I Found God in a Paper Bag
I can’t believe it is ten years since I became an American citizen and my passport is set to expire any day now. My new passport photos are scarier than juddering turbulence over the Grand Canyon. How much has changed in a decade. I remember during the swearing-in ceremony they announced the countries of origin of their new citizens. When Israel was announced, everyone clapped. That was then. Today, I can just imagine.
Perhaps more than my country of origin, Canada, I love America. It’s been good to my people and me. But I’m also so proud to say that those of my faith have made great contributions to this country as well. I’m comfortable; I live in a really great apartment. But there is one nerve-racking flaw in it which I’ve eschewed fixing completely. The water temperature in my shower goes from extremely hot to extremely cold. No small annoyance because my shower, my haven, remains evermore the only place where nothing and no one bugs me. Yet, I refuse to fix it because the great sentimentalist and student of history that I am, it is a constant reminder of the perpetual state of the Jew. We dare never get too comfortable in any place we call home other than the Promised Land. Our diasporic history has taught us that sometimes the attitude toward us is cold — they just hate us quietly; sometimes it is hot, and they show it. Rarely have conditions been like America and Goldilocks’ porridge, just right. But now the temperature has changed and it’s getting a little too hot for my liking, even though I’m partial to hot porridge.
As we are about to commemorate International Holocaust day 75 years after the liberation of Auschwitz and the end of the war that was supposed to end all wars, we realize that the slogan “Never Again” is as cute as “they all lived happily ever after.” I know there are many who will never dare say that the Holocaust was a punishment from G-d, and so I won’t utter a sentence that will just invite ire. I, like you, only know what I was taught. But I will say, that it wasn’t a gift. If Jew hatred is so irrational, it behooves us to seek in the “irrational” realm to find an answer. Not that G-d is irrational, just that we can’t understand His rationale. "For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways," says the Lord. (Isaiah 5:8)
Anyone who has actually read the Torah knows that G-d punishes those who betray His will. Adam and Eve are punished for eating the forbidden fruit; Noah’s generation is destroyed by the flood because of its sins; Sodom and Gemorrah are destroyed because of sin. Example after example the Torah recounts incidents where individuals are punished for their lack of obedience. We are the chosen people not to be braggarts and show offs but to lead the way with moral clarity and be stalwart examples of decency and ethics and integrity. But have we forgotten our calling in comfortable America and indeed around the world? The Torah tells us that, “Jeshurun became fat and rebelled... forsook the God Who made them, and spurned the [Mighty] Rock of their salvation.” As I’ve said before, anti-Semitism is a spiritual calling, a national wake-up .
It is a Jewish belief that we are all responsible for one another and therefore the sin of one can drag down another. The good deed of a Jew in Arkansas can help a Jew living in Montreal, something like the Butterfly Effect. If energy never dies and doing mitzvahs involves exerting energy, what energy are you putting into the world? Are you a sustainer or destroyer of our people and humanity? The Torah cautions us that if we don’t behave our people will be slaughtered and vomited from the Land. It was no vain threat as we know the Jews were vomited from the land into exile. And once in exile, they kicked us too.
Take the German Jew, for example. The interesting thing about the German Jew is that many saw themselves as more German than Jewish. They served willingly in the German military, they spurned all symbols of Judaism, separated themselves from their own kind, they denied what can never be converted away, their Judaism. G-d’s quid pro quo: they were kicked out of the German army, out of their vaunted professions. They were forced to wear yellow stars to show their Jewishness and in squalor and ashes they were reunited with their brethren and reminded: You are a Jew.
In this week’s parasha we read about how “the Israelites did not hearken to Moses because of [their] shortness of breath and because of [their] hard labor.” Some sages explain that “hard labor” included idol worship. They became so caught up in the Egyptian culture that they, like us, got caught up in the rat race. We work so hard for the mighty buck and all the false idols it affords us that we become exhausted from the whole phony insatiable hunger of finite “gods.” They were not just slaves to Pharaoh, they were slaves, as we are, to serving “false gods” that leave us nothing in the end but ulcers, arrhythmia and certainly shortness of breath. Yes, they couldn’t catch their breath from the hard work. But when else can’t we catch our breath in life? When we have no faith. Worried, worried all the time about money, bills, health, kids, business, peer pressure, perceived injustices. But who gives breath as a free gift? G-d! He breathed life into man. If you can’t breathe, you’ve disconnected from G-d. I remember a few years ago I had such a hard time breathing and with a Woody Allen-Larry David like paranoia, I thought I was dying of 72 diseases. I went to the doctor immediately. He sent me home with a paper bag. Now, as a woman, like most who likes to shop, I’ve come home with many bags that have treats at the bottom. In this bag, I found faith. “Go home and breathe into the bag,” the doctor said. “It’s all stress.” Where there is fear, there is no faith. Me, who never missed a meal my whole life, why was I so worried about tomorrow? Why? Because like the Jews in Egypt I put my faith in a lot of places and people and feared those securities would all implode. If I had proper faith in G-d, the breath, the basic of my life force, would come easy. Lamaze lesson 101: when bringing life into the world, breathe.
As world leaders congregate in Israel in commemoration of the Holocaust, let us remember once again, our destiny and fate are not in their hands unless we want it to be. Our fate is in G-d’s hands, unless we take it away from Him and hand it over to the nations of the world, the same ones who closed their doors to desperate Jews and held their noses as 6 million of my people went up in smoke. We have to stop exhausting ourselves serving foreign gods and bowing to foreign leaders, so much so that we spurn our faith in Hashem. Take a deep breath. Have faith that if we keep our side of the contract with G-d, he will keep His:
“…you will return to the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul, and you will listen to His voice according to all that I am commanding you this day you and your children, then, the Lord, your God, will bring back your exiles, and He will have mercy upon you...love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, for the sake of your life. And the Lord, your God, will place all these curses upon your enemies and upon your adversaries, who pursued you.”
Yes perhaps my U.S. passport is set to expire, but I will be a Jew forever. I surrender: Let go and let G-d. Yes, I’m finally learning how to breathe! And you? Shabbat Shalom.