Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Actions Speak Louder Than Words, But I'm A Man With Great Experience (Otis Redding - "Hard To Handle")

Earlier this week, I started my morning like I always do and I turned on my favorite morning news show. The talking heads were discussing the General Colin Powell’s appearance on Meet the Press and his criticism of the state of the Republican Party. Our son came downstairs as I am watching and asks who they were talking about and who that African American person is. I explained that Colin Powell had been a General, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State. Our son asked if he was a friend to Israel. I told our son the following story about Colin Powell. “The South Bronx of the 1950’s was a thriving community that was predominantly home to Orthodox Jews. There was a baby store on the corner of Westchester Ave. and Fox, called Sickser’s. While the language of the store was primarily Yiddish, all languages were spoken since so many different people purchased baby items from Sickser. One spring day, when business was unusually heavy, Mr. Sickser went outside and stopped the first young man he saw and offered him a job. The young teen-age boy smiled and took the job. He proved to be an excellent worker, willing to learn, diligent and honest. Despite his Jamaican background, he picked up enough Yiddish that he could converse with those Jewish customers whose English was not fluent. While attending CCNY (City College of New York), the young man kept his job with Sickser as it offered him stability. The young man graduated from CCNY with a degree in Geology and Engineering. He did several tours of duty during the Viet Nam War. Along with General Schwarzkopf, he was the unquestionable authority during the Persian Gulf War. He became a Five Star General, and Head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Colin Powell is now the Secretary of State. In 1993, upon meeting then Prime Minister, Yitzchak Shamir, General Powell said to him “Men Kent Reden Yiddish” (We can speak Yiddish). Shamir was stunned. Powell never forgot his early days in the Bronx. More important, Powell never forgot the lesson: The object in life is to do good. Work within the system, apply oneself to obligations and everything is possible.”
  In this week’s Parsha, Bo, we read all about actions and deeds. God’s actions are embodied by the final 3 plagues. The tenth and last one being the destruction of Egypt’s first born. Pharaoh’s actions are embodied in his calling to Moshe and Aharon, in his apology (Ex. 10:16), in revoking the apology, and finally in sending B’nai Yisroel out. B’nai Yisroel’s actions are embodied in the 16 separate, yet seemingly redundant actions concerning the Pesach holiday as explained in Ex.11:4-13:16. From the Paschal Sacrifice to “remembering this day”, there is a sense that Moshe tells B’nai Yisroel of God’s plan before he hears it from God. There is also the sense that we, as the readers, must read the instructions two or three times. First we read the instructions as given to Moshe. Second, we read the instructions as given to B’nai Yisroel. Third, God reiterates all this to Moshe and B’nai Yisroel three days into their journey. Perhaps this sense of redundancy is best illustrated in chapter 12.  VaYeilchu VaYa’Asu Bnei Yisroel Ka’Asher Tzivah  Adoshem et Moshe V’Aharon, Kein Asu -B’nai Yisroel went and did as God commanded Moshe and Aharon, so did they do (12:28).
Fundamental to Judaism is the notion that we must do Judaism. Ultimately we are judged by actions. We are a people of Mitzvot, Chukim, u’Mishpatim (commandments, statutes and judgments). These Laws and Statutes govern our behavior.  On Yom Kippur, we stand before God and our fellow human beings and seek forgiveness for our actions, and for our behavior. We are a religion built upon actions and deeds, not creeds and dogmas.The Sefer HaChinuch, the 14th century book of Mitzvah education explains the redundancy from the Jewish perspective of judgment based upon action and deed. “A person is influenced in accordance with his actions. His heart and all his thoughts are always drawn after the deeds in which he is occupied, whether he is good or bad.” Even a person who is thoroughly wicked in his/her heart, and every thought is evil, if his/her spirit is aroused to do Torah and mitzvot, even for the wrong reasons, eventually he will veer towards good. The heart follows the deed. Likewise the person who is thoroughly righteous, and honest, but constantly engages in questionable behavior or a questionable occupation, at some point his/her heart will turn from righteousness. “For this reason the sages said: God wished to make the Jewish people meritorious; therefore he gave them a multitude of Mitzvot.”
            Upon our actions, we are evaluated. Upon our deeds, we are judged. In Parshah Bo we read how our ancestors behaved with merit. They observed God’s instruction, and finally, they left Egypt. Every day we have the opportunity to do good.  Fortunately for us, we neither have the hardship of slavery, nor the torturous workouts to prepare us for all of life’s possibilities. To be mentshlekite we need only learn and apply what we learned to doing good.  So on that early morning discussion with our son, I reminded him that his job is to learn and to do at least one good thing for another person.

Rav Yitz

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