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.
In reading through last week's parsha (weekly Torah portion), I came across an interesting Rashi that seemed to condone a social issue I had always seen as painful and specious.
While Yitzchak and Rivka both prayed, in opposite corners of the room, to be blessed with a child, it was Yitzchak's tefillos (prayers) which were answered over Rivka's. On the verse "and Hashem responded to his pleas", Rashi comments that there is no comparison between the prayers of a tzaddik ben tzaddik (righteous person who is the son of a righteous person), and a tzaddik ben rasha (righteous person who is the son of a wicked person). In this case, because Yitzchak was the son of Avraham, his prayers were accepted over those of his wife's, who was the daughter of the wicked Besuel.
"Hmmm," I mused to my husband. "You know how there are some people who refuse to date ba'alei teshuvah (returnees to Judaism), or geirim (converts) because their background is perhaps not as spiritually sanctified? Well, doesn't this Rashi imply that there is basis for this objection?"
As I wrote above, I have always taken issue with this attitude, for a variety of reasons, all of which I am too tired to present here. But I wondered if perhaps I'd been wrong all this time. (Happens occasionally)
To which my husband replied...
"Uh, Riva...Yitzchak MARRIED Rivka!" :-)
He's clever, no?
As a writer, feedback is a nearly daily fact of life. As a writer with a mission and a message, negative feedback is par for the course. So it's no surprise, really, when irate readers send in their complaints about my serialized stories. Those of you who followed the controversy over Shattered Glass will know what I mean when I say that it seems some people would rather bury their heads in the sand than face reality--and solutionize.
I think it is admirable when people ostensibly have pious and worthy aspirations in voicing their opposition to my work. However, I question the basic premise of the prevailing argument which says: "Why hang out dirty laundry in public?"
How else are you going to motivate someone to get that laundry clean?
Is it scandalous to admit that there are problems in our communities? Does it take away from the beauty and purity of our Nation, from our strength and growth when we call attention to issues that need to be addressed? How does it help the thousands who are suffering from abuse, which is what my current serial, Charades, discusses, by pretending it does not exist? Is it right to bury our heads in the sand and hope the problem goes away, rather than deal with it gently and sensitively through the wonderful vehicle of fiction?
Can not our hearts be firmly rooted in heaven even as we lift our heads out of the sand?
Last night, while rushing to get ready for a bar mitzvah, I left my bedroom to find my daughter cowering on the couch.
"There are two scary looking women knocking at the door non-stop," she told me.
I noticed she had surreptitiously locked the safety latch at the top of the door. Warily, I looked through the peephole. And beheld a woman, dressed in a flowing caftan with two shawls draped over her head, pinned beneath her chin, accompanied by an older, shawl-clad woman clutching a young child. They didn't look so scary to me; they looked, well, unusual. I opened the door.
They asked if they could speak with me for a moment. I told them I was on my way to a bar mitzvah. They promised it would only take a short time. They were sweet and friendly and completely guileless. I smiled reluctant agreement.
The younger, heavily draped woman, began to speak. She spoke about how important it is to excel in loving each other instead of in-fighting and baseless hatred. She was sincere and straightforward. She went on to speak about the power of the Jewish woman in effecting salvation for the entire nation. She spoke, in a quietly impassioned way, about the need for the holy, exalted woman to conduct herself according to the rules of modesty, and the tragic results of breaches in tznius, modesty, that have sprung up today. She talked about the horrible sin of wearing wigs.
So I stood there, wearing my newly coiffed Shabbos wig, listening to this young, earnest woman, covered from head to toe in yards and yards of heavy fabric in 100 degree heat. And I listened to what she said, opening my mind to her words. She spoke for an hour. My daughter listened too.
Much of what she said resonated with truth. Some of it my logical mind automatically rejected; it's unimportant to repeat those parts in this post. After she left, kissing me on the cheek, I found myself turning over her emotional speech--a plea, really--to search for my truth.
"Why didn't you close the door on her?" a friend asked, when I related this incident, which left me pensive.
"Why should I close my door?" I said. "I'm always interested in hearing other opinions. Maybe there's something I need to hear from this woman, something she's been sent to tell me."
My husband disagrees. He points out--and rightly so--that wearing heavy coverings on the head and body is not an appropriate mode of dress for today's Jewish woman and that extremist views do more harm than good. I know my husband is wise and on-target and there is a lot of truth in what he says. At the same time, I am loathe to discount my last-night visitors out-of-hand. Even if they are 90% misguided, there is still that 10% I need to take to heart.
Again, there is that struggle; the struggle that I think defines all of Life, what King David referred to as the "gesher tzar me'od", the very narrow bridge. When is an open mind absolutely necessary in order to learn and grow? And when is an open mind actually dangerous because it lets too much in?
It's Rosh Chodesh Av, the beginning of the month of Av, and a sad month at that. We are taught that in the month of Av, we minimize joy; it is a sober and introspective time where our thoughts should turn to the sorry state of our Nation--broken, homeless, and leaderless.
One of the mourning customs we adopt from Rosh Chodesh Av until the ninth of Av is refraining from doing laundry. In times gone by, laundry was an all-day activity, and our Sages did not want our minds to be preoccupied by laundering when they should instead be focusing on the intense pain of Galus, exile. Today, despite easy-to-use washing machines, we still refrain from doing laundry, except for washing the clothes of young children in certain circumstances. So every Av, my laundry room slowly but surely accumulates a mountain of dirty, wrinkled, bedraggled clothes. And they sit there, woebegone, as I pretend to turn a blind eye.
You might think it would be a relief, of sorts, to be unbound to my washing machine for nine whole days. But instead I find myself finding it irritating and frustrating. That pile will build and I am powerless to stop it. It will wait for me, until the tenth of Av, at which point I will become a maniacal laundress, switching loads and folding for an entire day--maybe two--to catch up.
Today I was blessed with a new insight into my laundry distress. I thought of the clothes piling up, spilling over the hampers and onto the floors, looking unsightly--a blight on my home. I thought of the way the dirty clothes encroach on my private space, crowd me out, in a sense, of my (sometimes) tidy home. How the Master becomes the indentured servant; how the tables are turned and the state-of-the-art washing machine yawns, confused.
And I thought how apt it is for me to be feeling this way in Av. Crowded out of my own home? Held back from indulging in the pleasures of clean clothes? Feeling vaguely uncomfortable every time I walk into my laundry room? Yeah. It is a very miniscule microcosm of how Hashem must feel. Chased out of his Home by our relentless sins. Held back from enjoying the pleasure of His children doing His will. Waiting...hoping...that maybe today He can come back in and make right everything that is wrong.
More tragic than the mourning is the floundering realization that we may not even be aware of what we're mourning for.
I read, with great interest and sadness, the beautifully written and poignant article by Azriella Jaffe in this week's Mishpacha Magazine about a young woman with cystic fibrosis, fighting for her life. But aside from the inspiration and message of the article, a much greater issue emerged, eclipsing even the backbone of the story. The tragic reality of this young woman is that her family has chosen to keep her illness a complete secret. She is living a lie, and much effort and energy is regularly expended to keep up the game. No one must know that she suffers from cystic fibrosis. No one.
The question that begs to be asked is: Why? Followed by an immediate: And who says? I imagine the answer to the first is "shidduchim" (matchmaking); I am unsure of the answer to the second. Has the family consulted with a prominent Torah authority who ruled they must keep the illness a secret? It seems absolutely impossible to me that such a ruling would be handed down; for two reasons. Firstly, Klal Yisrael (The Nation of Israel) is characterized by three inborn traits, inherited from our forefather, Avraham Avinu: rachmanim (merciful people), bayshanim (modest people), and gomlei chassadim (people who bestow goodness and acts of kindness upon others). We are taught, for example, that the reason Hashem has struck some of our nation with the challenge of poverty is to enable the rest of us to snatch the privilege of helping our brethren. Wouldn't the same apply to a physical challenge, such as cystic fibrosis? Wouldn't the community want the privilege of rising to the challenge, helping the family and this young woman through their difficult trial? Entire organizations are ready and waiting to help the chronically ill; why deprive them of the opportunity?
Secondly, hiding an illness of this sort implies something shameful about it, which is antithetical to Jewish thought which believes that everything comes from G-d. This young woman was given the challenge of cystic fibrosis the way some people are given the challenge of arthritis, or jealousy, or wayward children. Where does the need to hide come from?
Thirdly, here is a young woman who is suffering unimaginably, physically and emotionally. Doesn't she deserve, at the very least, the support of her friends and family? Why exacerbate her suffering by making her undergo her nightmare in complete and total isolation--actually, in something much worse than isolation: in a total, fabricated, charade? We know that "a sorrow shared is a sorrow halved". Why should this young woman be an island? Why should her family be tormented alone? Why would it even be permissible to increase her suffering through this modus operandi? It is really quite beyond me to understand.
If it is shidduchim the family is concerned about, and if that is the root cause of making their decision to hide their daughter's illness, that would raise a very, very thorny issue, one that we, as a society, have long evaded. That's for another post--probably juicy, possibly of a personal nature. Meanwhile, I cannot judge this particular family, and I imagine their decision was absolutely heart-breaking. All I can say is that my heart goes out to them and their poor daughter. May she be granted a refuah shelaimah (complete recovery) very soon.
A CNN news story caught my eye because it featured a famous pianist, Lang Lang, who has taken the world by storm. I love my piano--no, really. I love making music, feeling music, bringing music into my home and weaving it into our family culture. And my secret dream has always been to become a concert pianist, but I'm not sure that's happening any time soon! Anyway, so this Lang Lang pianist talks about his upbringing, where he was dubbed a prodigy at the tender age of, like, three, and his father drove him to greatness.
The melodic tone of young Lang Lang's dream ended rather abruptly when his piano teacher fired him, calling him talentless, and the heartbroken father, who had moved to a new city to enable his son to become a star, give him a good piece of, er, fatherly advice: to throw himself off the roof of a building rather than dishonor the family.
I'm not going to touch the subject of Far Eastern honor culture here. What I'd like to reflect on, for a moment or two, is the complex synergy between who we are and what we do. Is my life my work? Is my life my family? Is my life my friends, my accomplishments, my bank account? What, in essence, IS my life? In Lang Lang's case, his father clearly felt that his life was his musical career. When that did not pan out, his life was worthless, a crumpled piece of yesterday's newspaper, rightfully destined for the garbage.
In Jewish thought, every moment of life is inestimably precious, even if that droplet of life exists in a total vacuum. The person in a vegetative state, being sustained by a respirator and myriad tubes, is precious and valuable and their life is just as exquisite and sacred as the person receiving the Nobel Prize or tending to humanitarian causes in Rwanda, or...or the woman writing hasty blogposts in Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel :-)!
Just a sprinkling of thought, on the very periphery of my exhausted mental state. Life is precious and purposeful, regardless, perhaps, of its by-products. Life is a means, but it's also an end. I'm really glad Lang Lang shelved his father's bit of advice.
Reading the news is like eating that fourth brownie. You know you should stop cuz it won't do you any good, but you just can't. Blech. I honestly have to say that it is a very rare occasion indeed when I actually come away from reading a news article having gained something positive. I see the media, by and large, as a fear-mongering monster, designed to suck the joy out of us, article by dismal article.
So it wasn't surprising when I came away from reading all about the projected swine-flu pandemic feeling rather...sick. I mean, there's already a pandemic of terrified, paranoid, and hysterical people in full swing, waiting for the horrors of swine flu to unleash themselves. I mean, haven't you stockpiled Tamiflu in your medicine cabinet?
We stood in shul (synagogue) a scant month ago, on Rosh Hashanah, and then again, ten days later, and, after crowning G-d King of the Universe, we begged Him for a year of good health and all things wonderful. It is really, really easy to get caught up in morbid fear and paralyzed by what-ifs. It's much more difficult to remind ourselves that there is Someone in charge, and He runs the world--not CNN, or the Center for Disease Control or...and this is going to be a huge shock (sit down for this one!)...even Barack Obama!
Today, I am choosing faith over fear, simply because it makes a lot more sense to me. What about you?
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.
This is a real, actual, unedited conversation overheard on the bus. I will give you my take on it at the end, allowing you to swish it around in your mental wine glass and savor the aromas for yourself first.
About Riva Pomerantz
I'm a freelance writer, widely published in several magazines including the internationally-distributed Ami Magazine and Mishpacha Jewish Family Weekly. Riva's work also appears on the award-winning website www.aish.com, amongst others. You can buy my books here.