Between Friends

BY LAWRENCE STROLL

                                                                                                                      

PARSHAT MIKEITZ

Dear Ari,

I just took a look at the Jewish calendar, so before I forget: “Happy Chanukah!” It’s been such a hectic week that were I not writing to you, I probably would have missed lighting the menorah this evening. Anyhow, let me cut to the chase. My boss came to see me before I left work today, and he wants to meet tomorrow morning to discuss a new product line. Rumor has it that I am up for a promotion, so I do not want to blow it. Can you spare any words of “biblical” wisdom?

                                  Sincerely, David

Dear David,

Talk about a timely question! This week’s Torah portion deals with Joseph. You probably recall that he was sold into slavery, duped by his master’s wife, and ended up doing time in prison. Twelve years later, Joseph is summoned by Pharaoh to interpret Pharaoh’s dream. I guess you could say that he was up for parole. Now I do not know if your boss measures up to the kind of taskmaster that Pharaoh was, but it probably pays to take a look at how this young Hebrew slave (not much different than you, considering your hours of work) handled his shot at a “promotion”.

The first thing we are told is that Joseph “shaved and changed his clothes,” which Rashi explains was out of respect. The next thing we learn is that Pharaoh tells Joseph that he is aware that Joseph has an ability to “hear” a dream. Rashi explains this as having the ability to listen and understand. Finally, in response to such complimentary words, Joseph immediately tells Pharaoh that it is not his wisdom, but the wisdom of Hashem that enables successful interpretation of the dream. In short, Joseph was respectful, attentive, and sincere.

Joseph recognized that Pharaoh (much like your boss) was due a certain degree of respect because of his position. Accordingly, Joseph gave Pharaoh that respect. Joseph also possessed the keen ability to internalize and concentrate on what was being said when people spoke to him. Many people, unfortunately, are conditioned to only hear with their ears, rather than listening with their mind and heart. Lastly, Joseph was a straight-shooter, honest in every way! He could have taken credit (albeit, undue) for Pharaoh’s praise and no one would have been the wiser. However, he chose not to, notwithstanding the potential negative consequences. By conducting himself in this manner, Joseph won the respect of his earthly “boss” and attained the position of viceroy of Egypt. I guess you could say he got his promotion. Good luck tomorrow.

                                      Sincerely, Ari

                                                                                                                      

PARSHAT VAYIGASH

December 31, 1997; 4:13 PM

Dear Ari,

Guess what? I got the promotion. You should see the new pyramid that “Pharaoh” gave me. It even has a corner window. Just kidding! But seriously, thanks for your advice last week, it did come in handy. How are things in the south? It’s dead here! Everyone’s gone home early to fancy up for the company’s New Year’s party, and I’m the last one in the office. Since it’s so quiet, I decided to drop you a line.

So guess who’s giving the first toast of the new year? You got it! None other than the resident Jew. Turns out, with the promotion and all, my boss wants me to give the company’s annual toast. After I said “Yes,” I got to thinking that maybe it’s not really the thing a Jew should be doing. You know? With our new year being different and all. What’s your take?

                                                     Sincerely Sober, David

December 31, 1997; 9:21 PM

Dear David,

Mazal Tov on the promotion; or as we say in the biz: “Yasher Koach” (that means “more power to ya”). Even with e-mail and a corporate T1 connection, you’ll be lucky if you’re not reading this as “Sincerely Drunk”. Let me first say that your question is wonderful, and touches on some of the difficulties of being Jewish in a world that typically revolves around non-Jewish events. As you know, I’m not a rabbi, so I’m not going to touch on any religious issues; especially since I don’t even know if there are any. As usual, though, I’ll give you some soul food for thought.

At the end of this week’s Torah reading, we are told that “Israel settled in the land of Egypt in the region of Goshen.” An earlier scriptural reference already indicates that Goshen was in Egypt. Therefore, if every single word of the Torah bears significance, why was it necessary to indicate “Egypt” in the latter reference; presumably, we already know this information?

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, one of the sharpest minds this century has known, explained the redundancy as follows. Although our ancestors had to remain in Egypt, they did so by remaining in a distinct area (Goshen). In so doing, they avoided excessive interaction with the Egyptians. The message for us is: Just as we may be forced to mingle with the non-Jewish world in our daily affairs, we should limit our involvement to a degree whereby we don’t lose our heritage and our Jewish values. This message speaks to all Jews on many different levels. You can take from it what you will. The fact that you have a question indicates your sensitivity to Rabbi Feinstein’s concern, and is probably one worth exploring in greater detail. Anyhow, make sure your drink is kosher and don’t forget to have a L’chaim for me!

                                                   Cheers, Ari.

                                                                                                                      

PARSHAT VAYECHI

January 6, 1998; 9:20 AM

Dear Ari,

Happy new year! The reason I did not write any sooner had little to do with how much I drank at the company’s New Year’s party. In fact, I’m proud to say that I only drank “kosher” beverages. I guess you could say that I did my part to keep North American Jewry alive and well. Speaking of New Year’s, it seems that my co-workers did their part, too; four of them went to Florida for their vacation break.

Personally, I didn’t do any traveling, how about you? Anyhow, gotta get back to the gristmill, or else there’s not going to be any vacation in my future.

                                         Sincerely, David

January 9, 1998; 12:10 PM

Dear David,

Hey buddy, glad to see you doing your part to keep the Jewish flame shining bright. As far as vacation goes, please don’t remind me! I once worked for a company also, replete with vacation days and all those other corporate benefits. Now with the consulting business finally taking off, and the wife being pregnant, vacations seem to be a thing of the past; unless, of course, the in-laws are visiting.

Seriously speaking, though, you talk about a vacation and getting away. In theory you really don’t have to travel too far geographically in order to take a fantastic voyage. This week’s Torah portion concludes the lives of Jacob and Joseph. Taken in this context, our entire life can be considered one long journey. As we grow older, live a life, and leave a legacy, our excursion as Jews on this earth becomes a part of our people’s history. The proof of this can be found in the words used to describe the passing of Jacob. Never does it speak of Jacob as having “died”. With regard to this, the Talmud explicitly states that Jacob, our father, did not die. How can that be?

The same way that our great-grandparents haven’t really “died” when we reflect upon the fruits that have grown out of their existence: their children, our parents; their value system, our lifestyle. Every single action we take in present life has the potential to create a significant impact on the future of the Jewish people. These aftereffects are guaranteed to leave a deeper imprint on the world than a Florida tan leaves on the skin. Therefore, when we talk about vacations, we should take a few minutes to reflect on the trip called life, and plan – with carefully crafted detail – where we want to be when we get to our destination, and what we want to have accomplished.

                                          Sincerely, Safari-Ari

                                                                                                                      

PARSHAT SHMOT

January 12, 1998; 8:24 AM

Dear Ari,

Monday morning blues again! This promotion is giving me more headaches than it’s worth. I’ve just spent my Sunday in the office, and as I was grabbing a cup of Java from the cafeteria this morning, the boss springs one of those “looks like we’re going to have to pull an all-niter this weekend.” Only one problem. I’ve got a prior engagement on Sunday and, as crazy as this sounds, I’m not all that comfortable working on Saturday.

Now you know I’m not going “ortho” on you, but I got my own little Saturday religion going; not much different from our NYU days (or at least mine). I sleep in till ten, go for a quick jog in the park, grab a round of tennis or golf with the guys, and then a nice little home-cooked meal. Anyhow, you’re the religious one. What do you suggest I tell the Pharaoh?

                                               David

January 14, 1998; 8:15 PM

Dear David,

First things first. Quit kvetching! A few years ago, you were so worried you wouldn’t even get a job in a market saturated with MBA’s. Now, you got yourself in at ground zero with a software start-up and could very well end up retiring a millionaire by the time you’re 30. Second, let’s get the facts straight, amigo. We’ve got two separate religions going here. Now that we got the prelims out of the way, let’s see if I can give you some insights that may help you with your dilemma.

You picked a bad week to be referring to your boss as Pharaoh. This week’s Torah portion begins the book of Exodus. You might recall that this is when our people got knee-deep in the mortar. That’s right. Slavery! The reigning Pharaoh became pretty unfriendly with our fellow Jews and began introducing racial extermination tactics not much different than those which Hitler implemented roughly 60 years ago. As history shows, we prevailed in spite of the odds. One of the reasons given for our survival is that we kept our Jewish names.

Without lengthy elaboration, this can be interpreted to mean that we kept true to our national heritage, our religious past, and our time-honored traditions. It means that we did not waver in its observance. We kept the Torah and its commandments, and we guarded it with dear life. If you could paint an equally passionate plea for your religion to your boss as the one I just gave you, not only would he insist that you keep your “Sabbath”, but he’d probably declare it a weekly company holiday. Obviously, I’m not condoning your behavior. The point I’m trying to illustrate is that if you can convince your boss that the values inherent in your current “Saturday ritual” are superior to that of the corporation’s, then you’ve got a fighting chance of having him honor your Sabbath observance over his.

                                      Good luck, Ari

                                                                                                                      

PARSHAT VAERA

Sunday, January 18, 1998; 5:40 PM

Dear Ari,

Gotta love your last e-mail, pal! You definitely get the award for best performance in a dramatic guilt-trip (even if you didn’t fully convince me). Fortunately, plans got changed and I didn’t have to come in to work yesterday. I would definitely not have wanted to get into a whole “religious debate” with the boss. Especially considering his tempered rage when I declined to be in the “Company Choir” a few months ago.

                                              Sincerely, David

Tuesday, January 20, 1998; 7:56 AM

Dear David,

Just got back from synagogue a couple of minutes ago, so now is as good of a time as any to drop you a line. Let me quickly say that in spite of your on-going aversion to “religious debates”, it’s nice to know that you still allow for a few when they are between friends. As always, let the record state that I continue to respect your open-mindedness; and if you ever want to spend a Saturday “my way”, you’ve got an open invitation!

As for your boss, it sounds like he should try a little stress management. Next time you get a chance, you may want to share with him some insights into controlling his anger by referring to this week’s Torah portion. If he doesn’t follow the Torah portion, then you can remind him that it is the one which deals with the ten plagues; specifically, the “frog”.

Reading the text, one may be confused by the reference to “frogs” in one verse, and “frog” in a subsequent verse. Rashi tells us that according to the Midrash, this plague began with only one frog. Then, when the Egyptians struck it, it became two, and so on and so on, until the entire land was covered by frogs. If the Egyptians saw that the frogs kept multiplying when they were hit, why didn’t they just stop hitting them? The Steipler Rav, a great Torah scholar of the past generation, suggested that once they became consumed by anger, they couldn’t stop, even if not stopping meant that the situation would only get worse.

Once we recognize the way that something like anger can take hold of one’s faculties, and further contemplate the destructive behavior that can result, then we have just moved one step closer to gaining control over our anger. Your boss, and anyone who has ever flown off the handle, should think about this the next time participation in a “Company Choir” and life’s other trivialities threaten to destroy one’s peace of mind.

                                         Sincerely, “Dr.” Ari

                                                                                                                      

PARSHAT BO

Thursday, January 29, 1998; 7:55 PM

Dear Ari,

Thanks for the Shabbat invite; and if you and the family ever want to spend one "my way," then you've got yourselves an open invite, too. Even though I doubt you'd take me up on the offer, logically I can't see why not: Isn't keeping Shabbat about avoiding work and spending time relaxing? If so, how can those frequent thirty-minute walks you used to take in college, just to have a Friday night meal at someone's apartment, be considered less work than turning on a light? And how is spending over three hours praying in a synagogue any more relaxing than playing a round of golf?

Anyhow, I've got two minutes before my Thursday night prime-time TV line-up kicks in, so I'm squeezing in this e-mail in case you want to reply before sundown tomorrow.

Sincerely, David

Friday, January 30, 1998; 3:36 PM

Dear David,

Two minutes? Your e-mail time-stamp shows that you had five! Actually, it's not like me to be picky, but I couldn't resist the opportunity you've given me to share a wonderful Torah portion insight for this week.

Moses goes to Pharaoh and announces that the final plague, the plague of the firstborn, will be carried out "at about midnight." Rashi explains that the time when G-d had indicated to Moses for this to occur was exactly midnight. Rashi further explains that Moses explicitly did not say "at midnight" because Pharaoh's assistants might have then said that Moses was a liar, had the plague been off according to their calculations by a few seconds.

Rabbi Zelig Pliskin raises the following point: What difference would it make to those who would call Moses a liar, whether their firstborn would die at or about midnight?! He further comments that this is the nature of some people; when the desire to find fault is so great, those individuals will often succeed.

We can learn two beautiful lessons from this. First, when it comes to ourselves and events in our daily lives, if we try hard enough, we can very often distill at least some good in all situations. Second, when it comes to judging other people, we should do so favorably - by always looking for the merits in their case, rather than the faults. It is all a matter of training our mind to see the good and ignoring the apparent bad.

Well, that about uses up my "two" minutes! As for your questions about Shabbat, you very well know that I'd love to address them. However, right now I've gotta finish helping the wife prepare for it. As well, considering our differing ways of how we currently observe it, I'd ask for your permission to table that discussion for a future date. That being the case, allow me to quote Yul Brenner as Pharaoh in Cecil B. Demille's famous flick, The Ten Commandments: "So let it be written, so let it be done!"

Sincerely, Ari

                                                                                                                      

PARSHAT BESHALACH

Tuesday, February 3, 1998; 12:27 PM

Dear Ari,

Just got back early from lunch today, and wait 'til you hear why! Determined to finally take a full hour's lunch break promptly at noon, I quickly finished editing the first draft of an awesome software promo. I then grabbed my near-empty cup of brew and quickly headed to the company cafeteria for a relaxing hour. No sooner than turning the corner adjacent to the supply storeroom, I find myself airborne and about to make contact with the floor. On my way down, I realize that I just tripped over one of those good-for-nothing, plastic, foot-high step-stools.

As I get up, I notice that the receptionist's daughter, who dropped by to pick up her mom, is wearing my coffee. After I apologize profusely and offer to pay for her dry-cleaning, "mom" gives us a formal introduction and we strike up a conversation. To make a long story short - she also went to university in the Big Apple, and we've got a date this Friday night. I guess this echoes what you wrote me last week regarding finding the good in all situations if we look hard enough; turns out, her wardrobe's loss is my social life's gain.

Clumsily, David

Thursday, February 5, 1998; 10:15 AM

Dear Butterfingers,

So that's what the single scene is like these days? Sounds to me like you're back to your old pick-up tricks!! As far as your accident goes, I wouldn't be too quick to dismiss the virtues of the step-stool (especially since you're more to blame for your own clumsiness). In fact, you might be interested to know that this week's Torah portion provides an interesting perspective on how we view "the same old things".

As we join up with the Children of Israel this week, they are en route out of slavery. Hashem delivers them to safety from the pursuing Egyptians by parting the sea, and further provides them with an abundance of miraculous nourishment. Jews being Jews, however, they still found reason to complain. This time, it was about a lack of water. Moses is immediately instructed to perform a miracle using his staff with which he struck the Nile when bringing the plagues. Rashi explains that the reason why explicit reference was made to the staff "with which you struck the river" was in order to show that the same staff that brought about plagues (which aren't the most pleasant things in the world) could also be used for good. How about that? Can you think of anything "utterly useless" which may also (when not causing accidents, of course) be used in a positive way?

By showing us that the staff could be used for good as well, the Children of Israel were being taught to expand their thinking. Having preconceptions about something limits our perspective and creates close-mindedness. This, in turn, can cause us to be more cynical and can serve as a barrier to personal growth. As a result, we begin to act in a self-defeating way. Thinking that things always stay the same and never change decreases our motivation and willingness to change unfavorable situations.

Fortunately, the opposite is true as well. When we are open-minded, we approach life with optimism, enthusiasm, and a greater sense of excitement. We carry within us a feeling that what we do can make a difference; not just in our lives, but also in those we come in contact with. Speaking of "contact", don't forget to keep me apprised on your recently resurrected social life.

Sincerely, Ari

                                                                                                                      

PARSHAT YITRO

Sunday, February 8, 1998; 6:21 PM

Dear Ari,

Good news: Terry (that's short for Theresa) and I have had two dates so far! Friday night we went to a movie, and Saturday we went for coffee. We could have talked all night if she didn't have to wake up early for her Bible study class. Anyhow, since this looks like the start of something big, what's your advice on relationships?

Sincerely, Mad about Terry

Tuesday, February 10, 1998; 4:43 PM

Dear David,

As always, a good place to look for advice is the Torah. This week's Torah portion recounts the famous giving of the Ten Commandments to the Jewish people. We read that prior to receiving the Commandments (or more precisely, the Torah), the Children of Israel camped out at the base of Mt. Sinai. Rashi notes that, grammatically, through the use of a singular verb, the verse seems to suggest a single individual camping out (rather than an entire group). He indicates that this was because Israel was now unified like one person with one heart.

The Me'am Loez (a commentary on the Torah originally published in Ladino) explains that with perfect unity and without any hatred among them, they became worthy of receiving the Torah. This unquestionably demonstrates the power of togetherness! When we are united in heart and mind with our fellow Jews, we too are one step closer to achieving our Creator's greatest gifts. This idea is central to all relationships. Without similar goals, the prospects of a fruitful and enduring relationship are slim.

For example, suppose that on Monday, two travelers with East coast destinations are at the same Los Angeles train station. During the week, they may even find themselves on the same train. However, if one of them has a ticket for New York while the other one has a ticket to Miami, you can be sure that by the end of the week, they're each going to be pulling into two different stations. Therefore, before your relationship gets off to too good of a start, you might want to confirm that you've got similar itineraries for life. By the way, with all your Friday night social activities, a "Bible study class" sounds like something you could benefit from.

Sincerely, Ari

                                                                                                                      

PARSHAT MISHPATIM

Monday, February 16, 1998; 2:30 PM

Dear Sheltered Jewish Buddy of Mine,

I don't think you'd be recommending a "Bible study class" if you knew what kind it was. This happens to be a weekly class that Terry attends at her church. Now, before you start lecturing me about marriage, kids, and the future of the Jewish people, let me say that we're just dating. That's all! In fact, she's no more religious with regard to her religion than I am with Judaism; so you can be sure that if "that" time ever comes, she likely wouldn't be opposed to converting. And please correct me if I'm wrong, but as I understand it, there's nothing wrong with converting.

Sincerely, David

Wednesday, February 18, 1998; 8:20 AM

Dear Lovestruck Dave,

You are right when you say that conversion is fine, as long as her reasons are sincere. That means that she's converting for the religion and not for you. However, once you start asking questions about converting, I'd just as well have you direct those questions to a competent rabbi.

You might be interested to know that this week's Torah portion discusses Jewish civil law - the laws that govern how we socially interact with each other. Among them is the commandment to not mistreat a convert to Judaism. The Torah needs to caution us in this regard, because of the suspicion that we might act differently towards a convert due to his foreign ancestry. Nevertheless, we see that the convert's genuine commitment to spiritual growth elevates him to a new status.

Just as a convert can rise to new heights through the process of conversion, so too can a Jew through a process known as teshuvah (freely translated as repentance). Like any meaningful accomplishment, this process is not quick and easy. It involves an active commitment to renew and strengthen one's relationship with Hashem. If, however, it is accompanied by a sincere effort to do more and learn more, then there is no telling the spiritual altitudes to which a Jew's soul can soar.

As far as your plans with Terry go, you might want to consider the fact that even though neither of you are religiously inclined today, you don't know what either of your feelings might be when your kids start asking you about Chanukah or Christmas. As well, you might want to ask yourself why it even makes a difference to you if she converts?!

Sincerely, Ari

                                                                                                                      

PARSHAT TERUMAH

Tuesday, February 24, 1998; 8:27 PM

Dear Ari,

How could you even ask what difference it makes to me whether Terry converts or not! I AM JEWISH, you know! Just because I don't practice the religion like you, it doesn't mean that I don't think I've got a special religion. So why in the world wouldn't I want my wife to convert. Don't you think it's important for two married people to share the same religion?

Sincerely, David

Thursday, February 26, 1998; 11:55 AM

Dear David,

You should know me well enough to know that I didn't mean to offend you. Listen to what you're saying and think about it objectively. You've often said that you're proud of your Judaism and feel special to be a Jew. On one hand you're espousing the virtues of being Jewish, but on the other hand you're talking about marrying someone who not only couldn't care less about her own religion, but couldn't care less about your "wonderful" religion. What you're saying, then, is that the only thing that matters is the label she bears.

This week's Torah portion talks about the building of the Mishkan (the traveling Tabernacle) and all the items therein. One of these items was the Ark, in which the Ten Commandments were housed. We are told that the Ark was covered with pure gold, inside and outside. Rabbi Zelig Pliskin, citing the Talmud, states that this epitomizes a Torah scholar who must be pure inside and outside. That is, both in speech and in practice. In today's words, it refers to an individual who walks his talk.

So to address your question, I don't think the issue of whether two people share the same religion is half as important as whether either of you "has" a religion worth sharing. You have to ask yourself if being Jewish is any different than having a membership to some club which gets together a few times a year and sends out monthly newsletters. Before you start talking conversion with Terry, it might benefit you to consider why it is that you're not more involved with a religion that you seem to be so impassioned about. You can be sure that if you're going to ask her to convert, she'll be asking you to consider that too!

Sincerely, Ari

                                                                                                                      

PARSHAT TETZAVEH

Thursday, March 4, 1998; 12:14 PM

Dear Ari,

Last week you commented on how involved I might be with Judaism. However, if you really want to see religious observance, then you should take a look at my office on Friday. We've recently instituted "Casual Day Fridays." Since then, when a Friday rolls around, you wouldn't want to be caught dead wearing anything but a jean shirt and khaki's. Even the boss leaves his suit at home! So here's my dilemma: Tomorrow I have a meeting with a very important client. I've always greeted him in a suit. What should I wear?

Sincerely, Still in the Closet

Thursday, March 4, 1998; 9:52 PM

Dear David,

Your question on attire is as relevant today as it was in biblical times. This week's Torah portion discusses the clothing that the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) wore when he was performing the Temple service. The Torah specifically enumerates the eight articles of clothing, and gives some reason as to the relevance of each. Let's take a look at one of them.

The Kohen Gadol's robe, we are told, was made of turquoise wool, and its bottom hem was adorned with bells and pomegranate-shaped ornaments. When he would walk, the sound of bells could be heard. Our sages teach that when the Kohen Gadol entered the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, it was forbidden for anyone, even angels, to be present. Therefore, the likelihood that someone would be in there prior to the Kohen Gadol's arrival would be slim. Nevertheless, his robe was to be decorated with bells, so as to serve as a warning that the Kohen Gadol was coming. This is similar to knocking on a neighbor's door before entering, lest you enter unwelcomed.

Just as the Kohen Gadol's clothes were adorned with certain ornaments so as to accomplish a seemingly minor task, the occurrence of which was highly unlikely, so too the clothes we wear carry with them various objectives. And while these objectives may be small, their implications can be quite significant. Accordingly, I think you would be in good company if you were to take the clothes you wear anything but casually. In other words, make sure you're wearing a suit. Even in the 90's, clothes still make the man.

Sincerely, Get out of the closet!

                                                                                                                      

PARSHAT KI TISSA

Sunday, March 8, 1998; 7:30 PM

Dear Ari,

Guess what? Terry and I were out for dinner Friday night and I mentioned something about possibly going home for the Passover seders and how nice it is for the family to be together that time of year. Then, out of nowhere, she asks, "How come you never attend synagogue services on your Sabbath?" Well, that led into a whole slew of questions regarding Shabbat and my role (or lack thereof) with regard to it. Suffice it to say, I really couldn't give her an answer short of, "It doesn't really interest me." I could tell she wasn't too impressed as she started on about culture and tradition. How important is Shabbat, that now I've got a non-Jew giving me Jewish guilt about it?

Sincerely confused!

Tuesday, March 10, 1998; 10:50 AM

Dear David,

You shouldn't let it surprise you that someone non-Jewish recognizes that there is something called a Sabbath and that it relates to Jews, especially when that someone attends "Bible Study Class." As far as the importance of our Shabbat goes, this week's Torah portion provides us with a pretty good measure.

In it, Hashem tells Moses to tell the Children of Israel that they "must still preserve My Sabbath." Rashi, along with numerous highly regarded commentators on the Torah, indicates that this directive from Hashem is juxtaposed with the building of the Mishkan so as to demonstrate the importance of Shabbat. In spite of the colossal undertaking of building the Mishkan (a dwelling place for Hashem's presence!), the children of Israel were ordered not to forego their observance of the Shabbat. Just as G-d ceased from the act of creating on the Shabbat, so too are we enjoined to do the same! In fact, it is by doing so that we can - in part - begin to emulate (and thereby strengthen our relationship with) our Creator. What could be more important than developing a relationship with the very source of our existence?

Sincerely helping you become less confused!

P.S. Let me just add one more thing in case you think that keeping Shabbat is an impossible undertaking in today's day and age. After Moses discovered the Children of Israel worshipping the golden calf, and subsequently smashed the set of tablets carved and inscribed by Hashem, he was commanded to carve the next set of tablets himself. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein explains that this is to teach us that everything within the Torah is achievable by mortals. All we have to do is make the effort.

                                                                                                                      

PARSHAT VAYAKHEL-PEKUDEI

Sunday, March 15, 1998; 5:45 AM

Dear Insightful Amigo,

I couldn't sleep last night. As usual, another Shabbat passed with my keeping to my regular Saturday ritual of taking it easy. However, this time I felt a little uncomfortable (probably due to your last e-mail about the importance of Shabbat). I started asking myself: "Who wouldn't want a relationship with their Creator, and have I done all that I could to foster that relationship?" The last thing I want to be accused of is having been too lazy to have made an honest effort. And that's what bothered me! Maybe I haven't done my part. If not, what can I do without having to go all the way? I mean, the Shabbat you keep is so darn strict!

Sincerely, David

Wednesday, March 18, 1998; 3:50 PM

Dear David,

On the one hand, it's nice to see you taking a mature approach to religious observance. On the other hand, it's upsetting to see it troubling you. Unfortunately, I can't give you any advice as to whether you've done all that you could; that's something only David can answer for David. As far as the "going all the way" issue, the first comforting piece of advice I can give is that your journey of "hands-on" religious discovery doesn't have to be so traumatic. You've already started keeping your "non-office work" type of Sabbath! Maybe it's time to grow some more and take that experience to a new level - one where you could start keeping a different type of Sabbath, in addition to what you're currently doing.

This week's Torah portion commands us not to kindle a fire in any of our dwellings on Shabbat. While this commandment is to be heeded in its literal sense, a number of noted Torah scholars have expounded on the idea. Rabbi Yeshayah Hurwitz, for example, suggested that this verse also refers to the kindling of verbal fires - like getting angry. Have you ever thought about taking a 24 hour rest from losing your cool? If you're like most people, having to control one's temper is a lot less pleasurable and a lot less easy than one would think.

This is only one example of how an individual can begin to keep Shabbat. Other ideas might be to not ride a car for 24 hours, or to refrain from watching TV for 24 hours. My wife began her path to Shabbat observance by not answering the telephone from Friday night to Saturday. I began by abstaining from using a pen. I think the first step is to choose something very tangible and specific which you typically (a) perceive as a necessity, (b) derive enjoyment from, and (c) associate with a weekly activity. Then, take that thing which is often left to the whims of your pleasure-seeking nature and delay any gratification that you may receive from it for a 24 hour period. If it sounds tough, that's because it is! And if you think it might improve your relationship with the Creator, that's because it will.

Have a great Shabbat, Ari

                                                                                                                      

PARSHAT BEHA'ALOTCHA

Sunday, June 7, 1998; 3:53 PM

Dear Ari,

I like your idea about using "baby steps" to deal with change; it makes the road to improvement seem less daunting. But sometimes I get the feeling that keeping this Shabbat thing up every single week might get a little boring. Even though I kind of enjoy the time off of the tennis courts because it frees up some time to catch up on reading, that doesn't necessarily mean that it's more exciting. A few weeks ago, I was gung-ho about the whole idea of starting to keep Shabbat, but now it seems to be missing that magical spark; I just don't feel the same way. What in the world could be causing me to have these second thoughts?

Sincerely, not excited!

Thursday, June 11, 1998; 11:05 AM

Dear David,

If I understand you correctly, you're feeling that doing the same old thing every week could get a little boring. This is in spite of the fact that the week before, you were telling me that you're getting used to your non-tennis Sabbaths and that you find the extra time spent reading to be relaxing. It might pay for us to explore what typically causes excitement to fade, and what better place to start than this week's Torah portion.

At the very beginning of this week's portion, Hashem gives Moses instructions to relay to Aaron regarding the kindling of the menorah (the seven-branched candelabra lit in the Mishkan). The verse then informs us that Aaron did so. So what, you ask? What's the big deal? The big deal is that Aaron had to do this seemingly boring and mundane activity every day with tremendous enthusiasm. The Sfas Emes, the second Ger Rebbe and a leader of Polish Jewry in the late 19th century, explains that when the average person starts a new task, they often do it with great enthusiasm. However, after a while, enthusiasm diminishes, they lose "that magical spark" of motivation, their momentum fades, and finally - if they are still even doing it - then it is without any excitement whatsoever and therefore devoid of meaning. Aaron, however, was different. He lit the menorah every day with the same enthusiasm which he had on day one.

The monotony you mention does not seem abnormal. Successful change is really a two-part process. Part one requires taking action, while part two requires maintaining the momentum which caused you to take action in the first place. Once a person makes a change, their next goal should immediately become keeping their original level of excitement alive. In the same vein, you might recall that a few years ago one of the popular cereal companies was trying to re-excite their consumer's emotional taste buds regarding one of their products which had lost some of its appeal in the marketplace. The company, therefore, came up with the following slogan designed to re-capture those consumers who had become bored with the same old thing: "Try them again for the first time." While I have no idea how successful the ad campaign was, the message was clearly hearkening back to the lesson we should learn from Aaron.

If we want to capture the excitement we once felt when we first undertook any new venture in growth (be it spiritual, personal, or even financial), a good place to start is by examining what makes us enthusiastic. If you sincerely find yourself lacking your original enthusiasm about keeping certain aspects of Shabbat, then you owe it to yourself to find out why. Think about it this Shabbat and don't forget to try it again for the first time.

Sincerely, Enthusiastic!

Lawrence Stroll, a former corporate attorney, is youth director at Beth Jacob and director of Temima High School in Atlanta.

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