To an outsider, the lives of faithful Jews can seem to contradict many tenets of our faith. We pray that Hashem provide us with our needs, but then we are obsessed with gathering great wealth. We proclaim that He is the King of kings, but then we agonize over who will be the next President. We believe that He has full control of Nature, but then we seek shelter during natural disasters. We understand that that He is our all-powerful Guardian, and then we constantly worry about our enemies that seek to destroy us.
Are these just things we say, and not actually believe? Or are we not as devout as we should be? From a simple understanding of Judaism’s core statements of faith, one might surmise that in fact we are living contradictory lives. Maybe we should not pursue our careers, get involved with politics, or even attempt to protect our safety. After all, if Hashem really can take care of all of our needs, why should we worry about them?
A simple perusal of the earliest Jewish texts would paint a totally different picture of Man’s role in this world. One has to simply look at the stories in our Holy Torah to shatter the idea of an ideal world full of pious believers who sit passively against Man’s struggles in an effort to testify their faith in The Lord.
If, because of our faith, we should not work so hard, why was Adam commanded to work the Garden of Eden and subsequently do it by the “sweat of his brow”?
If we are supposed to simply have faith and accept natural disasters because God must be “punishing us,” why did Sarah and Avraham ironically escape the ‘blessed’ land that was struck by famine?
If in our service of God, we are supposed to stay away from politics, why would Joseph miraculously become arguably one of the most politically powerful men on the planet? And why would Mordechai, Esther, and so many Sages of Talmud be so intimately involved with governmental matters?
If all God wants from us is to beg of Him to help us, when stuck between Egypt’s advanced army and the Sea of Reeds, why was Moses asked to stop his passionate prayer and march forward?
Since we believe in an All-Powerful being, we will never come to fully understand why certain struggles come our way. However, from the stories above, one thing is certain; it is our duty to do our part in addressing the struggles in a practical, and most logical way possible, regardless of whether we understand the reasons behind those struggles or not.
In dealing with the above duality, I propose the believing person have two parallel thoughts when considering the relationship between Man, God and our actions. On the one hand, we must believe that Hashem has the potential to control every single thing in this world and we can potentially sit back and let Him run the show. On the other hand, we are given the opportunity to do every single thing in our power to better this world and strive to have an active role in that same show. In this light, we see that we can be an active partner with Creator of the universe to carry out his revealed mission and show exactly how much “in His Image” we truly are.
With any duality, a delicate balance is required to prevent us from going down either extreme. At what point does our inaction and acceptance of perceived “will” of God become a stumbling block to our true calling? And more importantly, at what point does our concern for worldly affairs detract from our Religious duty of faith and acceptance of Hashem’s will?
Perhaps the metric to finding this equilibrium is a combination of two very sought after, but very difficult life ingredients; a healthy, unadulterated, understanding of personal potential along with the wisdom and foresight to understand what is truly “good” for this world. With these two elements in hand, one can begin an introspective dialogue with oneself to begin to address the seeming contradiction that we speak of.
Yes! I am going to recognize and use all of my God-given resources to address the struggles that come my way to bring goodness into this world and attempt to block any evil that I face. In my attempt to provide for myself, my family, and those less fortunate than me I will work as hard as I can to make a living. In my concern for worldly affairs I will lobby my congressperson, get out the vote, and do everything in my power not to empower those that want to wipe me off the map. In my effort to keep my family safe, I will take every precaution I see fit to protect them from harm.
But wait! All this comes with one caveat. I understand that when I am done doing whatever I am capable of doing, I will be neither depressed nor frightened of uncertainties that lie ahead. I also understand that when I have finished doing whatever I think needs my attention, I will be neither haughty nor gleeful for what I have accomplished. Rather, I will raise my hands towards Heaven and pray that my actions were of pure motivation, my calculations of what really is “good” were correct, and that I gave over my true potential, nothing more and nothing less.
I will close with a saying from Jewish Sage, Rabbi Tarfon, in the Ethics of Our Fathers, when speaking about Man’s relationship with the proverbial Owner of this world.
רַבִּי טַרְפוֹן אוֹמֵר, הַיּוֹם קָצֵר וְהַמְּלָאכָה מְרֻבָּה… וְהַשָּׂכָר הַרְבֵּה, וּבַעַל הַבַּיִת דּוֹחֵק …לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמוֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה :
Rabbi Tarfon said: The day is short, the work is much…. the reward is great, and the owner is pressing…It is not your responsibility to finish the work, neither are you free to desist from it.
Colors of Morocco
Morocco, a country of distinct culture and boundless color, a place where customs of East and West converge, has been a land of ageless history, architecture, and intrigue. Named Travel & Leisure’s 2015 “Travel Destination of the Year”, Morocco holds more than meets the eye as each city is personified by a distinct color and character. While Morocco in its entirety is fascinating, the story of Jewish lineage is particularly so. Having had the exceptional opportunity to travel within Morocco this past year, I delved into the three-thousand-year-old history and traditions of ancient Moroccan Jewry.
The country that holds prolific inspiration for writers, artisans, and philosophers has been called home by generations of a tight-knit Jewish community. Until the past half century, a once bustling population of more than 300,000 Jews now remains a scattered 3,000. Although small, the Jewish community continues to be strong and vibrant. Dating back roughly 2,500 years ago, the Jewish population in Morocco was the largest in the Arab world. Under the reign of King Mohammed V (1927-1961) and subsequently his son, King Hassan II (1961–1999), Jews enjoyed living freely alongside their Muslim counterparts. As King Mohammed II was once famously quoted, “I do not have Muslim citizens, nor do I have Jewish citizens. I have Moroccan citizens”. A solid sense of patriotism is held within the gates of Morocco for Jews and Muslims alike. It became evident as I inquired with locals about living under their current and past monarchs – they are confident and proud. Despite being a minute community, many Jews compare their relationships to their Muslim neighbors as “brothers” and “close friends.” They show an equal sense of pride for both their Jewish and Moroccan roots. Paradoxically, a country nestled in between the most intolerable of regions shows a strong sense of camaraderie and acceptance.
As a Sephardic Jew born and raised in Los Angeles, my childhood was constantly showered with stories of my parents’ upbringing in the Middle East. I learned of their homes near the most ornate age-old mosques and their relationships with the neighboring Muslim communities, but it was only until I entered Morocco that these stories finally came to life.
Upon arriving into Fès, the blue imperial city, the essence of the old Jewish community is near palpable as you are greeted by the grandeur of the Bab Boujloud gates, guarding what used to be the walls of the mellah, or Jewish quarter. Walking through the centuries-old mellah, which once held the largest of Jewish populations, it was as if the stories of my father’s adolescence had been painted before my eyes. The narrow cobblestoned paths were scattered with donkeys carrying freshly dyed leathers from nearby tanneries and local Moroccans sporting the traditional djellaba robe. It was evident that not only the architecture, but the day-to-day way of life remained unchanged throughout the decades. Still, the only traces of Jewish life remain within the stories of the city’s cobalt blue walls.
The 17th century Ibn Danan Synagogue is adorned by a wealth of traditional Moroccan mosaic tile work, or zellij in Arabic. The striking patterns of the traditional Moroccan starburst motif, testir, in an array of forms makes evident how Arabesque architecture and culture have beautifully permeated the Jewish sphere. Within its rich turquoise walls, the strength the Jewish community once held was undeniable, as both Torah scrolls were seemingly untouched. As beautiful as this sight was, the real treasure lay hidden. As I followed a short dark corridor down three stone stairs, a dim light reflected a small pool of water in front of me—I soon realized it was the original mikveh of the synagogue, laying tranquil, unscathed. Still filled with water, it reminded me of what I once heard, “where there is water, there is life”, and this centuries-old mikveh had once been a witness to prayer and miracles—the beating heart of Jewish life.
Driving through the lush pastures of Meknès, the city of green, into the capital, Rahbat, we were greeted warmly by natives of the Jewish community with two kisses on the cheek and offered aromatic mint tea. Over a beautiful dinner table adorned with traditional dishes of tajine, pastilla, couscous, and an array of spicy harissa, the locals were charming and warm as they conversed in a mélange of Arabic, French, and English. They were quick to express their delight in meeting fresh, young Jewish faces—something that has become a scarcity as most families have made aliyah since the formation of Israel. Nonetheless, they expressed the love and pride they hold for their native hometown, Morocco.
As I reach the rose-colored walls of Marrakech, the city of red, I am immediately drawn in by the warm sandstone glow the city emanates. Passing through the medina into the souk, or Arab baazar, my senses are heightened by the endless sparks of color; uninterrupted arrays of turmeric yellow, jade green, paprika red, and cobalt blue. The scents of spices seem all too familiar—coriander, saffron, cumin, and turmeric. An odd sense of familiarly and sentiments of home are felt as it seemed that my heart had a yearning to connect to my deeply embedded Sephardic roots.
My exploration of the Jewish community of Morocco proved to be an experience of intrigue and connection. I felt fulfilled as I was finally able to perceive first hand, the history, the struggle, and the ultimate resilience of my Sephardic roots. It taught me lessons of diversity, acceptance, and the promise to pass onto future generations what makes us who we are and has kept us resilient amongst our adversities–our Jewish legacy.
Similar to the interwoven patterns of the zellij, Jews each with a unique story require both an individuality and interconnectedness in order to create an intricate pattern—one cannot discover where one lineage ends and the other begins.
A Prayer for the Iran Nuclear Deal
The only accurate description of how I felt–as an Iranian-American Jew that escaped the repression of the Islamic Republic of Iran at a young age–when I received this summer’s news of a strikingly bad nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1, is to compare it to an anxious patient receiving a disturbing medical diagnosis by a doctor whose medical malpractice she had suspected had actually contributed to her worsening condition over the course of many, many years.
I felt defeated and hopeless, even more striking given the fact that, I, along with dozens of wonderful young leaders, had co-founded the nation’s leading Iranian-American Jewish civic action organization (30 YEARS AFTER) and knew exactly which community organizations, individuals, media outlets, and elected officials to approach in an attempt to urge Congress to vote against the deal.
After having exhausted all other options that are a normal part of my portfolio when trying to affect change as an activist, I finally remembered that if I had been that distraught patient, I would have immediately turned to another outlet of hope and action: prayer.
Now, I’ve been known to pray for anything, from marriage to children to one lousy parking space at Glatt Mart. But the Iran nuclear deal? My first inclination was to pray for a rampant epidemic of severe piles, also known as hemorrhoids, among Iran’s regime that would render them incessantly sore and irritable, and therefore unable to oversee any further nuclear progress. I had a special prayer for boils and impotence against Hamas and Hezbollah as well.
In truth, praying about this issue in a way that makes one feel both heard and comforted is harder than it seems. For possibly the first time in print, for concerned young Jews, by a concerned young Jew, I now offer something other than an impressive op-ed or superficial meme: A prayer regarding the 2015 Iran nuclear deal:
Master of the Universe (and I really do mean ‘universe,’ as this is truly a universal issue), in whose Hands lay every action of man in the universe: Thank You for the realization that the greatest ultimate power emanates from You, and not from any singular man, assembly of men, or governing body. Forgive me for the confidence and power that I have displaced from You and inadvertently placed in the hands of men, by having allowed their voices and actions to have so disturbed and unsettled me. Forgive me for not having realized that both those that have supported me, and those that have frustrated me, are enabled by You, and ultimately answer to You.
With complete gratitude for the miracles that you have performed for the Jewish people, including the tens of thousands of suffering Jews that you allowed to escape Iran, I appeal to your infinite power and mercy to spare America, Israel, the Jewish people, and innocent civilians worldwide, from further violence and death at the hands of religious fanatics that breathe violence against us.
You, who commanded us to respect and obey the laws of every land that we have settled since our Exile tragically began, please endow our leaders today with the courage to oppose popular viewpoints that may nevertheless compromise our safety; the openness to hear AND be affected by different ideas that challenge their predetermined notions; the compassion to internalize the suffering that the Iranian regime has caused millions, including the victims of Iran’s terror proxies worldwide, refugees that found shelter in America, as well as American servicemen that fought in Iraq and Afghanistan; and the wisdom to lead and act in appropriate ways that will not ease, G-d-forbid, but prevent further violence against us. And above all, endow our leaders with the imperative for responsibility for our country and our future that will ensure a truly good deal that dismantles the cruel threats against us, according to Your will.
As for those who curse us and plot evil against us, whether their leaders, soldiers, or their proxies, make nothing of their plans and schemes against us, and render all of their weapons against us–whether by hand, by mouth, by sale of arms, or by the press of a button–useless and futile. Let their plans fall flat and crumble like days-old pita bread. Do not allow them to be emboldened with either spoken global support or increased financial livelihood to further their violence against us. Change their hearts and reverse their hatred, and forgive us for how WE have strayed from You, and our highest potential. Please unite our voice and do not cause us to turn against each other in disunity and national schism, whether as Americans or as Jews.
Bless our children to inherit lives of peace and safety, rather than violence and chaos at the hands of bellicose oppressors that seek our destruction. Strengthen our hearts with complete faith in Your protection and open our souls to pursue Your will and teachings each day, in peace and compassion. Amen.
Words of Wisdom: Rosh HaShana
New Year (Re) Solution. New Year’s resolutions are usually ill-conceived human plans to improve in the forthcoming year. The concept is so human and so universal that people from all walks of life use the “new year” as a means to wish for new things and resolve to act in a different way. Unfortunately, as we have all experienced and witnessed, the success rates in such new year resolutions are not high. We have a tendency to continue repeating what we have previously learned and find it hard to create new habits.
The Hebrew language provides us with insight as to why these resolutions fail and a possible solution to make them succeed. Rosh HaShana means “Beginning of the Year.” Rosh means “beginning” and Shana means “Year”. Looking deeper into the word Shana, we notice its root is comprised of Shin ש , Nun נ , and Heh ה. As with many Hebrew words, one particular root can have several meanings. The following words also share the same root as Shana: to repeat, to teach, to sharpen, tooth, second, year, and change. On the surface, there seems to be little commonality between these words and their meaning. However, when you look carefully at a common theme in these words the notion of constant repetition reverberates. The act of teaching requires the repetition of a concept over and over again. Similarly, sharpening creates a sharp edge through repeated action. A tooth is a sharpened instrument that repeatedly chews food. The “second” of something is the repetition of the first. Year is a repeated cycle of time. All of these words share the common theme of repetition. But how is the word “change” related to repetition and why does it have the same root as all the above words? A cycle is an automatic pattern that keeps repeating if change does not step in and alter its course. Actions and Time are bound to repeat unless we change them.
G-d, in His ultimate wisdom, created nature with its repeated cycle of time and behavior, but also created the power of change. In the very cycle of repetition, He granted various opportunities to set in motion a new path that is different from before. All it takes is a simple change to alter the previous cycle and move in a different direction. When better to change our paths than at the beginning of the year?” A full cycle has now been completed and bound to repeat unless a new change of motion is set into place. The Rabbis were keenly aware of this basic law of nature and understood how the beginning of the year is the most opportune time to change. That is why they instituted the ten days of Teshuva (which means Return). From the beginning of Rosh HaShana until Yom Kippur, there are ten precious days where we are instructed to change our behavior and act differently. Not just to wish for better things and not just to resolve to do things differently but to actually act differently. The Sages added additional words to our prayers to highlight the importance of this window of time. Moreover, during these precious ten days, the Sages commanded us to consciously perform good actions and Mitzvot, particularly those with which we have struggled in the previous year. By incorporating the wise teachings of the Sages and acting better during these ten days, we allow action-based behavior change to inaugurate the new year and to set into motion all of the solutions we have in mind. This behavior-based solution is significantly more powerful than hoping that lip service resolutions will somehow magically pave the way for a better year. We should learn from the wise teachings of our Sages and use our positive actions to set into motion a great year for ourselves and the world. May this year be a year of positive change towards further growth and happiness.
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