It is remarkable how precious and cherished personal items can become “stuff” for someone else to get rid of literally overnight. After a BRS member recently passed away, I was visiting with a member of her family in her home when he shared that he had set aside items that are meaningful to him and proceeded to kindly offer me to take whatever I like for myself or for the Shul.
I looked around the room at the china cabinet, the bookcase and the paintings on the wall and was overwhelmed with the realization that just a week before, these were the precious possessions of this wonderful person and only a week later, they are now stuff, junk, things that need to be donated, given away, or even trashed.
It is said, you never see a U-Haul attached to the back of a hearse. Our Rabbis teach that while you cannot take any of your possessions with you, you can take your acts of kindness and good deeds. Contact with the finality of death naturally elicits a sense of our own mortality and provokes thinking about what is truly important in life and how we should take advantage of every single day.
“Re’eh anochi nosein lifnechem hayom beracha u’kelalah.” Our parsha begins by telling us, “behold I have placed before you today blessing and curse.” This verse is traditionally viewed as expressing the concept of free will, of our ability to recognize that set before us are options of good or evil, right and wrong and that the choice is ours to make. However, I would like to suggest an alternative punctuation and meaning.
Re’eh anochi nosein lifnechem…hayom. Behold, I have placed before you…today, the concept of mortality. I have set before you a feeling of transience and impermanence. That feeling can be channeled in a number of ways, the pasuk continues. It can result in beracha, blessing, or it can result in kelala, in curse.
If we allow our feeling of vulnerability, of hayom, to bring us to a state of despair and of depression then it is kelala. If the recognition of our mortality makes us complacent, stagnant or content, it is a curse.
However, if our sense of being fragile and unstable, of hayom, causes us to take advantage of the moment for it may be fleeting, than we have turned it into beracha, for it has been the catalyst for change.
Indeed, Chazal, our Rabbis, have contrasted these two perspectives of hayom. On the one hand, they discourage us from approaching life with the attitude of echol, v’shaso, ki machar namus, eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we may die. This attitude and interpretation of hayom leads to a hedonistic lifestyle. Recognition of our own mortality has for some become a license to be self-serving and pleasure seekers. With this outlook, hayom, our vulnerability, is a curse.
But Chazal encourage us to say rather im lo achshav aimasai, if not now, when? Judaism teaches us to take our feelings of fragility and vulnerability and use them as springboards to grow, change and make a difference. A sense of mortality should encourage us to take advantage of every moment and to cherish every opportunity. Indeed, the Torah subscribes to an attitude of carpe diem, seize the day to contribute to society, positively affect other people and become a better spouse, parent or grandparent.
An awareness of just how unpredictable and volatile our lives can be must motivate us to stop procrastinating and take advantage of hayom, of right now. As we prepare to welcome in the month of Elul, let’s make a commitment to stop saying I will get to it later. This can truly be our best year ever, if we only say ha’yom, I am going to make it happen today.
Like many others, I was terribly upset to learn of the untimely passing of Robin Williams, who took his own life this week after apparently battling psychiatric illness, depression and addiction for many years. The man who made so many others so happy was in fact himself so incredibly sad.
There are many lessons to learn from his tragic death. Discovering the depth of Williams’ depression and the devastating, irreversible impact it ultimately had on his life has provoked an interest from the public in learning more about mental illness and its treatment. Some have been espousing the mistaken, ignorant and even cruel notion that a clinically depressed person’s suicide could have been avoided if he only tried harder, cared more, or recognized how much it would hurt the surviving family.
But clinical depression is not a mood that one can snap out of, it is not a feeling that one can adjust, and it is not an emotion that one can regulate. It is a chemical condition and requires treatment, support, empathy, and patience like any other ailment or illness. Halacha itself acknowledges that the mentally unhealthy person is struggling not only with their mood depressed, but also with their free will to an extent suppressed. Though technically a person who commits suicide is forbidden from being buried in a Jewish cemetery, practically we allow it by explaining the suicide as the result of mental pain, anguish and disturbance, rather than an objective choice made in good health.
We certainly need to do more in our communities to learn about depression, addiction and mental illness and to create a stigma-free environment where those struggling can reach out for help and support without fear of the consequences for their reputation or that of their family.
There is another powerful lesson that strikes me as I reflect on feeling surprised and unexpectedly deeply sad in learning of Robin Williams’ death. We live and operate in a culture that invites and promotes being overly invested in the lives and personalities of celebrities, athletes, politicians, and public figures. We think we know them and even identify with some of them. But the truth is, we neither know nor identify with them as much as the idea of them, the roles they play and the limited part of their lives we are allowed into.
I thought I “knew” Robin Williams because when I was a teenager he made me laugh and as a young adult some of the characters he played and scripts he performed touched me and provoked meaningful thought and conversations. I appreciated his self-bestowed honorary Jewish status, respected his kind personality and saw him as a mensch.
But we now know that we never really knew Robin Williams. We admired his talents, treasured his artistic contributions, and liked what we were allowed to see of him. But we didn’t actually know him and we don’t truly know any of the actors, athletes or public personalities whose lives we follow too closely and whose opinions on things they have no expertise about, like Israel, we care way too much about.
Robin Williams’ death is an awakening to the fact that all we know is the persona (Latin word for mask) public personalities don, but we don’t know the real them, and never will. We should save our being invested in, and caring about, people we truly know and with whom we build actual and personal relationships.
The truth is, even some of those we appropriately are invested in wear costumes each day. Many of those around us including co-workers, acquaintances, and neighbors, and even loved ones and dear friends wear the mask of happiness, and seem put-together and functional on the outside while they are battling loneliness, sadness, or perhaps addiction or depression on the inside.
Pirkei Avos (2:4) quotes Hillel who said: “Do not judge another until you have stood in his place.” Since it is impossible to stand in another person’s place, to be them, to have their baggage or to live their struggles, we can never judge another. Instead, we should be kind, sensitive, supportive and understanding of everyone around us.
Ian Maclaren, a 19th century Scottish author and Theologian said it well: “Be Kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
Robin Williams’ death is indeed terribly sad. Let us at least use it to be motivated to recognize that we often don’t know what is happening under the mask, and therefore we must always be as supportive, kind, and understanding as we can be to all with whom we come in contact.
**NASA astronauts have a special word to describe how re-entry feels, and it isn’t heaven. I wrote this during the 72 hour ceasefire this week in which Israel and those who care deeply about her experienced a re-entry into a small semblance of quiet and normal. Though Hamas has resumed launching rockets and Israel has been forced to respond, my concerns below remain deeply relevant for when this will please God finally be over in a lasting sustainable way and are worthy of consideration and thought now, even before this is over.
What will we do when this is over?
For nearly two months, we have been drawn to the news 24/6 to follow what was happening in Israel, even reaching for the phone in the middle of the night to be updated in real time. For nearly two months, we have showed up at rallies, vigils, and gatherings, and put our differences aside to join together in ways that made us feel more united than ever. For nearly two months we have mourned and grieved for people we never met as if they were our family or closest friends. For nearly two months we have limited our posts on social media to links about Israel: we didn’t care how our sports teams fared, we weren’t obsessed with how our portfolio performed, we weren’t in the mood to show off our children or pet or gloat about the delicious new recipe we prepared.
For nearly two months we have minimized our own personal challenges and we have refused to feel hurt or injured by the small things that might normally debilitate us. For nearly two months we have been more forgiving, more compassionate, kinder and more generous. For nearly two months we have watched countless videos and clips and alternated between crying from sadness to crying from being uplifted. For nearly two months our davening has been more sincere, more personal, and more real. For nearly two months we have been magnetically drawn to the land of Israel and the people of Israel like never before.
To put it simply, for nearly two months our souls have been alive as we felt meaning, purpose, transcendence, and peoplehood, as participants and witnesses to the very unfolding of Jewish destiny.
What will happen when thing go back to “normal?” Will our souls go back to sleep, back into hibernation, back to a place where we struggle to touch it, to nourish it, and to feel it pulsate within us? I am fearful of the vacuum that will be created and the void we will feel in returning to mundane conversations, reading meaningless posts, and longing with desperation to have up-to-the-minute updates about events in Israel.
Don’t get me wrong. I am neither happy that Israel had two months of agony, nor am I sad at the prospect of it ending. I am, however, devastated and distressed at the thought of moving on and returning to our state of affairs before this all began.
How long will it take before Jewish factions begin fighting, bickering, and dismissing one another? How long will it be before our davening becomes rote, the utterly insignificant feels critically important, and the feeling that we have nothing in common with those that are different than us returns? How long before, for too many, Israel returns to the place they go for Sukkos, send their children for summer programs or a gap year, or make a bar/bat mitzvah, rather than feel be the physical and spiritual center of the universe?
One of the most popular questions I am asked, and one of the most elusive goals for many, is how can we be more spiritual? “Spirituality” is a buzzword not only in general society, but among observant Jews as well. We have conferences, conventions, programs, speakers, and journals all dedicated to how Judaism can yield greater spirituality.
As we approach Shabbos Nachamu, the Shabbos of comfort and consolation, perhaps we can find solace in the past two months by looking back and realizing that in fact we gained the secret to what makes our souls feel alive and the keys to feeling spiritual. Our soul is nourished with a healthy diet of peoplehood, unity, sincere prayer, kindness, generosity, connection with our homeland, meaning, and focus on that which truly matters. We knew it intellectually beforehand, but we hadn’t experienced it at this level and we couldn’t necessarily describe what it felt like.
Now we can, and though it is only natural that these feelings will dissipate, it is up to us to make sure they don’t disappear altogether. Now we know that when we crave spirituality, we should seek to truly empathize with someone else’s pain, to dig deep and graciously give, to connect with the condition of the greater Jewish people, to daven like our words truly matter, and to focus on pursuing meaning and purpose, rather than just happiness and pleasure. Now we know that we don’t have a soul; we are a soul, and nothing in the world feels better.
The last two months have brought great confusion. Why can’t Israel live in peace and harmony? Why do so many insist on hating us, targeting us, judging us unfairly, and seeking to annihilate us? How could so many sophisticated, intelligent, informed people be so backwards when it comes to evaluating this conflict between Israel and Hamas?
Sometimes, it takes utter confusion to gain clarity. In the last two months among all of the confusion, we have felt a clarity of purpose, of belonging and of mission.
Nachamu, nachamu ami, Yeshayahu Ha’Navi speaks to us today, after the last two months, as we so desperately need his message. He says be comforted, be comforted my people. Explains the Slonimer Rebbe, when will you find nechama, comfort? When you function like ami, my people.
Though we long for rockets, conflict, and war to come to a truly peaceful and lasting end, let’s not let the feelings we experienced and the levels we reached during this period end anytime soon. We now know what spirituality feels like. We have no excuse not to do what is necessary to achieve it more regularly.
With Israel’s military superiority, there is little doubt that despite its already great cost, Israel will physically defeat Hamas. While the IDF needs our prayers and certainly benefits from our care packages and donations, there is little more we can do to assist our incredibly brave and resolute soldiers in their fight on the ground.
It is this war’s second front that needs our help, and in which each one of us must be a soldier. Much of the mainstream media, too many in the international community, and even our own elected officials here in America have cast Israel and the IDF as the immoral aggressor firing indiscriminately on civilians, rather than more accurately as the victim of heinous terror simply trying to defend her people while taking extraordinary measures to protect Palestinian civilians.
The pain of the loss of fifty-six precious soldiers, combined with our collective concern and worry for the people of Israel as rockets continue to rain down on them, is compounded by the literally unbelievable statements and comments coming from people who absolutely should know better.
This week we heard people in the highest levels of American leadership say such things as, “We have to confer with the Qataris who have told me over and over again that Hamas is a humanitarian organization,” while another said, “I’m not a military planner but Hamas puts its missiles, its rockets in civilian areas, part of it is Gaza is pretty small and is densely populated.” Despite having found rockets in three UN schools and a booby-trapped UN clinic taking the lives of three IDF soldiers, the White House didn’t hesitate from saying an Israeli strike on a UN school was “indefensible,” even without knowing the details.
While we are winning the war on the ground, by all estimates it seems we are losing the war of words. On that front, Israel and all who support her are facing many adversaries on TV, the internet, and in print. The most prestigious and authoritative media outlet, that with perhaps the largest readership and overall impact, is the New York Times.
For years, many have called out the New York Times for their bias when reporting about Israel, while even pro-Israel advocates defended their coverage. However, in this latest conflict, from the headlines, to the pictures, to the moral equivalency between Hamas and Israel assumed in almost every article, the bias and slant in the New Times are undeniable. Certainly, the paper and its staff are entitled to take positions on what is unfolding. What they are not entitled to do, though, is present their opinions as objective and unbiased coverage.
Yes, The Times has included opinion pieces that favor Israel, and no, not every single article can be accused of being unfair. However, the clearly documented overall slant of the coverage is so disturbing and offensive that in the last few weeks, many lifetime subscribers have canceled their subscription, for some something almost as painful as the amputation of a limb without anesthesia. In fact, last week, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, the Rabbi of Kehilath Jeshurun and Ramaz in Manhattan sent an email to his community calling on them to cancel their subscription and “to deliver a clear message to its editor.”
Calls to boycott The Times have come before and either because the numbers were simply not effective or for other reasons, the message was clearly not delivered loudly enough to the editor. I would like to suggest that there are other addresses for us to voice our dissatisfaction with The Times’s coverage of Israel in a way that will hopefully have an impact on the fairness of their reporting, but minimally will allow us to say we participated as soldiers in the war of words being waged against Israel.
In the past month, while the conflict in Israel escalated and in the very same newspaper that included biased, negative articles, the following Jewish organizations paid to place obituaries in the paper, some of them multiple times:
- The Yeshiva University family (x4) (212-960-5400)
- Congregation Emanu-El Of the City of New York (x6) (212-744-1400)
- Congregation Shearith Israel (The Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue) (x3) (212-873-0300)
- UJA-Federation of New York (x7) (212-980-1000)
- Board of Directors and management and staff of Bank Leumi USA (917-542-2343)
- Board of Trustees of the Simon Wiesenthal Center (310-553-9036)
- Queens College Hillel (718-793-2222)
- Officers and Clergy of Temple Israel of the City of New York (212-249-5000)
- The Community of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law (212-790-0200)
- Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services (x3) (212-582-9100)
- The Jewish Museum (x2) (212-423-3200)
- Board of Trustees and staff of The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous (212-727-9955)
- The Jerusalem Foundation (212-697-4188)
- Raoul Wallenberg Committee of the United States (646-678-3711)
- American Jewish Committee (AJC) (212-751-4000)
- Jewish Community Center of Harrison (914-835-2850)
- Board of Directors and staff of Plaza Jewish Community Chapel (212-769-4400)
- Congregation Or Zarua (212-452-2310)
- The Dorot Foundation (401-351-8866)
Most or even all of these organizations (I am not familiar with them all) are Zionist, pro-Israel, and are worthy of our support and appreciation. The collective amount of money they paid The Times to post obituaries, while significant, is undoubtedly not enough to impact the paper’s bottom line. And I understand that many of these organizations’ supporters and their families expect to see an obituary in The New York Times and find comfort and solace in the recognition it provides.
Yet I believe Jewish organizations using the New York Times as a vehicle to publicly memorialize and honor their donors is a tacit, while perhaps unintended endorsement of the paper, at the very time we should be protesting, not supporting it. If Jewish organizations announced that they are taking a moratorium on posting obituaries in The Times as a protest to its coverage on Israel, it would send a loud and important statement to many, including our brothers and sisters in Israel, even if it didn’t ultimately deliver a financial statement to the editor worthy of the paper changing its ways. If we agree with the premise that cancelling our subscriptions to The New York Times right now is worthwhile in an effort to communicate our dissatisfaction, shouldn’t Jewish organizations do their part by ceasing to essentially advertise within their pages?
I actually made this suggestion privately to one major organization listed above, but was dismissed. I am one person, but if many contact these organizations and respectfully encourage them to take such a leadership position, perhaps the message will get through to them.
To be clear, I am not questioning these organizations’ loyalty to Israel or their Zionist credentials. I am simply calling on them to follow exactly what so many individuals are doing, in some cases at great personal sacrifice to years of habitual reading. How can we justify the idea that at the same time that so many of us as individuals, in protesting the objectionable coverage, have cancelled our subscriptions, while these organizations continue to financially support The Times, using money we ourselves donated to them? We should encourage our Jewish organizations to contact the New York Times and protest their reporting the same way we as individuals are.
This Shabbos we begin the 5th and final book of the Torah which remarkably starts with the words “Eleh ha’devarim asher dibeir Moshe, these are the words that Moshe spoke.” The Midrash notes that the man who, when recruited by God, described himself as “lo ish devarim anochi, a person of few words,” produced a monologue that continues to resound and inspire until today.
To be a leader, Moshe found his voice and he found his words. At this critical time for Israel, so must we. If you have not yet cancelled your subscription to the New York Times, please do so immediately and be sure to register on the phone or online exactly why you are doing so. Additionally, please consider taking a moment to contact our Jewish organizations to ask them to announce that they will not place obituaries in the New York Times while its reporting on Israel is biased. Tell them that as a supporter of Israel, you are boycotting the New York Times and asking them to do the same.
You may ask: Why am I highlighting these groups or this issue and, of all of the efforts we expend for Israel, is fighting the New York Times really worth it? Yes! It is not all that we can be doing, but it is among the things we should be doing in addition to davening, lobbying elected officials, raising money for Israel, etc. We may not be able to produce enough noise to get The New York Times to change their reporting. However, it is the least we can do to find our words and show some leadership during this critical time for Israel.