Monday, September 14, 2009

G-d the Giant Gum Ball Machine

All of us remember being kids begging our parents for a quarter to feed the gum ball machine. You know the machine. You slide the quarter into the slot, turn the crank (it was hard work), lift the silver cover... and lo and behold there was a colorful gum ball sitting there waiting for you.

It was amazing how the whole thing worked. A quarter went into the slot, a little bit of effort was expended, and a gum ball came out. We have this same idea of how G-d works. To us, G-d is a gum ball machine. Really.

We are generally good people. We give tzedukah/charity, we help our neighbors and try to do good deeds when we see an opportunity. But how many of us consciously or unconsciously do more of these acts thinking that we're going to be repaid in some sense by G-d? If I do this for You, what will You do for me? This is our relationship with G-d.

Is this how it really works? Is G-d really just the Giant Gum Machine in the sky?

Considering most of us haven't thought about G-d in a serious and mature way in years, we probably do think of G-d in this manner. And those of us who do think about G-d on a more than on an occasional moment many times do think of G-d as a someone who can give us stuff.

But what is our relationship to G-d supposed to be? The answer can be found in the Avinu Malkeinu, Our Father, Our King prayer chanted from Rosh HaShanah through Yom Kippur.

We relate to G-d in two ways.
* First and foremost, as our Father.
* Second, as our King.

There's a concept in Judaism regarding doing mitzvot (commandments). Mitoch sheh-lo ba lishma, ba lishma... a mitzvah that isn't performed with the right intention will eventually come to be performed with the right intention.

To go back to our topic. Is it okay to look at G-d as the Great Gumball Giver? Yes, as long as you keep in mind the long term plan... to do the mitzvot for their own sake - to do it for G-d.

In the beginning of the Torah, we encounter the narrative of the snake being punished for leading Adam and Eve astray. What were the snake's punishments?
...upon your belly shall you go, and dust shall you eat all the day sof your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring. He will pound your head, and you will bite his heel. (Genesis 3:14-15)

What kind of punishment is this? We can understand the eternal dislike of snakes by people. However, the part that seems to be out of place is the eating dust. Not that I'd like to eat dust the rest of my life... but this does give the snake a certain amount of freedom. There's dust everywhere in this world - the snake will never go hungry. How is this a punishment?

The lack of G-d in the snake's life is the punishment. The snake has food where ever it goes, it has no reason to have a relationship of any sort with G-d. G-d has cut it out of His life (so to speak). This is the ultimate punishment.

G-d wants a relationship with each and every one of us. He wants us to be in touch the same way our parents want us to be in touch. One of the saddest complaints is the one where an elderly person wonders why they never see their children. Many of our Jewish jokes center around these sad complaints. Parents want a relationship with their children. And children should want a relationship with their parents.

This is where the breakdown occurs. The myth of self-sufficiency. As children we are very acutely aware of how much we need our parents. As time passes we begin to see ourselves as something separate and independent from our parents. This is good and healthy - as long as we realize we still need our parents. It is certainly a different relationship than when we were children - but this is a relationship where much can be gained. We like to believe that we don't need others, that we are self-sufficient. But this is a myth - as much as we truly are independent, we also need the love and support of our family and more specifically our parents.

Avinu Malkeinu - calls upon our Father. Avinu Sheh BaShamayim, Our Father in Heaven, also wants a relationship with us - as much as our physical parents want a relationship.

When we make deals with G-d, or ask for things... I need X, Y, Z... it's the same as coming to our parents and asking for 20 dollars for gas money. Parents are happy to be a part of their child's life - even if it's just a $20 bill that keeps the connection. G-d wants a relationship with us as well. He wants to hear us ask for things we need to make our lives run smoothly. Nothing is too small for a parent or Parent that cares.

When we grow up - we begin to assess our relationship with our parents and with G-d. Do we just ask for things without considering the other party? Do we begin to think about more than our particular needs of the moment? Or do we stay that child that can't see past his own feet?

"Mitoch sh-lo ba lishma, ba lishma" - that a mitzvah done without the proper intent will eventually come to be done with the proper intent. In other words, when we ask G-d to give us X, Y, Z because we did a good deed - we're doing that good deed with the wrong intent. We should be doing it because G-d asked us to! We shouldn't be doing it because we hope G-d will notice and we'd like to get something out of it.

A clearer example is taking out the garbage. We're told by our parents that it has to go out - so we take it out. Most of the time when we do this chore, we don't do it with the proper intent. We're told (or yelled at) to do it, so we do it. The proper intent would be to consider how we are making our parents happy, or making the house a healthier place to be. Unfortunately, that proper intent doesn't always realize itself when we're children. Hopefully as we mature, we see the larger picture.

This brings us to the second part of our relationship... Our King. In the example above our parents tell us to take out the garbage. We don't always see the benefit of taking out the garbage when we're a child. Why do we have to take it out Monday night? Why not Wednesday or Thursday? It seems somewhat arbitrary. The child doesn't always realize that the garbage pick-up is Tuesday morning - and it does make a difference when you put it out on the curb. There is plenty that we don't understand until we see the larger picture.

Like our parents, our King also has given us rules to live by. They are there for our benefit - whether we realize it or not. These rules are not there to hold us back, to stifle, to limit us - they are there to help us grow, to push us to be better, to give our souls the oxygen it needs to survive and thrive.

We are all G-d children. It's okay to think of G-d as the Great Bubble Gum Giver, the same as it's okay to think of our parents as the Great Money Tree. But this isn't where it should end. G-d (and our parents) want a deeper relationship with us than the superficial one we've assigned Him (or them).

It's time to build that relationship - listen to that shofar blow, let the sound enter your heart and give a call Home. It's never a bad time to start.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Rosh HaShanah and the Importance of Self

We commonly think of Rosh HaShanah as the beginning of the new year and the birthday of the world. This is only partially true.

According to The Book of Our Heritage, creation began on the 25th day of Elul... and six days later man and women were created - on Rosh HaShanah. So in fact, we are celebrating the birth of the human being. Isn't this a little bit self-serving? We're using man's creation as the beginning of our year.

What seems to be self-serving is really not. We don't actually realize our own potential; we go around saying (usually when we fail at something) "I'm only human, you can't expect that much from me." We don't realize our own greatness.

We are reminded of this potential greatness by King David in his Book of Psalms/Tehillim.
What is man, that You are mindful of him, and the son of man, that You visit him? For You have made him a little lower than the angels and have crowned him with glory and honor. (8:5-6)

We can be more than we believe our limited selves to be - we can be just a little lower than the angels - or even closer to G-d than the angels are. Man has the capability to be greater than the angels themselves. Angels interact with G-d in a "face to face" situation. They have no choice but to see G-d's Greatness. We do have choice - and it is that choice of seeing G-d in our lives and involving G-d in our lives that can lead us to being greater than the angels.

Let us return to Man's creation. Man was created at the end of the creation process. The world has everything in it that a persons needs to live and succeed. A good analogy is when a guest comes for dinner. The guest walks into the room - the table is set with everything needed -plates, cutlery, glasses and good food. All that is missing is someone to sit down and eat. This was the world when Man was created. The world was created for us.

We are the reason for the world being created. The next question we need to ask is who we are. Many times we identify ourselves by our jobs. Other times we identify ourselves by what we are not and sometimes what we wish we were. A negative identity of sorts.

Rosh HaShanah is the time of year when we bring our "selves" to G-d. Generally it's our negative selves we bring. It's that self that doesn't believe that we are capable of being as close to G-d as the angels are or even closer. It's that self that doesn't recognize that the world was created for each and every one of us. It's that self that doesn't recognize our greatness.

G-d recognizes what many times we do not. G-d sees our greatness just waiting to be tapped. G-d sees what we are capable of achieving and who we can become. Most of our leaders over our long history started as simple shepherds or tradesmen and became more than they imagined they could ever be.

The same goes for us. We must realize our G-d given abilities in order to make a difference in our communities, to make ourselves givers and not takers, to see the good in others and ourselves, and to create a world that G-d would like to be a part of. Think big and start small. Every seemingly small mitzvah leads us to another and another. Before you know it you will be as great as G-d thinks you already are.

Everyone, everywhere should find peace, health and success this coming year.