I just finished watching a sixty-minute video called Iranium, a very well-done production advertised through Aish.com that brings to light the development of the Iranian nuclear weapons program and the true threat it poses to the entire world. The movie, featuring some very intelligent interviewees, some very gory footage, and a chilling script, is really quite frightening. But honestly, the conclusions offered at the end of the screening are even more frightening.
What can we do to derail Iran's nuclear program and thus prevent the possible annihilation of millions of people? throbbed the message throughout the movie. I sat through sixty minutes, expectantly, waiting for the million-dollar answer to the billion-dollar question. And yet, when it was over, the "What Can I Do to Help" link gave several options: Stop supporting Iran's nuclear program, Sign the petition, Circulate the movie, Write a letter, and Support the Iranian people (I am approximating here, but I think I'm being pretty accurate).
If you're a politically correct human being with fairly Western views on life, you may be surprised to hear that I was disappointed and frightened to see this litany of "helpful actions". Let me explain.
The Iranian threat is not a new idea; it was prophesied centuries ago and recorded in several places in Tanach (the Bible). In fact, Judaism is never surprised by the rise of new terrorists; we expect it. It's just one of the facts of life-after-Eden: Esau despises Jacob, and he will do so until the end of time. Yishmael (Ismael, the father of Islam) plays an enormous role in the Final Redemption and, indeed, we know that the Geulah (coming of the Messiah) will be preceded by Yishmael and Esau fighting each other over the Jews. So Iran is perfectly punctual, right on time for world events. But that's just the background. The really important thing in all this nuclear weapons stuff is this: we are told the panacea to all the world's ills. It's teshuvah, return, recommitting ourselves to Torah and mitzvos. All the evils and torments of world history have only one purpose for the Jew: to goad us into re-connecting with G-d. He is waiting for us.
But signing petitions is so much easier, so much more doable and REAL than, say, reciting Psalms or making up with an estranged sibling, or whatever other spiritual step needs to be taken. It may seem counterintuitive to be standing in solem prayer instead of writing letters to Obama to pretty-please put more sanctions on Iran. Yet in looking at the hard facts, there's almost no one who will deny that it will take a miracle to derail the Iranians from their devious machinations.
I'm not advocating complete passivity; Judaism has always encouraged action. Indeed, Jacob's first encounter with his nefarious brother, Esau, exemplifies this principle. He prepared in three ways--first with prayer (y'hear that? FIRST with prayer!), second, by sending a gift (pacification), and third, by preparing for war. In doing so, he taught us an eternal lesson in how to confront an enemy.
Well, applying this biblical lesson to current affairs, and especially where Iran is concerned, it's pretty clear we've got the pacification part down pat! And, at times, we've done the war thing, too. But what about the prayer? When does that come in?
I speak not to you, dear readers; I speak to my own dormant heart.
A co-worker expressed his disgust with Mehadrin (highly stringent) hechsherim (kosher certification) today.
"I just hate it that there are all these different hechshers," he said. "I can't stand it!"
Hmmm.... I'm always up for a good beef. Especially if it's kosher. (Groan!)
"Why does it bother you if people choose to eat other hechsherim?" I asked.
He told me it's divisive. It creates a holier-than-thou attitude. It belittles those who choose to eat other hechsherim, not recognized as valid by their more stringent counterparts.
It's always so interesting to me that it's the people who are less stringent who are so bothered by the people who are more stringent. Why do they care so much? Why is stringency a thorn in their side? And it only seems to happen in religious matters. If I'm enjoying a hot-fudge sundae and I see a woman stringently and ascetically ordering a fruit salad, do I fume? Does it bother me? Isn't she insulting me, calling my less-nutritious food choice lowly and base? Uh, not really. How about if I'm the type who lets my kids cross the street by themselves. Do I beef about those crazy parents who make their kids cross only with an adult?
Maybe the beef is about conscience. Maybe the beef is actually a defensive front for a tiny, prickling whisper, raising uncomfortable thoughts of...maybe....maybe....maybe I should do this too?
And maybe not. What do you think?
Sometimes things look so easy. Until you try them. Like the time I thought I'd cut my sister's hair. I mean, it's just so easy. You take the scissors, you pick up the hair, and snip, snip. Right? Wrong. I bought her a bunch of pretty clips afterwards to console her till it grew back.
Well, I recently came across this extraordinary teaching of the Chofetz Chaim, a tw-century Jewish sage, adapted from his sefer (work) entitled Shemiras Halashon (Guarding One's Speech) for Chofetz Chaim A Lesson A Day by ArtScroll:
The Torah is called a "tree of life for those who grasp it" (Proverbs 3:18). The way to grab onto a tree is to take hold of one of its branches; in so doing, one has attached himself to the entire tree of which this branch is a part. So it is, explains Sefer Chareidim (ch. 61), with Torah. The way to attach oneself to the 613 mitzvos (commandments) is by fulfilling one particular mitzvah with exacting precision and total dedication. Dedication and attachment to a single commandment will cause one's soul to become united with G-d and His Torah and will lead to the proper fulfillment of other mitzvos as well. Thus do we find, "Rav Nachman said: 'I will be rewarded [in the World to Come] for having [zealously] fulfilled [the mitzvah] to eat three meals on Shabbos.' Rav Sheishes said: 'I will be rewarded for having [zealously] fulfilled the mitzvah of tefillin.'"
So after reading this inspiring passage, I was eager to play a round of "Adopt a Mitzvah". Hmmmm, I thought to myself, What mitzvah will be my magical mitzvah branch that can connect me to all of the other 613? Sounds simple, right? Well, every mitzvah I explored suddenly seemed to reveal itself in all its glory and potential difficulties. At the end of the day, there didn't seem to be a single mitzvah that would be easy and simple enough for me to take on as my special mitzvah. But there's got to be something. And it doesn't mean it has to be perfect from the outset. Progress is a good thing in this religion. So with that comforting thought in mind, I'm still thinking. What would YOUR personal mitzvah be?
I'm throwing a big party--y'know, hauling out the good silverware, gourmet catering, flowers, balloons, a chocolate fountain, and a dance floor. Okay, maybe not really, but it was good while it lasted! ;-) In any event, I do have cause for celebration, and it's seemingly disproportional to the actual event. Here goes: I finished a jar of face cream. Big whoop, right?
Well, actually, yes.
Let me illustrate to you the bigness of the deal by showing you a stark contrast. My grandfather, Zaida, has, for the last endless number of years, called his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren every single week to wish each of them a Good Shabbos and give them the traditional bracha (blessing). Every single week. For many, many years. Without fail. That is what you call peresistence. That is what you call consistency. That is what you call stick-to-itness.
Back to Riva. None of the words I just used above are to be found in my personal dictionary. Consistency? Persistence? Stick-to-itness? Just about the only thing I do on a constant basis is eat and breathe, and even then I'll still try to be creative. In fact, it might be safe to say that the only thing I'm consistent about is being inconsistent. Whew, that's a lot.
Enter face cream. Now, I am not really into beauty regimens--bronzer's about the only thing I ever use in my make-up bag, but I guess those glitzy You Can Be Beautiful Too ads that the cosmetics industry invests billions in really did claim another victim because one auspicious day I took the plunge and bought...a little jar of face cream. Oh, the lofty promises of this magical little jar. It will prevent wrinkles, give me younger skin, tons of vitamins, protect me from free radicals, nourish me with antioxidants, and everything else short of making coffee and styling my wig.
Of course, I laughed at myself. This cream was destined to go the way of all other creams before it. It would be used once, twice, and then....y'know, I'm tired; it's cold out; it never works anyway; ooops, forgot about it; I read that these things clog your pores....The inconsistent reader may find herself identifying with this little episode.
But something strange happened. I began to use the face cream at night. One night. Two nights. Three nights. Dare I say "four"? And slowly but surely, insidiously, it became a sort of...well, routine. If I could figure out how to adjust the fontsize on this blog I would write that "r" word really, really tiny becuase it is just terrifying for people like myself. Routine is for people like my Zaida. People with discipline and fortitude. Not for creative, flighty, all-over-the-place types like me, right?
Wrong. Because today I hold an empty jar and a full feeling of accomplishment. I, too, can be consistent. It starts with a jar of face cream. It carries over to other, less banal endeavors. And that, my friends, is cause for celebration.
A very strange and disconcerting malady has been recently highlighted, known to overcome Mankind (and Womankind, for all you feminists out there! :-)) quite frequently. Scientists are not exactly sure what causes this disease or how to treat it, although we know for sure that it's definitely airborne, can be extremely painful, and can cause scarring. (Luckily, our Sages recognized the disease and pinpointed its antidote ages ago, but with all the red tape of trying to procure FDA approval, no wonder it's not yet available in pharmacies and supermarkets!) Worst of all, there's no vaccine available to prevent it. The dread disease? Let's give it a high-faluten name with a fancy acronym: FCBV, Failure to Cogitate Before Verbalizing.
My dear husband was recently the victim of an acute outbreak of FCBV when an acquaintance made a comment to him that could only be classified as "grotesquely insensitive". Let's just say it was WAY too insensitive to even publish on this here blog. I, too, have been afflicted by the FCBV germ (Epidemiology: the disease is highly contagious and spreads easily between spouses) on various and sundry occasions. Perhaps you, gentle reader, have also experienced its baffling sting. Worse yet, perhaps you (er, and even me!) have smitten others around you with FCBV venom!
"What was he THINKING?!" I asked no one in particular, mulling over the comment made to my husband, greatly chagrined.
And without knowing it, my question was highly profound (because I am often profound without actually knowing it. Isn't that profound? :-)). Because the simple fact is that, by its very nature, and boldly embodied in its high-faluten name, FCBV is characterized by...not thinking! The thoughtless words that come out of our mouths can sometimes be flabbergasting!
Unfortunately, as mentioned, there is no way of getting immunized against giving or receiving FCBV and the disease IS pretty deadly. The only way to fight it is to employ the sage advice of our Sages (disclaimer: I'm distilling and lumping together a few--by no means ALL--of these teachings here) and pray for the best. Here's what I'm reflecting on today:
1. Cherish silence! There's a reason we say silence is golden. Simply put, this translates into "keep quiet and mind your own business!" Or, as my mother taught me, if you don't have anything nice to say, say nothing at all!
2. Pause for a split-second before making that comment. Would you want someone saying that to YOU? Will it come out the way you intended, or is there ample leg-room for misconstruing it?
3. 'Fess up! If FCBV got the better of you, you're not the only one infected out there. But by all means, clean up your act! A quick, "I'm sorry--that was really thoughtless and insensitive of me! I really apologize!" has been found to be highly curative (and not just in lab rats!).
Whew! Now I feel better! Have you ever been exposed to FCBV? What are your, er, thoughts on it?
The Nine Days are, for me, depressing, introspective, and frightening. I can almost feel a gasp of relief when Shabbos Nachamu comes; it is like a pent-up emotion, suddenly released, that I was only half-aware was there.
The news headlines don't really help much. With every story I read it is so clear how Hashem is tightening the vise of galus, trying to make us give up and turn to Him so He can finally redeem us. "Oh--the economic crisis wasn't enough for you? Iran's nuclear threat didn't do it? Okay, how about really serious anti-Semitism? No good? Okay, how about rabbonim being arrested so that the whole world will look askance upon Orthodox Jews. Does that hurt? Are you crying "uncle" yet?! No? Okay, how about in-fighting, Jew against Jew--even religious Jew against religious Jew, as in the case of the riots in Yerushalayim over the Hadassah case?" The noose of galus is pulled tighter and tighter, words like "another Holocaust" are bandied around with eery nonchalance.
Aside from the roiling cauldron of fear that dances and grows inside my heart, there's another emotion--I guess I could best describe it as somber self-introspection. It's the voice inside me that says, "You? What a joke! You're not doing enough! What are YOU doing to better your avodas Hashem? How do you ever expect Geulah if you don't get off your seat and start working some more spirituality into your life? What's with the lack of davening? What's with the lashon hara? What about being a good mother and wife? What about exalting Torah properly? How about tznius?!"
What about...what about..what about...ad infinitum. The accusatory finger wags and points and comes up with some pretty startling, downright shameful evidence. Woof.
So I rambled about it to my husband last night, railed against my horrible, less-than self, told him how far I feel and how there's no way that my actions are possibly bringing Geulah any time soon. And my husband--ever so wise!--pointed out something that I believe falls under the category of einfald (genius thought). I have to double-check with him about the source for this idea, but I will reveal it to you now, dear reader, in all its shining simple complexity, in the hopes that perhaps you, too, can benefit from its beauty. He said, "When you tell yourself you're a nothing, you're not very likely to be able to improve. When you tell yourself, instead, 'I am destined for greatness!', you're automatically on different footing. Surely, a person destined for greatness ought to be able to fit in a few small behavior changes each day, working toward a higher Self!"
That's it, folks. For today, I am a person destined for greatness, and all joking aside, it's true--simply because my soul is an immortal piece of G-dliness with magnificent, unlimited qualities. I think I will try to climb out of the doldrums of self-doubt and instead, do something constructive--like mumble a little tefillah. I mean, people destined for greatness do mumble tefillos, don't they?
How do YOU deal with the Nine Days and current world events?
In one of my millions of jobs, I write book descriptions for Feldheim Publishers' website, www.feldheim.com, which is neat because I get to review all new books that come through their doors. Well, this week I got my hands on a book that I think will create quite a revolution in the Jewish world, a book published by Targum Press (distributed by Feldheim) called 6 diaries. This is the brutally honest, unfiltered compilation of the weekly diaries of six teenagers recording their shifting thoughts on tznius, modesty. They come from different backgrounds, have different personalities, and the only thing they have in common is a willingness to explore this oft-confounding and complex topic.
Growl, roar, there's a nasty monster loose in my life, running around, ferociously resisting all attempts at being tamed. Every day I try anew, and every day it runs circles around me, lashing out with merciless claws, leaving carnage, havoc, and destruction behind. I've consulted with exterminators, monster-tamers, and PETA, and no one seems to be able to help.
Check out a cute, little piece on Aish.com:
Isn't that a great word? It brings to mind a huge drawer, filled with all sorts of odds-and-ends, like bits of ribbon, spools of thread, and some of those discarded pieces of trash that my sons bring home for their clubhouse--but in thoughts rather than physical entities. Are thoughts physical entities? I think I am getting too philosophical for a Monday morning!
About Riva Pomerantz
I'm a freelance writer, widely published in several magazines including the internationally-distributed Ami Magazine. Riva also appears, as well as on the award-winning website www.aish.com, amongst others. You can buy my books, Green Fences, Breaking Point, and Breaking Free, at www.targum.com. My serialized story, Charades, is really heating up!