Responses to Grief

Today is the first anniversary of my father’s death.  Its a very sad day for me.  I posted on social media, and I received many messages of comfort.  I do find that most of those expressions really do comfort.  I observed that they fall into several categories:

  1.  People giving traditional words of comfort: “May G-d comfort you along with all mourners in Zion and Jerusalem.”  Some people mean those words sincerely, and they use the traditional words, because they feel they want to comfort, and don’t know what else to say.  I’m okay with this, if the words are said sincerely, and they actually are active with the tradition that uses these words.  I do have a problem with people who are just saying it to express Jewishness.  Its like they hijacked my grief to express themselves.  That I don’t appreciate.
  2. Others who just say they are sorry.  I do appreciate this. The statement acknowledges my sorrow, and expresses concern.  Its appreciated.
  3. Some say “Sorry for your loss.”  While it is true that it is my loss and not theirs, the statement leaves me with the feeling that I am alone in my grief. It feels like they are not going through this with me, but are merely observing my grief.  Its true, but it doesn’t comfort.  On some level, comfort involves people being there with you and for you.
  4. People who give advice.  I’ve been told to give myself permission to express my sorrow, or to comfort my mom, or some other thing.  One person just said I’d get through it.  That bothered me, and I told them I didn’t need them to tell me that.  The reality is, some people giving advice have been there, and they were trying to share what comforted them.  I appreciated that. Others took the opportunity to just tell me what they thought I should do.  I don’t need people to think for me.  I found no comfort in this.
  5. Finally, some people just let me know they were sorry I was hurting, and they cared.  That meant a great deal to me.

The big problem is that very few people actually know how to be comforting.  Most do the best they can, but in the end, its really two things that actually bring comfort; food, and being there.  We all take comfort in food, and that is good.  What also comforts is people just being with you without giving advice or citing formal bumper sticker phrases.  If you let me know you care, its enough.  Hanging out with me and smoking a cigar with me is good too.  When my dad passed away, a dozen guys from my cigar club came over one evening and we sat and smoked cigars and talked.  It meant the world to me.  It comforted me and I will never forget it.

I may sound like I’m pissed off, and to some extent I am.  Not with those who really mean well, and really want to comfort, but with people who use my sorrow as an opportunity to highlight their experiences or show off what they know.  If you used one of those phrases to me, I am not necessarily talking about you.  You may very well fall into the genuinely caring group, but not everyone does.  The ones I’m really upset with are the heartless people who didn’t say anything.

I know this sounds awfully judgmental, which is not my regular thing, but perhaps is how I am expressing my own grief.     The important thing is that I know I’ll be better tomorrow and the day after that.

Why Be Kind?

Kindness is one of those things everyone admires in other people.  My mother used to say, “It doesn’t cost anything to be nice.”  The reality, is that kindness is very rare in our world.  People are self seeking and self centered.  They spend their time and efforts pursuing what benefits themselves.  In short, people tend to be selfish.

Doing someone a kindness means extending yourself to help out someone else.  Often times, we help people, or “do them a favor,” because down the road it may benefit us.  When you do something nice for someone, we feel like they owe us, because we did something for them.  If they don’t come through, we feel like they cheated us.  Doing this type of kindness is hollow, and related to the self-centeredness I mentioned earlier.

The type of kindness I speak of, is what is mentioned in Scripture. It talks about giving to the poor, the orphan, and the widow; in other words, people who could never possibly pay us back.  We can do this with money, or with time.  We can also do it with attitude.  There is nothing worse than someone helping you, and then being condescending about it.  I’d rather do without than receive help from such people.

When we help the poor in Eastern Europe, the one rule of thumb, is to never leave people feeling beholding to you.  When I give money to people we’ve visited, I pull them aside, and speak with them in Yiddish so no one standing around will understand us.  I tell them the money I give them is not mine (so they don’t feel beholding to me).  I tell them its from friends in America, which is true.  I slip it from my hand to theirs, without anyone seeing, so they shouldn’t feel embarrassed about having to receive charity.  They hug me and are grateful.

In a similar way, treating people with kindness means considering their feelings, even at the expense of our own.  Is being seen as “right” really so important?  Is it worth it at the expense of others?  I don’t need people to say I’m right.  I don’t need them to speak well of me.  I’d rather people say I was kind to them.

Its easy to be kind to people we are fond of.  People who thing we are great are the kind of people we like to be nice to.  Its like one hand washes the other.  The difficult thing is to be kind to people whom we feel really don’t deserve it.  There are times I have been nice to people who turned around and treated me badly.  They proved the adage, “no good deed goes unpunished.”Yet, these are the very ones we need to continue to be kind to.  Yeshua said in Matthew 5:46, “For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?

Kindness is not simply an attitude, or a smile, although it can be as simple as that.  Kindness is the way we treat people; not just the loveable, but the not so loveable.  When you come to a party or gathering, and you see someone sitting by themselves, its a kindness to go up to them and introduce yourself, sit with them, and try to make them feel welcome.  When someone is upset, you don’t have to take their side, but you can listen to them, and offer words of comfort. When someone is hurting and you don’t know what to say, just sit there with them.  Being there matters.

Forgive people who have wronged you.  Its an act of kindness.  Its easier said than done, but in the long run you will be better for it, and it may change them.  Even if it does nothing to change them or the situation, it can transform you.

I am around selfish people every day.  I am also around kind people every day.  They are the same people.  We have incredible potential.  We need to choose what kind of person we are going to be in each situation.

When Religion Turns Toxic

The idea of religion is a good thing.  Religion is how we worship God.  As a concept itself, I find it attacked by Atheists, who object to it on the basis that they do not believe in the existence of God.  I find their views disturbing, not because they disbelieve what I believe, but I wonder how they KNOW there is no god, as they claim.  Its one thing to say,”I don’t know, its another thing to say,  there is no god, as if its a fact.”  I asked several atheists why they oppose religion for others who don’t share their disbelief.  They claimed religion has been the source of all men’s sorrows throughout history and therefore, in their view, it is something evil.

I pointed out to them, that under communism, an absolutely atheistic model of society, more people were killed than under Western religious societies.  They said that communism was not a good example.  At that point, the discussion broke down to denying the validity of each other’s points and fruitful discussion was over.

It did give me pause to think about the role of religion itself.  Religion at it’s best, is a good thing.  It teaches us meaning of life and purpose.  If gives us a sense of faith heritage, connecting us to others who have worshipped the same God the same way.  It has been a canvas to express the best of humanity’s love for God.  I frequently find myself carried away by the majesty of God and am fully aware that He is so far beyond my ability to express what I believe and feel.  The worship service helps me express those feelings as I seek to know and glorify my creator.  In doing so, I find that I am changed, and transformed into a better version of myself.  It is a thing of beauty, and I am a better person for it.

It is for this reason that I find it incredibly ironic that so much evil has been done in the name of religion.  Religion, should have the effect of transforming people for good, and as a result, society should be better because it is populated by transformed citizens.  The fly in the ointment, of course, are the religious wars through the centuries.  While there are piles of beautiful liturgical, devotional materials produced, there were also piles of dead bodies, slain “for the love of God.”   This is not religion.  It is a murderous ideology cloaked in the garb of religion.  Killing people for the “love of God,” is like eating ham to be Kosher.   You can eat ham if you want, but whatever that is, it is NOT kosher.  Similarly, you can kill whoever you want, but if you do, its not an act of faith, and it is not religion.  It is murder, and your ideology is not to be confused with religion.  How can I say this?  I know what Kosher is, because I experience it, and Ham is not it.   I know what faith is, because I have it, and I encounter God through it, and belief in God does not engender or inspire murder or baseless hatred.  Whatever those things are, they are not religion.

True religion is not something toxic like a quart of milk gone bad.  In the book of Jacob 1:27, it says “Pure and undefiled religion before God … is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.”  If religion makes us better people, it will result in us helping others in their times of need.  It should make the world a better place.  My focus is not to spend my time convincing people that religion is good.  My energies will be directed to helping others, and trying to be a blessing and have a positive impact in the lives of others.  My religion is not toxic.  This is not because “I found the right one,”  but because in my encounter with God, I have yielded to Him and let him transform me.  It is this transformation that is a work in progress, but makes me better than I would have been had I not encountered Him.



Messianic Judaism and Easter

This celebration of Easter rarely comes up in Messianic circles. There are people who criticize Easter in the same way they criticize Christmas. They carry on about pagan influences in these holidays and criticize those who celebrate Christmas or Easter and the need to get back to what is biblical. I do admit that I love Christmas music and the lights. They are beautiful. I don’t really find much appealing about Easter, but I do like chocolate bunnies and peeps.

Messianic Judaism doesn’t really celebrate Christmas or Easter. We respect our Christian friends who do, but Messianic Judaism is a Judaism, not Christianity with Jewish window dressing. We remember the birth of Yeshua either at Chanukah, or at Sukkot. We celebrate the death, burial and Resurrection of Yeshua in conjunction with Passover.

Normally this is not an issue, but this year, because it is a leap year on the Jewish calendar, Easter coincided with Purim, not Passover. Purim is a happy, joyous, festive occasion, but not as well suited to coincide with the Resurrection of Yeshua as is Passover. Because of the overlapping of the holidays, people found it strange that we were “partying” while they were being more somber.

The way to understand what is going on, is that we are working off of two different calendars. We mean no disrespect for the Christian Holy Days, but we are operating according to the Jewish calendar, and when the holy days fall according to that calendar.

The Gregorian calendar was devised based on the birth of Yeshua from the vantage point of the Church. The Jewish calendar was figured by Jewish reckoning from the day of creation. Both are probably not accurate, but they are the calendars their respective communities have elected to use. This is why Rosh Hashanah falls on different dates on the Gregorian calendar each year. For that matter, Chinese New Year falls on different dates from the Gregorian calendar for the same reason.

Recently, a Christian friend sent me a note, expressing his confusion because we were rejoicing and celebrating for Purim during Christian “Holy week,” which is more somber preceding the observance of the Resurrection. To Him, they were remembering Yeshua’s suffering and death, and we were throwing a party. I reminded him that for us, the commemoration of the Resurrection of the Messiah is not celebrated for another month, and it would be wrong to make an erroneous connection that we are either ignoring the resurrection, or partying on the eve of a somber day.   Messianic Jews and Christians are indeed brethren in the Messiah, but the way we worship and live out our faith may be different. The important thing is that we respect one another with our differences. Colossians 2:16 says, “So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths,”

I respect and wish a blessed holy day to my Christian friends, and I know they wish the same for me on Jewish Holy Days.


The Thin Veil Of Holiness

Some people are generous, and other people are not.  My grandfather was a very generous man.  He never turned away anyone who was asking for help.  They didn’t have to be part of his religion to help.  He gave to Nuns as quickly as he gave to Jewish charities.  He had an attitude of helping others, simply because he felt he was blessed and could give something.  It was a good characteristic I have tried to emulate in my own life.  When I lived in New York City, I made it a regular practice to give to those in need.

Recently, our congregation has undertaken the project of getting a haftorah scroll.  They are costly and rare.  I posted a campaign on facebook to try to raise some funds toward getting the scroll.  I figured that of my 1600+ friends, who say I’ve been a blessing to them, some might want to pitch in and help.  The reality is, most have not.  I am not pushing them, but I have to admit, I feel bad about it.  I don’t put a dollar sign on what I do, but some people are willing to be “blessed” by what I do, but don’t really care about helping when I ask for it.

That in itself is not so bad.  I do what I do because I serve God, not them.  If God uses me to be a blessing, I am happy about that.  I wasn’t feeling too bothered by it until someone decided to take me to task, sounding very “holy” about it.  They addressed me as “brother,” and instead of saying God or “The Lord,” they referred to him as “AdoShem,” apparently to reflect their level of holiness.  They said if I just trust AdoShem, if he wanted us to have the haftorah, He would provide it, and I wouldn’t have to come with my hand out.  In other words, he was objecting to me asking for help.  Perhaps he objected because he was being confronted with a request.  To dismiss it as begging is inaccurate and a slur.

For one thing, I wasn’t begging.  I pointed out that while yes, we do trust God, and thats why we even have the opportunity to get the scroll, there is nothing wrong with giving people the opportunity to help.  If people don’t know there’s a need, they don’t know they can help if they want to.  Secondly, when God told Moses to have the sons’s of Israel to build the Mishkan, the tabernacle, he asked them to give.  Moses was not coming with his hand out, and to characterize it as such would have been wrong.  The people had a spirit of generosity, and they gave so much, the Kohains had to ask them to stop giving, because they had all they needed.  Jewish values don’t stop at honoring God’s Name with words.  They include honoring His Name with our values.  Giving Tzedakah, charity, is a core value.  Another value is not to demean someone who is collecting Tzedakah.  The reason they collected for the Mishkan was purely for the glory of God, to make His worship beautiful.  Whenever you do a mitzvah, you should not do the bare minimum, but make it as nice as possible.  Getting the haftorah scroll is likewise for the glory of God; to make our service as nice as possible.

If this guy didn’t want to give, he didn’t have to.  He could have just scrolled on.  He didn’t need to imply there was something wrong with asking, or that the one asking “had his hand out.”  He implied he was holier than thou, and more likely, he was hiding behind a veil of superior holiness to mask his own cheapness.  I travel around the country, speaking in congregations to raise money for the poor Jews of Eastern Europe.  Most places I go are pretty generous.  Every once in a while, I go somewhere and they don’t cover my travel expenses or take up an offering for the poor.  That for me, is a problem.  If they don’t even cover my travel expenses, it means the funds come from what others gave to help the poor.  It rarely happens, but when it does, I wonder where the generosity is.  God is generous toward us.  He has given us so many good things.  The way we repay Him, is by helping others and being generous.  I hope and pray I will always be generous, and not be cheap toward others and hide behind a thin veil of holy words.

The Journey

by Rabbi Dr. Michael Schiffman

I have been traveling in Eastern Europe doing humanitarian work with my co-worker, Irek over the last 20 years.  In that time, we have done some really wonderful things in the course of our work.

Recently on a humanitarian trip, Irek confided in me that he was discouraged.  He had some local people helping him, and they told him they wanted to step back from the work, and he was feeling abandoned and alone.  I told him that he shouldn’t feel that way, and not hold it against the ones who left.  Some people come along side us for the long haul, and others join us for a time.  Both kinds of people are important, because the ones who are around for a short time, help us get to the next step.  They are helpful for what we are doing now, but maybe God has other things in mind for them and for us.  I reminded him that he and I are here for the long haul.  God has given us to each other as co-workers.  We have been working together for over two decades, and will probably work together for the rest of our lives.  Others may just be here for a short time, and we should be appreciative for their service, and be happy for the work we can accomplish because of their help.

It occurred to me that this is also a good perspective for our congregation.  I lead a small congregation in Southwest Florida.  Every time someone comes to the congregation, its an encouragement, and every time someone leaves, its a discouragement.  Its important to realize that a congregation is not a place as much as it is a journey.  When you journey with others, you help and encourage one another.  You support one another and keep each other company along the path. Some people will join us in our journey for a time, and others will be with us for the long haul.  The short term people are there for many possible reasons; or they may just wish to help, and I am grateful for them. They help us along the way.  When their time comes to move on, they go.  I am grateful for the time they were with us, and for their helping us get to the next stage of our journey.  Others will be with us for a considerable period of time, and share our vision.  Their hearts are for our community, and they consider our congregation their long term home. We can depend on them, and lean on one another for support and strength.  Whether someone sojourns among us for a short time, or puts down roots with us, we share our journey with them.

It helps to recognize that it is God who is active in the life of a congregation, and it is He and He alone who gives us people to move to the next step in our journey.  We need to be grateful for those he sends our way, whether they are here for a short time or for the long term.  In any case, He gives us who we need for when we need it.  When people move on, it is part of life, and part of the journey.  For at least a period of time, we shared our journey together.


When Being Kind is a Flaw

When Being Kind is a Flaw

I have a reputation, among some people, for being a kind and nice man.  I am glad for that reputation, because I believe kindness is rare in the world, and is the best act of being human. Being kind is not as easy as some people may suppose.  Its not that hard to treat people well.  Thats the easy part.  Being kind is difficult when people take your kindness for granted, and try to manipulate you by assuming you will do what they want because you are being kind.  The end result is that you either get yourself caught up in other people’s agendas, or you get treated like a doormat.  Either way, it takes a lot of emotional energy from you in order to be kind.

I believe in kindness.  In being kind, I can show the love of God to others.  Through kindness, people may see God through me.  I am fond of the last line of the musical version of “Les Miserables,” “He who loves another person has seen the face of God.”  Through being kind, it is my hope that people will see God’s face and come to Him.  This is a mitzvah and a blessing.  In a world where people are out for themselves, and step on one another without caring, kindness remains the one act that stands out and expresses love for others, especially the love of God.

The difficulty comes in when people seek to use my kindness to further their own agendas, and use my name, without asking me, or garner my participation, only to use my reputation to gain entry to others for things I don’t endorse.  People who participated because my name was used, are then angry with me, when I had nothing to do with it.

Another difficulty has occurred in my own congregation.  People know I’m a soft touch, and they will ask if they can do one thing or another, and as long as its not against the values of the congregation, I usually give my ok.  It winds up clashing with someone else’s job, and they get upset, and once again I was wrong.

I have learned, that permissiveness is not kindness.  I need to guard my kindness so that it means something.  I need to tell people “no”at times.  I need to not let people use my name without my permission.  If I don’t do this, then my being kind will mean nothing, and the good I hope it will accomplish, will not happen.  Kindness requires a responsibility to stand strong and tell people “No,” even if they get upset about it.  If they throw a fit, or dislike me because I said no, then their friendship was not a real friendship to begin with.  Friendship is not based on doing whatever someone else wants me to do for them.  Friendship is based on seeking the mutual good of others.  I have no problem helping people in need, but I refuse to be caught up in other people’s agendas.  I can be kind and still say no.  In fact, it sometimes requires it.  God answers all our prayers, but sometimes His answer is “No,” and it’s “No” for our own good.  I am learning I need to do the same. Saying “No” at times may be the best way to help someone.

My wife, in hearing what I’ve written here, asked if I’m mad at anyone.  I’m not mad at all.  Rather, this is what I have learned; and learned the hard way. I am still going to seek to be kind and nice, but people will be hearing the word “No” from me more often.