When I'm up a Tree-Where Are You?
Just this week, I purchased some new mezuzahs to help someone change their luck for the better. I couldn’t help but think of all the high security systems people employ to protect their lives and belongings. Then I looked at the little bag swinging between my forefinger and thumb and was awed how these parchments inscribed with Judaism’s most well-known prayer, the Shema, have protected the Jewish people for centuries.
The mezuzahs are not mere nostalgic props to assert our identity and comfort us; they are Biblically commanded: “You shall love the L-rd your G‑d with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you today shall be upon your heart… And you shall write them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates.”
And there upon the back of the rolled-up parchment are the three letters (shin, dalet, yud) that spell G-d’s name, Shaddai. This name is also an acronym for shomer dlatot Yisrael, "Guardian of the doors of Israel.” For who else would protect the Children of Israel? And the answer is, we protect each other.
The prayer contained speaks about loving G-d and following His commandments. By doing so properly and genuinely, we learn to love each other, respect each other, and treat each other as if we each reflect a spark of G-d. Because we do. We are commanded to place His words upon our hearts. Not in our brains and not in our pockets.
The Rabbis teach that the instrument with which the mezuzah, Torah and tefillin are written should teach us how to behave: A person should always be soft like a reed and not be stiff like a cedar, as one who is proud like a cedar is likely to sin. And therefore, due to its gentle qualities, the reed [today the feather] merited that a quill is taken from it to write a Torah scroll, phylacteries, and mezuzot. (Taanit, 20b) Our hearts must be soft and flexible not hard and stubborn. For when a mezuzah marks a doorway it is not merely to whisper, “A Jew lives here.” It’s meant to shout that those who BEHAVE like Jews live here. If home is where the heart is — then where’s your heart?
The problem today is that we’ve become hard-hearted like Pharaohs. Our greed, our selfishness our jealousy, our apathy have hardened our hearts so much that they’ve become tough and inflexible like cedar wood.
The great Biblical commentator, Rashi, points out that “the cedar tree’s height represents haughtiness and arrogance”; it stands so high above the rest that it cannot beat heart in heart with its fellow Jew, sister, friend or neighbor..
“So said the Lord: Perform justice and charity, and rescue the robbed from the hand of the robber, and to a stranger, an orphan, and a widow do no wrong.…”(Jeremiah 22:3)
We cannot be aloof and conveniently mind our own business when others are flailing either financially, spiritually, emotionally or in other ways. And the prophet Jeremiah warns the King of Judah about his heartlessness and abandonment of the Torah while he built homes of cedar: “And I will prepare for you destroyers, each one with his weapons, and they will cut your choice cedars and cast them upon the fire.” (Ibid 22:7)
Be certain that every time we Jews forget that we are one family, anti-Semitism will remind us. We are one people, with one destiny, responsible for each other. Often we can’t stand each other or have so little tolerance because we are from another sect, or economic background. We are racist among ourselves. The ironic thing about Gentile -Jew hatred is that it doesn’t discriminate: It hates us all equally. What a shame that we have to come together as ashes in Auschwitz or on the killing fields of violent anti-Semitic slaughters.
We see in this week’s Torah reading that after Joseph’s brothers’ jealousy toward him could no longer be curbed, they threw him into a pit. If that’s not bad enough, they then sat down to eat while their brother suffered. It’s a callousness that is certainly prevalent in our days as well. When our lives are going well, we are able to shut out the sufferings of others. It’s not my problem! Here is a simple example: How often on Facebook do we see people asking to be included in our prayers because they are sick or going through difficult times? How often do we really write down their names, friends or strangers, and actually insert their pleas into our daily prayers? Having our own problems is no excuse for closing our hearts to the problems of others. Going through difficult economic times is no excuse for stopping to give charity.
The funny thing about giving charity at first is when you drop a coin into an empty can, it makes a lot of noise. But as you fill up the can, your heart softens; it gets used to giving and not being so selfish. Soon enough, the inserted coins make no sound at all. Giving charity properly has infinite positive repercussions in the universe but the giving is silent. The givers don’t brag or advertise; We don’t lament over each “dime.” The coins soon don’t make any clang at all. But the heart becomes a new heart, not one of cedar. It becomes a Jewish heart.
The other side of the leaf is being happy for your neighbor when he is doing well. Don’t be like Joseph’s brothers who couldn’t even speak peacefully with him because of their hate and jealousy. Learn from his brothers that digging a pit for someone you are jealous of doesn’t make you any better. It makes you despicably worse. To sabotage others behind their backs because you are jealous or can’t compete with them is a very big sin which will not satisfy your objective. Joseph’s brothers exerted their delusory power and threw him into the pit to aggrandize themselves at his expense, but G-d had other plans. In the end, they all had to bow before him and serve him. The very person they wanted to destroy was the one they needed most for their survival.
And I can’t end this by slandering cedar trees. They are otherwise spoken of favorably in Judaism as long as they remember their roots and where they came from, the same earth as the humble lowly hyssop. If you want to be a cedar, then grow on your own merit, grow in good deeds and with achievements and not by cutting down the competition. You strike only at yourself. Joseph grew to be like a cedar but despite his meteoric rise to power and everything he went through, he still had a heart for his brothers. He remembered who he was and from where he came. He had love and compassion and forgiveness. His heart was soft.
Joseph and his brothers make up the 12 tribes of Israel. They are all represented by precious stones upon the priestly breastplate which is worn over the kohen’s heart. We are one people, one nation, one heart. Each of us is a precious stone in our own right, thus precluding the need for jealousy or feelings of superiority or inferiority.
The Hebrew word for love and the Hebrew word for ONE both have the same numerical value. So, friends, let’s do the simple math. Open our hearts to each other, in good times and in bad, and undoubtedly in all this random chaos of fractured friendships and families, things will finally and beautifully add up to ONE!