Posted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
A Universal Rosh Hashana Message
As a child growing up in America the only time I heard about vampires was once every ten years or so with the inevitable Dracula movie remake. Today, however, vampires and flesh-eating zombies dominate movies and books, especially those aimed at teenagers. And with good reason. For we, with our predictable, monotonous, suburban lives have become the walking undead. We may not dig our teeth into each other’s necks to draw blood or suck out an eyeball out from a friend’s socket. But we are consciously aware that as a nation we have reached a point of inertia and stagnation, a point felt most acutely by the young who look upon the passionless, consumer-oriented world of their parents and fear that they too will be transformed into lifeless androids.
Our politicians seem intent on blaming all that’s wrong with America on the other party when in truth the nation as a whole is stuck. We have a broken economy that bedevils the experts. We’ve tried Keynesian intervention and massive bailouts and now we’ll try austerity measures, all in an effort to fix what feels unfixable. No matter what we throw at the Taliban in Afghanistan, like indestructible cartoon characters they bounce right back. We pour money into ‘allies’ like Pakistan, only to discover they harbor our worst enemies and collude with terrorists to kill our soldiers.
On the political front we jump from personality to personality in the hope that one will prove a modern Prometheus and reignite a flickering American fire. A few months ago Sarah Palin had wall-to-wall media coverage until it was Michelle Bachman’s turn. Now both are shrinking in favor of Rick Perry with whom we were enamored until he performed poorly in a single debate and we started clamoring again for Governor Chris Christie. And as we stagnate the only American sector benefits is the entertainment industry that provides us with mind-numbing escapes, all the better to forget our troubles even as a couch-potato existence causes us to vegetate still further.
Here is where America as a whole can find enrichment from this week’s Rosh Hashana holiday, whose central theme is a wakeup from lethargy and stagnation. Unlike the secular new year which involves public celebrations filled with alcohol and fireworks, Rosh Hashana is a serious day whose shofar call pulls us out of our stupor and forces us to confront the stationary nature of our lives. The Biblical reading on the Sabbath before Rosh Hashana finds Moses declaring to the Israelites on the very last day of his life, “I have set before you today life and death, a blessing and a curse… Choose life.”
As we pray for life on the Jewish new year we make a mental inventory of every component of our existence filing it into one of two categories: life and death. That which animates us and must therefore be nurtured, and that which stifles us and must therefore be purged.
The loving part of you that offers compliments rather than criticism to your spouse needs to be retained for it forms the lifeblood of the relationship. But the part of you that comes home tired from work and retreats into four hours of TV and internet surfing must be eliminated as it spells the death of love. The part of your married sex life which is goal-oriented and rushes to the climactic finish line will ultimately deaden the erotic connection with your spouse and must be replaced by an intimate, soul-connection expressed through the flesh.
A similar accounting is made of our intellectual life. There is the mind-death of idle Hollywood chatter and celebrity conversation versus a life of learning and thought-provoking ideas, journals, and books. There is the death of husbands and wives discussing only practical matters pertaining to children’s after-school activities and picking up the dry-cleaning versus a life of soulful conversation where spouses find healing in the revelation of fears, anxieties, hopes, and dreams.
On a national level there is the death of endless and silly political bickering where the body politic becomes dismissive of politicians as hopeless narcissists out to score points, versus the constructive work of elected officials who, like the right and left wing of a bird, cause the nation to soar specifically through antithetical propulsion.
Our economy will only be rehabilitated once we separate life from death. Let’s get rid of expensive social programs that have created a deadening dependency of men and women who yearn to cease being wards of the state and clamor for lives of dignity, self-sufficiency, and purpose. Let’s urge our teachers unions to stop protecting the small number of dead-beat teachers who gain lifelong tenure after just two years and bring enlivened educators to the classroom who invigorate young minds.
America must drop allies who are dead weight, extending one hand in friendship while knifing us in the back with the other. We have no extra tax money to buy off governments that will never be our friends. Mahmoud Abbas thinks he can create a living Palestinian state with a stack of stapled papers, not realizing that a nation first requires a living infrastructure, something that the Israeli halutzim, pioneers, understood when they first worked for fifty years before the UN vote of 1947 that merely confirmed what was already a fact. A living Jewish state had been born from the ashes of the holocaust because decades of life had first been breathed into it.
Finally, our leaders must choose policies that embolden life and deny death. President Obama’s early vows to breathe new life, say, into relationships with leaders like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did not take into account that one cannot have a living relationship with a culture that glorifies death. Three years ago Obama’s speeches were electrifying and uplifting. But just two weeks ago he had to move his speech to a joint session of Congress out of prime time to 7pm because he knew he could not remotely compete with a football game that same evening. His rhetoric is dead and he has lost his audience because rather than unleash the power of American individualism he has become a detached, cold professor spreading the wealth around while reading from a teleprompter urging us to reembrace tried-and-failed policies. It is the Republicans who today demand that we cut away the dead fat from the bloated Federal budget.
In this coming year let us be a nation of innovation, creativity, and imagination, as Henry David Thoreau said, one that ‘suck[s] out all the marrow of life,’ rather than a nation of the undead that sucks the last few drops of blood out of an exhausted and burned out economy.
This essay is dedicated to the memory of Machla Dabakarov, the mother of Rabbi Shmuley’s close friend, Michael.
Rabbi Shmuely Boteach this week publishes “Ten Conversations You Need to Have with Yourself.” (Wiley). In December he will publish “Kosher Jesus.” Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.
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September 21, 2011 | 5:05 pm
Posted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
Dear Gov. Perry,
You are a man who speaks his mind, which is rare in a politician and is a quality that I admire. I’m also grateful to you for your staunch support for Israel, which is no doubt influenced by your strong Christian faith.
I would like, however, to respectfully address your comments pertaining to America’s need for a values renaissance. Recently, in speaking to a crowd of 13,000 students and faculty members at a sports arena, you said that America needs to be guided by some set of values and rightly asked, “Whose values?” to which you responded, “Those Christian values that this country was based upon.”
No doubt, Christian values and Christian faith have played an absolutely pivotal role in America’s founding and subsequent prosperity. One need look no further than the Pilgrims, who landed at Plymouth Rock in search of the freedom to practice their Christian faith without British Anglican hindrance, to prove the point.
But of late, Christian values seem to have been narrowly reduced in the political arena to the twin goals of stopping abortion and gay marriage. Indeed, amid my deep-seated love and respect for my Evangelical brothers and sisters — a love that will be formally crystallized in the form of a full-length book on the Jewishness of Jesus that will be published just before Christmas — I greatly lament how some Christian values have come to so deeply divide our country, and I respectfully propose that Christians begin turning to universal Jewish values in order to reinvigorate America.
Take the breakdown of marriage and family. Raising a well-balanced, inspired, independent and motivated child — an immense challenge — is far likelier to succeed with two parents than one. Yet, while rabbis talk constantly about the 50 percent heterosexual divorce rate, pastors seem to gravitate far more to opposing gay marriage, even though we straight people have done a fine job of eroding marriage ourselves. (Indeed, one of the ironies of marriage in America is that the only men who seem to want to get married are gay!)
One of the supreme Jewish values is keeping a troubled husband and wife together in peace, something I have sought to do in more than 20 books. Rather than obsess over gays marrying, why not join me in creating legislation that would make marital counseling tax-deductible so at-risk couples can get the help they need?
The same is true, Governor, of embracing another supreme Jewish value, Friday night Sabbath dinners. Unfortunately, in America only about a third of all families sit down for regular family meals. But imagine if we could create, at the very least, a weekly national Friday night Sabbath meal observed by Americans of every persuasion. The Christian Sabbath, Sunday, has unfortunately been commercialized by shopping malls, cineplexes and football. Let’s ask all American families to embrace what on fridayisfamily.com you’ll see called “the triple two”: Call on American families, every Friday night, to set aside two uninterrupted hours without television; invite two guests; and discuss two substantive subjects, because learning and a life of intellectual depth is perhaps the most supreme of all Jewish values.
Which brings us to the economy, the most important of all campaign issues and the most serious crisis facing America today. Politicians on both sides of the aisle — from President Barack Obama to candidate Michelle Bachman — are all saying that if only their policies were followed, America would be in the black again. Many politicians promise to cure every ill, as if they were miracle workers. These promises would seem to stem from the Christian value of perfection as opposed to the Jewish value of struggle. People running for President feel forced to overpromise: Vote for me and it’s all going to be all right. That’s why Barack Obama has lost so much credibility. He ran as Jesus Christ, a man who could walk on water and make the tides rise. Turns out his perfection only alienated him from the people. We now dismiss him as cold, detached and aloof, a far cry, say, from Bill Clinton’s all-too-human frailties that seem, counterintuitively, to have endeared him to the American public.
By contrast, we Jews have not one perfect man or woman in the Bible. In Jewish values, righteousness is defined not by perfection but by struggle. Leadership is defined not by promising a utopia but by inspiring others to be strong through the struggle. America is in for some tough years. We have a $14 trillion debt that isn’t going to be paid off any time soon. Why not level with us? Tell us you’re not perfect but you’re prepared to wrestle with America’s great issues to make things better, and inspire us to do the same. Tell us that struggle is a sign of greatness, as the Talmud says, “Only when an olive is squeezed do you get its oil.” This is not Jimmy Carter’s defeatist malaise, but rather Lincoln’s promise of many long, hard years of battle that would inevitably result in triumph, or Winston Churchill’s “blood, toil, tears and sweat” that never surrenders.
Americans today are struggling to find and hold on to jobs, struggling to pay mortgages, struggling to raise good kids and struggling against a worldwide Islamist terror enemy. And rather than take pride in the struggle, we escape into manufactured materialistic fantasies of shopping, celebrity obsession and the latest Hollywood fare. We have become soft, expecting the government to do too much for us rather than showing our mettle through the power of struggle.
Finally, Governor, one of the biggest problems we face in America today is that many good men and women refuse to run for public office, fearing that they will be outed as hypocrites. The microscopic media review to which they will be subject will be too revealing, and none, in truth is perfect. Yet the Jewish-values view of hypocrisy is different from the Christian view, which defines hypocrisy as saying one thing and practicing another. But, Judaism argues that human beings have two competing impulses within them, one godly and pure, the other selfish and animalistic. Therefore, when a man says one thing and does another, he is not a hypocrite but rather inconsistent. In most cases, he believed the good he preached but simply could not summon the willpower to live by it, whereas the hypocrite is someone who says something for public consumption and never believes it in the first place.
Gov. Perry, Christians have brought immeasurable good to America, and today, Evangelical Christians like you account for 60 percent of the American military and are Israel’s most staunch supporters. But the time has come for Christians in America to embrace the Jewish values that Jesus, as a staunchly devoted Jew, himself practiced. It is time, after thousands of years of Jewish values being heard in a somewhat altered way through the megaphone of Christianity, to be heard in its own right and with its own voice.
Rabbi Shmuely Boteach this week publishes “Ten Conversations You Need to Have with Yourself.” (Wiley). In December he will publish “Kosher Jesus.” Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.
September 19, 2011 | 5:23 pm
Posted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
It is not just the Arabs who are having their spring. Here in the United States Americans are calling their government to account like never before.
Driving to JFK airport early this morning for a flight to Los Angeles I discovered that the cost to cross the George Washington Bridge had jumped from $8 to $12. The decision was made by the Port Authority without any input from the citizenry. The Triboro Bridge was then another $6.50 to cross, and these in two states – New Jersey and New York – which both have nearly ten percent income tax (on top of the approximate 35% Federal income tax), large sales tax, and the highest property taxes in the nation. Apparently none of these taxes cover the maintenance of an old bridge for which you have to pay exorbitant fees that keep on skyrocketing up.
You begin to understand why Americans are so fed up with their inept government and out-of-control bureaucrats and politicians who, no matter how much money they raise in taxes, still have not enough.
I have never seen a time like this in the United States where the populace is so angry with their government. Congress has an approval rating in the low teens and President Obama, who just three years ago was christened the American messiah, has become so irrelevant that his address to a joint session of Congress on his jobs bill had to be delivered outside of prime time at 7pm because American preferred to watch football. And why listen when nearly every speech he delivers on saving the economy involves his predictable remedy of spending tens of billions more with no palpable benefit.
The shockwaves generated by Bob Turner’s win in New York’s Ninth district, which hasn’t had a Republican Congressman since the 1920’s, are waking both parties up to the fiscal accountability Americans are demanding of their governments. Families are struggling. Jobs are scarce. Parents are wrestling to put food on the table. Still our politicians can’t get over their addiction to spending and wasting Americans’ hard-earned cash.
What is at stake is the rugged individualism upon which America was founded and through which it has prospered. America is a compassionate society that has built strong safety nets to care for those in need. But this was never meant to be a first option but a last resort. At the core of American values is the dignity of the human person and the knowledge that people do not want to be supported by anyone but themselves. Humans desire innately to produce more than they consume, to live lives that are a blessing rather than a burden to others. It’s the first lesson that responsible parents teach their children. Make your own bed. Clean your own room. Do your homework and ask for assistance only when necessary. Get a part-time job even as a student so as to assist the family with paying tuition. And it is this basic premise that voters are committed to firmly reestablishing on a national level before the country goes bankrupt with entitlement programs run amuck.
It seems incredible that President Obama still doesn’t get the message, speaking instead about renewing school buildings for billions of dollars, as if shiny new paint is an adequate substitute for teaching young Americans the value of self-reliance.
And this political tone-deafness is leading Americans to challenge their government with a gusto that leaves politicians ensconced in previously safe seats running for their lives. When I moved back to the United States after living in England for more than a decade I settled into the town of Englewood, New Jersey, and simply got used to paying tens of thousands of dollars a year in property taxes, even as I had to earn a Ph.D. in what the sanitation workers would remove in my trash and what I had to schlep to the dump myself. I grew accustomed to the potholes in the streets outside my house and driving down the road as if in a lunar module traversing pock-mocked craters. I submitted, as did so many citizens, to the bullying of bureaucrats who issued citations and even threatened arrest warrants if the wrong type of vehicle was parked in my driveway.
But the times they are a changin’. There is a backlash in our city – still inadequate but a backlash nonetheless – against the sky-high taxes that keep on rising every year. More citizens than ever are challenging their assessed property values as they struggle to keep up with their impossibly high taxes.
Since about 1982 the City of Englewood has not even challenged the Libyan-Gadhafi compound’s right to be exempt from property tax. Overtaxed citizens were required to pay for the Libyans police protection and trash removal, even as Gadhafi embarked on a program of bombing airliners and killing American servicemen in discotheque in Berlin. But the silence of the citizens is dissipating in favor of outrage and pressure is finally being put on our elected council to force the Libyans to pay their fair share, especially since they already enjoy an exemption on their Ambassadorial residence in Manhattan. No New Jersey citizen should be expected to finance in whatever measure a terror-sponsoring government in its midst and it is an absolute disgrace that successive Englewood elected leaders have required their citizens to pay taxes that supported Gadhafi.
Gadhafi may now be out of power, but where is the outrage against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad traveling to the United States yet again this week to peddle his Jew-hatred, threats of Israel’s extinction, and insipid theories of American collusion in the attacks of 9/11. Who gave this man a visa?
In August, President Obama signed a presidential order barring entry to the United States for individuals “who organize or participate in war crimes, crimes against humanity, and serious violations of human rights.” The initiative was championed by the President’s Chief Advisor on human rights, Samantha Power, the world’s foremost voice against genocide and a woman for whom I have enormous respect. It was she who was largely credited for American action against Gadhafi. But then why is Ahmadinejad, who calls for Israel’s obliteration and mowed down his own people in June 2009 when they rose against him in the streets of Tehran, permitted to come to our shores?
And how sad that NBC News sanitized this killer with their ‘day-in-the-life’ puff piece that portrayed a man threatening a second holocaust as a caring leader dedicated to Iran’s poor, when in reality he has unleashed his thugs to murder and brutalize those in Iran whose only crime is seeking the right to stand up to their fraudulently elected leaders.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s new book, “Ten Conversations You Need to Have with Yourself” (Wiley) will be published later this month, followed by Kosher Jesus (Gefen). He is the founder of This World: The Values Network. Follow him Twitter @RabbiShmuley.
September 12, 2011 | 2:38 pm
Posted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
I visited Ground Zero at midnight on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 and felt myself transported, as if by a time machine, back to that terrible day that changed America forever. An eerie stillness hung over the site, reminiscent of a visit to a cemetery, an apt description for a place where the dust of so many bodies still lingers. Everywhere there were poster boards with hand-written tributes by family members and friends alongside the pictures of the fallen which sunk me into a state of gloom and had me fighting back tears. Flowers sent anonymously by citizens from all over the country with cards reading, “Send to Ground Zero, NY, and leave outside,” reminded me of the big-heartedness of the American people. The firefighters moving bronze memorial covering an entire wall and reading “May We Never Forget” and “All Gave Some and Some Gave All” conjured recollections of the incomparable sacrifice of those who rushed up the stairs against a tide of humanity which was hurrying the other way.
Suddenly, my mind was flooded with memories of that terrible day.
What I remember most are the jumpers. Of all the horrors of 9/11 none conveyed the full extent of the tragedy more than those who were given the choice to either be incinerated in 2000 degree jet-fuel fired heat or plunge to certain death more than 1000 feet below. I recently watched an amazing HBO documentary about the attacks whose core is an amalgamation of all the privately recorded video of that frightful day. Seeing the jumpers through the lens of ordinary citizens and hearing the screams of the amateur cameramen and women as they watched their fellow countrymen plunge to oblivion is chilling beyond words.
Could G-d possibly have caught them? Could He have extended the famously outstretched arm He used in Egypt to save the Israelites and grant the jumpers a soft landing so they could safely return to their families?
The next most chilling recollection was the recordings of the phone calls made by those trapped in the buildings to their families. Nearly every one mentioned their love for the person they were calling and the fact that they were trapped in a burning building with little prospect of getting out.
Could G-d have not reached down from his heavenly thrown and plucked them from the inferno, just as he saved Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah from Nebuchadnezzar’s cauldron in the Book of Daniel
The firefighters who charged up the stairwells were instantly turned to dust when the towers came crashing down. Could the same G-d who breathed life into the clay of Adam have not have breathed life into the ashes of these heroes and restored them to their children?
And as the two planes flew at great speed toward the towers in the first instance, could the same G-d who provided defensive clouds and protective fire to the Israelites for forty years in the desert not have provided a barrier and shield that would have made the buildings impregnable to the aerial assault?
Of all the monumental questions that relate to 9/11 none is so strong as how an omnipotent, all-powerful G-d watched in silence as 3000 men and women – whose only crime was to rise early in the morning to feed their families – perished in a grizzly tragedy that traumatizes America till this day. September 11th was a religious attack against the United States by a group of men who thought they were striking a blow for their deity and would earn eternity for doing so. But the infidels they chose to murder are a nation where 92 percent believe in G-d and where the Almighty even features on the currency. I am reminded of the words of Abraham Lincoln in his second inaugural: “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other… The prayers of both could not be answered.” Fair enough. But why then were the prayers of one – the terrorists who screamed ‘Allahu Akbar’ as they blasphemed by killing in the name of G-d – answered? Would it have been too much to ask of the Creator that their wire cutters set off the alarm of the airport screening machine so that the entire plot be discovered and foiled?
America is a righteous, benevolent nation. It deserved far better than the suffering inflicted upon it ten years ago today. Why G-d allowed a tragedy of this magnitude is something we humans will never know. But our ignorance should not let G-d off the hook. In commemorating the tragedy we dare not practice a submissive, counterfeit faith that assumes our own sinfulness and G-d’s righteousness. We did nothing to earn this. Those who would fault America, as some religious leaders did in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, would have us embrace a fraudulent relationship with G-d where man is always culpable and G-d is always innocent. I prefer the faith of Abraham who pleaded with G-d for the lives of even the wicked inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah and Moses who told G-d that if He punished the Israelites He must also remove Moses’ name from the Bible and thereby sever their relationship forever.
A few nights ago on HLN’s Joy Behar show I debated the question of whether the 9/11 terrorists ought be forgiven. Hell no. Let others peddle their syrupy speeches about how an inability to forgive leads to psychological scarring and emotional pain on the part of he who harbors the anger. It is not anger but righteous indignation that we Americans feel. And we ought all prefer to live with that scar and endure that pain rather than trivialize the memory of 3000 innocents and inflict even greater suffering on their families by affording absolution to heartless killers who believed they were earning an eternity of sex in exchange for a brief instant of monstrous violence.
As their wretched souls left their bodies no doubt they were shocked to discover that it plummeted downward faster than any jumper into the eternal abyss.
But shooting up right past them, like a rocket to the stars, were the souls of those lost whose bodies may have been claimed by the earth’s gravity but whose spirit was pulled directly into heaven.
And upward they go, every day and every year, loftier in our consciousness, grander in our memory, pulling we who remember them ever higher.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach will be releasing his newest book “Ten Conversations You Need to Have with Yourself” in two weeks, to be followed by his book, “Kosher Jesus.” His book on why the righteous suffer is called “Wrestling with the Divine.” Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.
This column is dedicated to the memory of Machla Debakarov, the mother of a close friend who passed away this year.