Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Times and The Siddur

Sometimes, G-d isn't so interesting.

Especially when the New York Times Magazine, in all its colorful and glossy once-a-week appeal, is stark competition for a small blue Siddur filled with a foreign language meant to be directed Above.

I was excited to have been able to snatch the magazine from a family friend. They had read it already, and happily gave it up.

So it was, before going to bed the other night, I decided to indulge in it's catchy headlines, artistic appeal, and overall ingenuity.

The magazine articles had everything to do with me. One stretch of pages painted a picture of how the internet is keeping musicians, artists, and writers in close contact with their increasingly demanding fans. I laughed my way through it, and creased my eyebrows in interest. The other article was by a Jewish writer, and his piece delicately described what it's like to write in times of war and conflict. I related to his sentiments about writing being an arduous task, but a responsibility, and ultimately a healing adventure.

My fingers left indents on both sides of the magazine. Reading it was a personal journey.

But personal journeys still require sleep, and my eyelids were starting to get heavy.

It was time to pick up my Siddur to say the nighttime Shema.

So down went the magazine, and with it all my enthusiasm, personal interest, and zest.

I placed the Siddur on my lap. Lifeless, as was I.

Intrigue had left out the fire escape. I was cold inside. Habit and it's dirty hands had me in hostage.

You know...sometimes, G-d is so uninteresting.


It was strange making the transition from engaging magazine articles to the Hebrew words of constantly said prayers.

Scary, actually. I went from being an enchanted New York resident to G-d's robotic servant.

You see, G-d doesn't always feel so personal. And he certainly doesn't have screaming headlines to make him interesting. The pages of the New York Times Magazine will call you in with a rush. It casts a spell on us that gives us no choice but to submit. And it's an experience.

Meanwhile, G-d is asking for too much. He wants us to open a Siddur and have our hearts beat like we're watching a baseball game.

With a magazine, all I have to do is sit back and be dazzled. But while the New York Times presents me with information, pictures, and enlightenment, it is not like that with G-d. With G-d, I must be the prime player, the one who personalizes the prayers, exposes my heart, and demands a response. I must do my part to make this relationship work, without expecting his booming voice at every turn of the page.

So G-d holds back on the spark-and-dazzle effect because he wants my choice, he wants my efforts.

And yet, here he is watching me deflate upon opening the Siddur. It's pathetic.

Fortunately, with Shavuos, G-d gives us a chance to stand again at the mountain and hear his voice. When things get rote, G-d enlivens us, with the opportunity for serious introspection and rejuvenation. G-d comes to us and we respond. From that, we are meant to take inspiration to give us new strength in approaching Him everyday, to open His pages and actually see the personalized headlines. To bring ourselves to him at every moment, and experience an intriguing relationship based on our efforts, our searching.

A Siddur will never be the New York Times. But that's okay. When it comes to G-d, I am a partner - not a consumer. And when it comes to a relationship like that, it may take more energy, but there's nothing more interesting. This Shavuos, I find strength in a G-d that wants more than to amaze me - but for me to amaze Him.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Beware of Teddy Bears

[Loving Your Fellow Jew, discussed in the Tzemach Tzedek's Derech Mitzvosecha]

Honey, it's time to let go of the bear.

To love your fellow Jew.

Easy, right?

Sure, when the person is likable. With people who seem so perfect in our eyes - there's no challenge. They are, indeed, easy to love. Like a teddy bear.

But, oftentimes, loving another Jew seems impossible.

Why? Because we see their faults. And how can we accept - let alone love - another person when we so visibly see their faulty character and wrongdoings?

But the fact is, we were never told of a certain criteria that deems someone worthy of our love. You're a Jew? Badaboom. I'm commanded to love you.

What happens, though, when the other person is not a teddy bear? What do we do with the challenge of loving another Jew while seeing their faults? How can we rise above?

Here's how it usually goes. We notice something we don't like about someone. Let's say they are impatient. Now, at that point we usually have two choices. One, we just can just stop liking them. Who want to be around someone who is impatient? How can someone so impatient be deserving of our love? The second option is a little nicer. We say, "Well, I'm sure they have a reason for being impatient" or "It's not the end of the world to be impatient." We try to understand them,
assuming the right to erase their weaknesses, and then - voila! - they are a teddy bear in our eyes once again.

The second option seems righteous. But, really, even though it takes personal mind power to erase or excuse another person's faults, it still falls short. Take a closer look. What you're still saying is, "I can only love you if you have no faults." Only this time, by your own goodwill, you yourself erased the persons faults. You have transformed the person into a teddy bear.

This hardly sounds like the ideal way to love a Jew. And besides, with this attitude, we're still bound to come across people that, under no circumstances or efforts, can't be seen as faultless. What do we dothen?

Most people will abandon all efforts. The faults are too present, too deep.

Thankfully, the Baal ShemTov led the way to true love of a fellow Jew.

In the most realized example of the Mitzvah, he didn't find it necessary to turn every Jew into a perfect human being. He said, "I can love for you without blocking out your faults." He had no internal struggle, no need to downplay or erase the wrong within his fellow Jew. The Baal ShemTov knew that the Mitzvah to love his fellow Jew never asked him to interfere in their faults. That was not his job. He knew it was supposed to be a love without conditions, so he didn't blind himself to peoples faults but loved them in spite of them. Hence, the most defined understanding of, "loving a fellow Jew, just the same as you." Just like we have a healthy dose of self love in spite of our weaknesses, so too is our fellow Jew deserving of undiscriminating love.

When we have to consider and judge peoples' faults in order to love them, we're not doing them a favor - because we're only loving them when it's easy. We have to love ALL of our fellow Jew, and this includes his downfalls. When we find ourselves turning our fellow Jew into a stuffed animal, we must pause and ask, "Who am I loving?" In response, we should aim for a true love, a love that accepts and appreciates people even when it's not easy.

When I imagine a world where every single person internalizes this approach, I see a harmony that is bound to spin into the limitless forward motion that ushers in the final Redemption.

And it all starts with you and me. No teddy bears.