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Ask and Don’t Tell: Questions, The First Step to Freedom

It’s déjà vu all over again.

I put my clown costume away and I’m starting to think matzah! We move from one calendar milestone to the next. Thirty days before it begins we immerse in all that the upcoming holiday commemorates. So I’m thinking matzah. 

Where to begin?

There is an ancient custom practiced during the commemoration of the Jewish people’s step into nationhood; the custom is to gather around the Passover seder and ask questions.

The purpose of the questions is to stroke curiosity and to inspire awareness. It is to draw interest and tempt further questions. Its ultimate purpose is for there to be new insights, greater sensitivities and heightened understanding. Therefore even if you are commemorating the holiday alone you must still ask the questions.

Questions, even those unanswerable, yield self-knowledge and awareness.

Solutions and answers are insightful yet questions are liberating and life building. Read the rest of this entry »

Costumes and Clarity

“Liberty of thought is the life of the soul.”

(Voltaire 1694-1778, Essay on Epic Poetry)

Do you want to figure out some important things in your life? Put on a costume.

Would you like to see a situation clearly? Disguise yourself.

Do you have a need to understand something that has been eluding you? Become a clown, king or Mickey Mouse for a day.

On the upcoming holiday of Purim we undertake a strange custom: We get into costumes.

Revered scholars, rabbis and community leaders dress up as Sumo wrestlers, Shrek, well known celebrities, and famous politicians. Women who command positions of great respect and achievement dress up as cartoon figures, princesses, Raggedy Ann and more. Children run the gamut. Boys become everything from historical characters to soldiers, and girls don the clothing of Dora the Explorer and Cinderella.

This custom is especially curious because Purim is a time when we celebrate clarity and awareness; the ability to acknowledge and embrace a reality that escaped us until that time.

So why dress up?

A story might best illustrate the idea:

Read the rest of this entry »

Esther and Whitney

A Purim Tale About Life

She was an orphan at birth, never having known the love of a mother – never having been kissed by her. She was an orphan at birth, never having felt the protection of a father – never having been held in his arms.

As a child she was shy and reserved – never asking or expecting – simply accepting. She became a beautiful woman with fineness and a quiet strength that was a result of her lack of need and lack of want. What could be more attractive in an individual than beauty coupled with an unchallengeable yet soft spoken independence?

Men sought her out. The most powerful and accomplished men – the giants of her generation – pined for her attention and her love. She remained hidden and out of view. One man forcefully took her and ultimately loved her. He was smitten by her fineness and her kindness – a kindness which wasn’t defined by giving to others, rather it was defined by standing proud and strong – as an inspiration to others. Even to him she remained hidden and reserved – largely a mystery.

She was so beautiful, so complete, so needing of nothing. Her lack of need made her beauty more pronounced and her charisma more compelling. She simply asked for nothing. Read the rest of this entry »

No Failure IS Fatal

The Unwritten Rules of Slavery and Freedom

“…If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightening. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle.”

Frederick Douglas, Civil Rights Leader and Abolitionist, circa 1857. Douglass posited that slaves had the intellectual capacity to function as independent American citizens.

Slavery is one of the few scorned life choices in the Torah (Bible). One can permanently hurt another, yet with the proper restitution he is released from his liability. A man can steal, cheat and grossly disrespect his parent – yet he is given the opportunity to recalibrate his efforts and build anew – based on his experiences. Yet the man who chooses to enslave himself for an extended period of time is effectively separated from his people forever, he is cast aside, never to reclaim his position in society.

How could it be that one who cheats or steals, and thereby desecrates a core tenant of faith and humanity, can reclaim his position – and will someday stand taller than had he not failed, yet the man who is frightened, unable to shoulder his financial and societal role – the man who simply prefers stability over challenge, is brought before the doorposts and his Maker, and is eternally castigated?

An answer is hinted to in the words of a popular song from a few years ago:

“…Reaching for something in the distance

So close you can almost taste it

Release your inhibitions

Feel the rain on your skin

No one else can feel it for you

Only you can let it in

No one else can speak the words on your lips

Drench yourself with words unspoken

Live your life with arms wide open

Today is where your book begins

The rest is still unwritten…”

Excerpted from the song “Unwritten” by Natasha Bedingfield Read the rest of this entry »

It All Starts at the End

The Covet Calculator

“First things first,” so the expression goes…

The great 13th century scholar Ramban (Nahmanides) presents a remarkable perspective about things that are found in an order or sequence in the Torah (Bible). His position is that whenever you see a progression, or list, the importance of that which is listed increases as the list progresses. So the 2nd item on a list is more important than the 1st and the 6th more than the 4th. There is an ascending progression of significance, with the most important item coming last. The brilliant Biblical commentator goes further, and states that not only is the last item on the list the most important but a person who is rigorous in his/her focus on that will enable himself to master all of the items that preceded it.

There are many things that are presented in a sequence or list form in the Torah, including but not limited to names of places visited, and positive and negative commandments.

The giant, Maimonides, writes that commandments are tools through which man refines himself so he can most successfully relate to and master his world. So if, from time to time, we have lists of directives or commandments, it’s beneficial to have a look at the placement of things on that list to better understand how to focus our efforts at growth and self-refinement.

Many would say the most important list ever presented to mankind is the Ten Commandments. This list begins with the commandment (or foundation) of belief, and culminates with the prohibition against coveting something that doesn’t belong to you. One would assume that the most important is the first commandment – that which serves as the axiom upon which all that we think and do is based. What could be more of a determinant for one’s life direction than a well-conceived, deeply investigated, belief system? What could consume more energy? What could be more challenging and more defining? Read the rest of this entry »

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

The Oxymoronic Nature of Parenting

The movie “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” is a sophisticated and courageous effort to show the devastation experienced by a young boy, Oskar, who suddenly loses his father in the terrorist attack, on the World Trade Center, on September 11, 2001.

The victim, Thomas Schell, played by Tom Hanks, happens to be the son of Holocaust survivors, and the portrayal of his relationship with his only son is subtly interwoven with undertones of how that genocide shaped their lives. Thomas is an engaged and thoughtful father who spends large amounts of time with his son helping to permanently shape the way this young man engages his world.

Through an ongoing “game” of sharing information, Thomas persistently encourages Oskar to confront areas of knowledge that are foreign to him ─ ultimately gaining access to those areas. Thomas challenges his son to search intellectually and lovingly. He also seems to spend a lot of time inspiring and teaching Oskar to dream, and to fantasize, with an ongoing tale of a “6th borough” that once was part of New York City.

The acquired ability to fantasize allows Oskar to reach beyond his immediate circumstances and pursue something overwhelmingly unattainable. Although, the very young man seemed to know that, in the end, all good and fantastical things cease or die.

Thomas and Oskar also engaged in an ongoing verbal dual, in which one would upstage the other with the oxymoronic elements of life and the terminology that described them. An oxymoron is a figure of speech with contradictory terms crafted to reveal a paradox. Terms like: “a fine mess,” “a little pregnant,” “benign neglect” and “planned spontaneity” are examples of commonly used oxymorons.

Thomas’ oxymoron games taught Oskar about some of the most profound and difficult to understand elements of life.

Parenting is flush with efforts that are paradoxical and often demands behavior that can only be described in oxymoronic terms.

What follows is an excerpt from a piece I wrote some years ago describing my own challenges regarding the paradoxes of fatherhood: Read the rest of this entry »