where the whole country shuts down for Shabbat, where everybody celebrates Purim (Hallo-what?), where you can eat in virtually any restaurant and fress on kosher Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken to your heart's content. This is a kosher shofar, albeit not as great a shofar as the first type of awakening. Yet we may still recite a bracha over this shofar.

There is, however, a third type of shofar. (At this point, Rav Kook burst out in tears.) The least preferred shofar comes from the horn of an unclean animal. This shofar is the wake-up call that comes from antisemitic nations, warning the Jews to escape while they still can and flee to their own land. Our enemies force us to the path of redemption. They sound out the trumpets of war, bombarding us with deafening threats of persecution and torment, giving us no respite. The shofars of unclean beasts are transformed into the messianic shofar.

Whoever ignores the calls of the first two shofars will be forced to listen to the call of this last shofar. On this shofar, however, no blessing is recited. "One does not recite a blessing over a cup of affliction." (Berachot 51b)

The shofar we blow on Rosh HaShanah calls out to the A-lmighty – the stuttering articulation of the mute soul, the uncontrollable sobbing of the human heart. The anger of every parent melts away before the gushing tears of an inconsolable child. The cry of the shofar calls out as if to say, ‘Dear Father, we are keenly aware of our deficiencies, yet how can you be angry with us when we cry openly before you?’
But even as the shofar pierces the veils of heaven, the prayerbook calls out to us:
All mankind will pass before You like a flock of sheep. Like a shepherd pasturing his flock, making sheep pass under his staff, so shall You cause to pass, count, calculate, and consider the soul of all the living; and You shall apportion the destinies of all Your creatures and inscribe their verdict.
On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword, who by beast, who by famine, who by thirst, who by upheaval, who by plague, who by strangling, and who by stoning. Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted. But Repentance, Prayer, and Charity avert the severe Decree!"
“Who shall live and who shall die.” Sometimes people read these words and misunderstand them to mean that everything is cast in stone for the year to come.  Nothing could be farther from the truth. These words are not a statement of predestination, that all is pre-ordained for the coming year and we are but pawns in some cosmic chess game. Rather, Rabbi Amnon’s dramatic words speak out to us from across the centuries to say exactly the opposite: we possess the power to influence the outcome of events in the coming year.

How? The machzor tells us: U’teshuvah, u’tefillah, u’tzedakah, i.e., "And repentance, and prayer and charity will suspend the evil decree."

Notice the words aren’t “Teshuvah…” but U’teshuvah. The letter vav connects the two concepts. Yes, the book of life and the book of death are open before the A-lmighty on this, the Day of Judgment, but our actions influence the verdict, because it is through our actions that Gcd’s Light will illuminate the world.

The great shofar calls out to us to give tzedakah, because the act of giving tzedakah is, by its very nature, a redemptive act. Why should this be so? When a person gives tzedakah - freely, willingly and with an open heart, such a person is proclaiming that Gcd is the source of all sustenance. Many people labor under the misapprehension that the one who earns the money owns it and is free to do with it as he pleases. And so most people see charity as highly optional, choosing to donate or not according to the caprice or whim of the donor. Because of this error in thinking, charities must devise all sorts of demeaning artifices and inducements to stroke the egos of donors – plaques, honors, awards, ceremonies, dedications, etc.

But tzedakah is not almsgiving. We must understand that we are only trustees of Gcd’s munificence; giving tzedakah demonstrates that we are responsible stewards of that which ultimately belongs to Gcd. In so doing, we recognize Gcd’s sovereignty in the world, and as instruments of Gcd’s will, we become worthy of redemption.

How many of us have driven by a beggar, a homeless person, holding up a sign on the side of the street? How often do we drive by without rolling down a window? How often do we hear ourselves rationalize our actions by saying, “he’d probably just use the money to buy booze,” or “McDonald’s is hiring; if those people need money, why don’t they get a job?”

Did anyone see the movie which came out a few years ago called “The Blind Side?” It’s about a family that felt the call to give tzedakah to the needy as they crossed paths. One of the times they rolled down that window, they stumbled across Michael Oher, a homeless boy of exceptional talents. They brought him into their home, adopted him, and he went on to become an exceptional student and athlete, eventually becoming a successful left tackle for the Baltimore Ravens.

You see, it doesn’t matter what the recipient does with the money – that’s out of your control. Maybe the person you give to is another Michael Oher; you may never know. But the act of unrequited giving brings redemption to the world and like the Blind Side, has positive effects way out of proportion to the deed.

The great shofar calls out to us to pray; in Yiddish, we say to daven. Davening – tefillah – means so much more than prayer. It is also praise, petition, supplication, connection – the synchronizing of our souls, the spark of life, with the source of all life. Daven passionately! The more we daven the liturgy, the more we appreciate it’s poetry, it’s structure and symmetry, it’s complexity, it’s elevated and inspired qualities.

The Midrash Tanchumah says that tefillah is greater than good deeds. How do we know this to be true? The Midrash teaches that all of Moses' good deeds could not reverse Gcd’s decree preventing him from entering the Land of Israel. But his tefillah was so effective, that he was commanded by Gcd to stop davening for this request. The meforshim, the commentaries, tell us that had he persisted, Gcd would have relented and allowed him to enter the Land. Such is the power of tefillah – all of Moses' mitzvoth did not equal his impassioned plea from the heart. The implications of this Midrash are amazing for us all.

There is a prayer called tikkun hatzot. Many people are unaware of it, but the idea is to get up in the middle of the night and mourn for the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Tikkun Hatzot has a reputation for being a very, very powerful and effective tefillah. Why? Think about it - where must the heart of a person be to arise from a warm bed at one o’clock in the morning, and sit on the floor and cry – truly cry - over the sins which led to the destruction of Gcd’s house? Tikkun Hatzot can move mountains, as can all sincere tefillah.

The Siddur is our most overlooked sefer - we say in Psalms, "Turn to Gcd and pour your heart out like water". Every Jewish person has an obligation to daven every day. Not to mumble a bunch of meaningless syllables in a strange language, but real tefillah, soul-level tefillah. The heartfelt tefillah of every Jew is urgently needed in the world; when even one Jew doesn’t daven, the rest of Knesset Yisrael acutely feels the vacuum made by that absence.

A small personal revelation: everything I have ever passionately davened for in my life the A-lmighty has granted me, from little things to big things. True, the answers don’t come right away, and often the way the petition is granted is not the way you expected it! So pour your heart out to Gcd, and be careful what you ask for!

Finally, the great shofar calls out to us to do teshuvah. We live in extraordinary times; in some respects, in very frightening times. We hear the bleating of the traif shofar Rav Kook referred to. We worry about our families, our kids and our parents; we worry about a collapsing economy and irredeemable sovereign debt; we worry about disintegrating families and the moral breakdown of society; we worry about the steady assault and encroachments on civil liberties and personal freedoms; we worry about the rising tide of anti-semitism in the world, and a nuclear capable Iran and an indifferent world community.

True, we worry about these problems, and many others besides, but what can we do? After all, we are not politicians or generals. Well, there is something we can do – we can do teshuvah. Rav Kook teaches that the truly righteous don’t complain about evil in the world, they flood the world with goodness.

The Torah says that through us, the Jewish people, all the nations of the world will be blessed. In other words, to the extent that we fulfill our mission of being ambassadors of Gcd’s light in the world, of rising to the calling as a Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation, of being teachers and moral guides to humanity, is the extent to which true peace and goodness flourish in the world.

Teshuvah means so much more than repentance. We are, as the bumper sticker says, spiritual beings having a physical experience. Teshuvah is the yearning of the soul, the spark of life, to connect with Gcd, the Source of all life. Teshuvah is the vivication of the body and spirit. It is literally the spiritual force which enables all life. When we keep kosher, when we observe Shabbat in all its particulars, when we joyously build a sukkah and decorate it with our children, when we perform all of the 613 that apply to us, we are tapping into the Eternal Source of Life.

And the converse is true: aveirot (transgressions) cut us off from the Life Source. Every aveirah a Jew commits delays the ultimate redemption. Every bite of traif we eat, every mile in the car on Shabbat, every juicy morsel of gossip, every petty theft, every business or personal indiscretion, allows conditions to prevail in the world where darkness and confusion abound; a world where 40 million children are abandoned in sub-Saharan Africa; a world that responds to mass murder in Syria with a yawn; a world that has become desensitized to the outrages and abominations that have become an almost daily occurrence. The headlines alone demonstrate how darkness proliferates in the absence of Gcd’s light in the world. 

The way to begin fixing what’s wrong in the world is to begin by fixing ourselves. And it begins with the shofar we blow on Rosh HaShanah. If we all rededicate ourselves to the performance of mitzvoth, we, bound together with Jews from around the world, can change the world. U’Teshuvah, U’Tefillah, U’Tzedakah. 

The Great Shofar calls out to us to take Hashem’s commandments seriously. In Parshat Nitzavim, the parashah of teshuvah, Moses addresses the most common objection of living  Jewishly – its too hard. 'Shabbat conflicts with hockey and football and basketball and dance - it's too hard.' 'Keeping kosher means I can't eat out - it's too hard.' To these Moses responds: (Deut. 30:11 – 14) "For this commandment that I command you this day – it is not insurmountable and it is not distant. It is not in heaven, for you to say, 'Who can ascend to heaven for and take it for us, so that we can listen and perform it?' Nor is it across the sea for you to say, 'Who can cross the ocean and take it for us, so that we can listen and perform it?' Rather, the matter is very near to you – in your mouth and your heart – to do the mitzvoth.” We must begin to change the world by changing our hearts and our attitudes.

Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. The Great Shofar calls out to us to do something truly exceptional, something truly epic this year. So nu, what are you waiting for? Do something crazy good this year. Flood the world with goodness! Break out of your comfort zone; push yourself harder. Find a mitzvah you've neglected - just a teeny one! - and commit to do it every day. Perform random acts of unrequited goodness; adopt a child from Africa; give a ten dollar bill to a beggar exactly because he doesn’t deserve it; squelch the urge to share gossip; become a literacy volunteer; give a job to someone who is unemployed; call your mother and tell her you love her even though she drives you crazy; commit to spending just 15 minutes every day studying Torah; teach Torah to someone, anyone!; make new friend; open an aliyah file with Nefesh B’Nefesh; write a book; learn to sing or play an instrument; daven with passion and intensity and emotion – renew your acquaintance with the siddur.

I issue an open invitation to share stories of what we accomplish in the coming year to make the world a better place; of how we stand up and count among the Kingdom of Priests and the Holy Nation. There is much work to do, and time is exceedingly short.

May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life, and may Hashem grant you all the requests of your heart in the coming year. Hag Sameach.

***Important Note*** Attributions and thanks to R' Channan Morrison for the section about Rav Kook's 1933 speech. R' Morrison hosts the important website

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Reflections on Holocaust Remembrance Day

Tomorrow, April 19/27 Nissan, is celebrated as Holocaust Remembrance Day, or in Hebrew, Yom HaShoah v’haGevurah.
What is the enduring lesson of the Holocaust?
A generation ago, the Holocaust was taught as a lesson of man’s inhumanity to man; of the power of an artificial ideology to blind us to very real human anguish, and to deafen us to the bloodcurdling cries of the women and children. It was a lesson in Hannah Arendt’s eloquent characterization of the banality of evil. The Holocaust reminded us that despite two millennia of progress, Western Civilization was no more ethically advanced than the barbarians of old. And lastly, the Holocaust reminded us that evil, in its purest and most unalloyed form, exists within us all, and we must be forever on guard against it.
Today, however, the message has morphed into something more…sanitized. A meaningful discussion of good and evil is problematic, because it bespeaks a moral absolutism which is no longer fashionable. Instead, the Holocaust is now an object lesson in ‘tolerance,’ as we are encouraged to exhibit tolerance of the ‘other.’ Antisemitism has been distilled down to something less vexing and far more palatable, viz., a specialized form of intolerance. A piece of cake to understand. It is taken as axiomatic that if only everyone were more tolerant (or less intolerant?) of others, the world would be a much better place.
The new and improved Holocaust (ver. 2.1.0) is no longer a uniquely Jewish tragedy. After all, the Nazis ym”sh also harassed and persecuted trade unionists and communists, gypsys and homosexuals, Lutherans and Catholics. The German people themselves were the real victims of Nazism; just ask them.
Like a simple algebra equation, “x” = oppressor, “y” = oppressed. We plug in whichever values suit the moment.
So we have come to a place where Holocaust education is about inculcating tolerance for alternative lifestyles; for LGBT activists; for those living on the fringes of society; and presumably, for satanists, murderers, pedophiles, Holocaust deniers, and any other “other” we can identify with our values-neutral goggles.
And perhaps in the cruelest twist of all, the Jew is the new Nazi, oppressing, persecuting and driving the aboriginal Arab from his land. Yes, dear reader, the lesson of the Holocaust is…Palestinian Rights in the Jewish Apartheid Regime.
The immense tragedy of the Holocaust is compounded because we have not learned the proper lessons from it, and are thus doomed to repeat it. The Iranians apparently read Santayana.
So in light of the foregoing, please tolerate and consider an-other, alternative perspective, a classical understanding if you will, of the meaning of the Holocaust.
On every major Jewish holiday, we say the following prayer: “Because of our sins, we were exiled from our country, and distanced from our land [of Israel.]” Any meaningful understanding of the Holocaust has to begin in the context of a reflection on the nature of, and the reasons for, the Dispersion.

In the Book of Exodus, the A-lmighty charges the Jewish people to be a Kingdom of Priests and Holy Nation. It is our Divine mission; it is to illuminate our every act, infuse our every utterance. In the dark world of three millennia ago, Judaism alone held up the banner of morality, of compassion, and of hope against polytheism, chaos, nihilism and frank evil. So impeccable was to be our example of righteousness that the nations of the world would declare, “what a wise, knowledgeable and great nation is Israel! For what other nation has the A-lmighty so nearby, that they may call out to Him at will? And what other nation has such a codex of righteous statutes as their Torah?” Through our passionate deeds and words, the knowledge of the One True Gcd would be known, acknowledged and sanctified in the world.

To our unending sorrow, we stumbled in that mission. Within a relatively short time, the first Jewish Commonwealth was split in two, and the seductive Canaanite pagan cults were never successfully uprooted from the fields and minds of the Jewish common folk. Jew fought Jew, Torah observance lapsed, and the storm clouds of Assyria, Babylonia and Rome darkened our skies. Our current exile followed, and we have lived with the sequelae of our failure almost without interruption since that tragic time; indeed, we feel its rumblings down to our very day.

The evil we endured under the Nazis ym”sh was born of a worldview which not only rejected the notion of a Jewish moral beacon, but actively and aggressively sought to eliminate the Jew and his message from the world, root and branch. The Nazis were attempting the mass murder of an idea as much as a people, because evil cannot flourish in the presence of goodness.
Furthermore, and to their enduring shame, the nations of the world stood idly by. While perhaps not being as savage as the Nazis, they were not very enamored of the Jewish message, either. There was little objection to the premise that the world would be a better place without the Jew.
“Because of our sins, we were exiled from our country, and distanced from our land.” The attempt to understand the enormity of the destruction of European Judaism begins with a journey inward. I don’t know if it’s possible to teach tolerance to neo-Nazi skinheads, New Black Panthers and Jihadis, but I do know it is possible to change me. This idea, “because of our sins” (in Hebrew, mipnei chata’einu) teaches us that the proper lesson to take from the Holocaust is one of self-reflection, repentance, and re-dedication to the ennobling goals of our Jewish calling; of being Isaiah’s ‘Light unto the Nations.’  
Passover has just ended, and the taste of matzah is still fresh in our mouths. In the Haggadah, we say the following:
…for not only that one [i.e. Pharaoh] arose to destroy us; but in every generation evil people arise to destroy us. And in every case, the Holy One, Blessed be He, rescues us from their hand.”
Maybe that’s why Holocaust Remembrance Day falls right after Passover. The message, the connection, is ineluctable.
If we can act, then we are not truly victims. The Hebrew name for Holocaust Remembrance Day is more accurately translated as “The Day of the Holocaust and Heroism/Resolve.” Evil exists, but we resolve to never be its victims again. We resolve to fight evil in all its forms, wherever it is encountered. The People of Israel live, and the State of Israel lives, while the Nazi regime is gone.

I personally resolve to take upon myself this Holocaust Remembrance Day is a private fast day (b”n); one dedicated to introspection, self-improvement, study of Torah, and connection to Gcd. In so doing, I, along with many others, will sanctify Gcd’s Name in the world, and will bear witness that our six million did not die in vain.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

X-Ray Vision

The tragic shooting of Trayvon Martin has catapulted race relations back onto the front pages and into the consciousness of every thoughtful American. While much has already been written on this incident, one perspective has been missing. Specifically, what can Torah teach us about race relations in America?
I had a rebbe, Rabbi Richter, who told our seventh grade class about an amazing audience he once had as a young man with the Hasidic scion of New Square, NY, Rabbi Yaakov Yoseleh Twerski, known as the “Skverer Rebbe,” back in the early ‘60s. People from all walks of life used to line up and wait hours for a private audience with the Rebbe – Skverer Hasidim, hobos, hippies, spiritual seekers of all types. You see, the Rebbe was renowned for his freakish ability to spend but a moment with you and offer you very relevant, very specific advice for what was on your heart. The young Rabbi Richter left the audience quite shaken; and although he never divulged to the class the advice he received from the Skverer Rebbe, he always spoke of the meeting reverently, and said that it changed his life.
How could the Skverer Rebbe get a handle on a person’s true essence in a matter of seconds? Rabbi Richter said that he had a penetrating gaze, almost like he was looking directly into your soul. In other words, he had X-Ray vision.
Do you remember Superman’s X-Ray vision? That guy could see through solid stone walls. (And while we’re on the subject, I wonder where two Jewish boys, Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, got the idea of a righteous incorruptible hero, dedicated to truth and justice, wearing a suspiciously “tallit”-looking cape, who brings universal peace and redeems the world from evil? Hmmm. Also, did you know they couldn’t write the comic strip on Fridays? Early on, they story-boarded on a big piece of wood they found lying around the house, but on Fridays Bubbie needed her challah board back! True story. But I digress.)
I wish everybody had Superman’s X-Ray vision. Not to see through solid rock, or to sneak a peek under Lois Lane’s clothing. But rather to have that ability, the Skverer Rebbe’s ability, to see past the externalities, right into a person’s soul.
The Torah is a book of distinctions. The very first sentence says that the first thing the A-lmighty created was difference, distinction, discernment. Heaven and earth. The Torah goes on to speak of many types of distinction – between light and darkness, between good and evil, between the Sabbath day and the six weekdays, and between the unique mission of Israel in the world and the mission of the Nations. But nowhere – nowhere – in the A-lmighty’s book does He distinguish between people based upon skin color.
It can be argued that race relations has been the defining theme of American history. The Founding Fathers grappled with it from the very start of the Republic. At one time, many whites believed that blacks were sub-human, and subjugated, tortured and enslaved them. We have, thank Gcd, emerged from that horror and that blot on our national consciousness. Countless laws and tireless education have ensured equal opportunity for blacks in America; indeed, we have merited to see a black President of the United States, elected by a majority of all Americans.
Most Americans strive to treat their black neighbors with the same respect and consideration they expect for themselves. Many people of good will, and not a few prominent Jews, advocated equal rights for blacks. But that is not enough. The Torah holds us to an even higher standard – the Gcdly standard – the ability to see past the externalities of our neighbor and see his soul. We dare not see a black man or a white man before us – we must see a man, we must see our brother. Because that is the way Gcd sees us.
If we relate to our fellow man, either for good or for ill, primarily on the basis of skin color, we have already lost. Black supremacists are as misguided as white supremacists. Common references to the “Black Community” or the “White Community” or “Black voters” and “White voters” are demeaning and counterproductive.
This is the Torah’s secret: there is no such thing as a black person or a white person. Black people don’t exist, white people don’t exist. It is but a chimera. The only “race” is the human race. I am a person, we are people, you and me, created in the image of Gcd, a soul put on earth by the A-lmighty to fulfill a specific mission, in a specific place, at a specific time.
We must cultivate that intangible faculty, that sixth sense, to see the true essence of our neighbor, to transcend the veils that conceal the soul. What is their character? Are they honest? Are they kind? Are they learned? Are they wise? No physical characteristic can predict these soul traits.
A generation ago, the bad guys wore black uniforms with swastikas and totenkopf insignia on their helmets. It was relatively easy to tell who the enemy was. Today, we live in an age where the enemy wears no uniform; where the bad guy could be holed up in an Afghan cave - or could be the neighbor next door. In our troubled times, we don’t know for sure if every cop is a good guy, or every soldier is on our side, or if we can trust our sons with the parish priest, or if our rabbis, despite their pious garb and public expressions of devotion, are truly exemplars of the blessings of a Torah-directed life. (And let’s not even discuss politicians.) As the footsteps of the Messiah approach and as the human family matures spiritually, it is more important than ever to have X-Ray vision.
It is my hope and prayer that America rises to the Torah standard, to X-Ray vision, to the Skverer Rebbe’s penetrating soul gaze; so that we may finally emerge from the long shadows that slavery has cast on this land, and grow together as brothers, as neighbors, and as friends.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke - Reflections on World Peace

[Thanks to R' Shlomo Riskin from whom I learned many of the key concepts presented here.]

World Peace. It is so desperately desired by so many. Why, then, is it so elusive? This week's parshah sheds some light - quite literally - on this question.
We learn this week of the construction of the Mishkan, the desert Tabernacle, with all its detailed instructions and specifications. From the description, it must have been compellingly beautiful to behold. "And they will make for me a Mikdash - a sanctified space - that I may dwell among them."
There are two features of the Mishkan that represent Torah: one, of course, is the Ark of the Covenant, which held the Tablets upon which the Ten Commandments were engraved; and the other was the Menorah, the candelabra. Why was there a need for two such symbols? The answers lie in the unique construction details of these spectacular vessels.
How exactly does the Menorah represent Torah? Because it says in Mishlei (Proverbs) that "ner mitzvah v'torah or," a single mitzvah is like a candle, and Torah - the sum of all the individual mitzvahs - is like a brilliant light. The light of the menorah symbolizes the brilliant light of Torah.
But it’s even deeper than that.  If you stand back and look at the Menorah, you'll see it actually looks like a tree. In fact, the Torah describes it as having branches, leaves and flowers.
So when we think of a tree and Torah, what's the first verse that pops into your head? "It is a Tree of Life for those who grab on to it, for those who rely on it will be gladdened." Etz Chaim Hee, again from Mishlei. And when we think of an Etz Chaim, what other Etz Chaim comes to mind? Maybe...the Tree of Life which stands in the center of the Garden of Eden. So the symbolism of the Menorah is meant to suggest to us the pristine harmony of Eden; a piece of art which is itself in perfect balance and symmetry, reflective of the ideal of a world in perfect balance and symmetry; a world where all of its elements work naturally together in the vivifying light of all that is good and holy. In other words – world peace.
This hearkening back to Eden, though, is a universal longing, not just reserved for the Children of Israel. This yearning belongs to all peoples of the world. And this, in fact, is exactly what the Menorah represents: with its seven lights, representing the Seven Laws of the Torah which are incumbent upon all of mankind, projecting its brilliant light outward into the world, the menorah symbolizes the universal Torah that belongs to every person – Christian, Moslem, Buddhist - who seeks closeness with Gcd.
The Ark of the Covenant was hidden away, protected in the bosom of the Holy of Holies, like a priceless treasure. And in that way, it is emblematic of the unique Abrahamitic Covenant between the A-lmighty and the Jewish people, who are described as “Am Segulah”, a Treasured People. The Ark – the introspective, particularistic Torah of Am Yisrael; the Menorah – the expansive, universalistic Torah of the Seven Laws.
To say it in a different way: the sub-structure for world peace was built right into the fabric of Jewish life, of Jewish thought, into the very structure of G-d’s House, right from the outset.
Perhaps this is the deeper meaning of the Midrash that speaks of Moshe's inability to conceptualize the construction of the menorah, until the A-lmighty, as it were, drew him a picture. How, Moshe puzzled, do we achieve the world peace and harmony symbolized by the Menorah? It seems so distant and hard to conceive.  Here, Hashem says, I'll show you.
The nation of Israel is described as “A Kingdom of Priests and a Nation Set Apart.”  In order to fulfill our divine mission to minister, to guide, and to teach the nations about ethical monotheism, we must adhere to the 613 – the Torah of the Ark of the Covenant.
What about the rest of the world? Maybe, like Lou Jacobi quipped, when you’re in love, the whole world is Jewish?”  In fact, Gcd didn’t make the whole world Jewish; the A-lmighty, in his infinite wisdom, created the seventy nations of the world for a reason. Each nation, and each individual member of every nation, has a unique contribution to make to the betterment of the world. Not to become Jewish, but to be true to themselves. Hashem doesn’t desire rigid uniformity from us. In the wonderful diversity of cultures and views, He designed the world to better express ourselves and utilize our unique talents and special insights.  But first, we must acknowledge Gcd as the source of those gifts. Its one teeny tiny thing, but a crucial thing: we have to recognize Gcd’s guidance in human affairs.
It is very important to note that the Menorah was not made of seven billion pieces of gold, all skillfully welded together to form a composite. It was formed from one massive piece of gold, which was then sculpted and shaped into its many individual features.  So it is with humankind; every person, and every nation, has a unique voice, a unique gift, a unique spark of the divine to contribute.  But how do we embark on the task of world peace with a cacophony of seven billion disparate ideas?  We can’t start from a place of individuation.
Like the menorah, every feature, every differentiation, must be fashioned from the same ingot of gold. No welds; its all of a piece. That ingot is the Seven Laws.  From the unity of Gcd’s law flows the diversity of textured harmonic expression. World peace begins the day the nations come to recognize that there is no morality which excludes the A-lmighty. When all people recognize the inherent justice and beauty of the Seven Laws, commanded to us by a Gcd who is totally good, and who desires only good for His creatures; only then can the unique contribution of each individual find its proper expression, and only then will the seeds of world peace begin to sprout. Gcd wants us all – Jew and Gentile - to work together, each in his own capacity and in fulfillment his own divine calling, to help prepare the world for the Kingdom of Heaven (as we say in the Aleinu prayer). That is the message is of the Menorah.
So the first necessary step to perfecting the world is to work on ourselves. It’s relatively easy to hold up a placard at a protest or sit-in; its much harder to become a more educated person, a more refined and sensitive moral agent. That is the mysterious secret ingredient that eludes the well meaning seekers of world peace. For there can be no peace without acknowledging that the basis for human morality and civility can only be found in Gcd, and in the light of His Menorah, and in the light of His Torah. "And they will make for me a Mikdash that I may dwell among them.” Hashem desires to dwell among us – if we will only let him in.
Shabbat Shalom

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Feelin' Groovy - Parashat Yitro Drash 5772

Does anyone remember Steve Martin’s stand up shtick “What I Believe” from the early ‘80’s? It was very funny.  (Look it up on YouTube.) Anyway, in this comedy routine, he raises his hand high and solemnly avers that he believes in “eight - of the Ten Commandments.”
Everybody says they believe in the Ten Commandments, right? If you polled most people they would say that keeping the Ten Commandments is the basis for being a good person. OK, fine. Now ask them to actually LIST the ten…in any order…no rush… [deer in the headlights time]
Let's focus on one of the ones that I think Steve had trouble with, the Tenth Commandment. The pasuk says: Do not covet the house of your friend; do not covet the wife of your friend, his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, his mule, and anything that belongs to your friend.” [Exodus 20:14] 
“Do Not Covet.”  Think about that for a minute. Jealousy or desire is a feeling. How can the A-lmighty legislate our feelings? I get “Keep the Shabbat.” I get “Don’t Murder.” But how can Hashem say to us, “Don’t desire the Bugatti Veyron, the most expensive car in the world, or that hunky guy, or that cute girl, or that magnificent home.”  Isn’t that instant of desire more like an instinct, the green-eyed monster that resides in us all; isn’t something primal that just happens, something over which we have no control?
The Ibn Ezra has an interesting insight into this conundrum. He explains it with a parable: an "average joe" finds a particular supermodel or actress stunningly beautiful. [OK so I’m paraphrasing a wee bitsicule…] Pretty as she may be, he doesn’t really desire her, because he knows deep down that she is unattainable. The Ibn Ezra goes on: and don’t confuse him with someone with irrational desires, like a meshuga who desires to sprout wings and fly like a bird. It’s more akin to a man not desiring his mother, because no matter how beautiful she may be, he is conditioned from childhood that such a liaison is impossible.
Thank you, Rabbi Ibn Ezra. Please take a seat. In this, we have the kernel of an answer to the question.  The Torah here is teaching us something quite remarkable. The Torah is saying to us, “do not be a slave to your desires. Your actions dictate your feelings, not the other way ‘round.” That bears repeating:
Your actions dictate your feelings, not the other way ‘round.
Show me a person who acts on their feelings, and I will show you a person who’s life is total chaos. We all know such people – the drama mamas (and drama daddies.) Their life is a personal private soap opera. We feel bummed out, so we overeat (pass the Haagen Dasz – no, no, the BIG one). We feel stressed out, so we drink to excess. We yearn for approval, so we yield to peer pressure. (You got a tattoo where?) We feel impassioned, so we step out on our spouses. We feel needy, so we steal. We feel rage, so we raise a hand to a spouse or a child, or we vandalize and even murder. We live in an age of no hang-ups, where self-expression is the quintessence of modern art; where every feeling is natural and healthy and is not to be denied.
That the very opposite is true is one of the greatest contributions of Torah to Western thought. Over 3000 years later, Dr. William James, the father of modern psychology, would say “We become what we think about.”  In other words, our thoughts become actions, and our actions control our feelings. [Like, sure, it was his idea…]
Pirkei Avot echoes this theme when it teaches us: “Who is strong? One who conquers their passions.” [Avot 4:1] R’ Yosef Soleveitchick, arguably one of the greatest philosophical minds of the 20th century, Jewish or otherwise, wrote that only when we exercise our most human faculty of reason can we be truly free, for those who act upon emotion, instinct and passion emulate the behavior of animals, who, lacking freedom of choice, can never be free.
We choose our actions, and our actions program our emotions. Let that sink in for a moment. True freedom is making a conscious choice to act. That is why our sages tell us, ‘put on tefillin every day, even if you don’t feel like it. Daven every day, even if you’re not in the mood.’ That is the essence of “mitzvah,”  to do it anyway. Our sages understood that the action performed without proper intent, over time, will reprogram us to feel the mitzvah and we will grow to perform it properly.
The way we observe the Tenth Commandment is to behave in ways that thwart feelings of jealousy or inappropriate desire. So if you’re feeling depressed, plant a garden. If you’re stressed, meditate. If you’re feeling passionate, sing opera. If you’re feeling needful, volunteer at a hospital or at soup kitchen. Feeling rage? Write a poem. DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT. Whatever you do, if your change your behavior, your feelings will take care of themselves.
What a wonderful, empowering, liberating message! Lo Tachmod is a personal Declaration of Independence. The A-lmighty is telling us: you are no longer slaves to another man; do not fall into the trap of becoming a slave to yourself. True freedom is only to be found in service to Me, and the reward for My service, the performance of Mitzvot,  is a profound soul-peace; loving relationships; a sane, ordered life; health; and length of days to enjoy it all.
Ken tehiye lanu – so may it be for us all!
Shabbat Shalom.