| by Sam Glaser
My 15-year-old Max woke up on the wrong side of the bed. Since he’s a busy teen I have to make an appointment to have a conversation. Today was our day to make up for lost time but he emerged from his bedroom with a chip on his shoulder and heaped insult on each family member. I had to draw the line when he slammed his brother Jesse’s laptop down on his fingers. The punishment? His lifeline to the world, his new cell phone, was promptly snatched away and hidden. How do you think that affected his mood for our outing?
Jews believe in a loving, caring God Who is committed to every individual’s growth and pleasure. Our liturgy is filled with constant reminders of God’s love, and our prayers and blessings create constant opportunities for returning the favor with gratitude. Our texts are also rife with the cause and effect chain of slacking off. The flip side of real love, and by that I mean tough love, is the importance of consequences. But it all starts with love.
Historically Jews are associated more with guilt than joy, as if we are inherently more in touch with the “fear” side of the love-fear continuum. Personally, I prefer the term “awe” to “fear.” God is AWE-SOME! Awe infers respect, power, wonder. I have heard many times that Christians are the people of love and we are the people of the book. I believe the point that’s lost on the world is that we’re infatuated with textual learning because it allows us to hear God’s “still, small voice.” In any relationship, the partners must establish the lines that must not be crossed. Awe implies an awareness of boundaries. We study so that we know God’s mind, God’s desires and expectations. With the ground rules set we can then dance in ecstatic joy with our Creator.
Our kids go berserk when we reprimand them. Sometimes it’s fun to video their reactions. No, I don’t post the tantrums on Facebook. Thankfully they are usually considerate and know when they are crossing the line. They have also learned when to steer clear of their mother just by reading the look on her face. But when we have to lay down the law, we let them freak out for a while and find that afterwards they are usually more sweet and loving than ever. I think they intuit that structure in their lives is crucial for them to flourish. They also see their peers that are spoiled rotten usually turn out just that way: rotten. We emphasize to them that as Jews we connect the holiday of Pesach with Shavuot because we realize that celebrating freedom is great but it’s not just about escaping slavery. Our true goal is the freedom to receive Torah at Sinai and thereby bask within a powerful covenant with God. Rules + consequences = freedom.
I’m currently reading a new Rabbi Arush bestseller, In Forest Fields, that urges us to feeling gratitude for our pain, for the setbacks and trials we face, because in the long run “tsuris” brings us closer to a God that only does things for our good. Part of God’s role as our Father in Heaven requires that God dispense love in the form of discipline or rebuke. Just like I must take away Max’s phone to make my point that his behavior is unacceptable, so too does God give us pause for thought when it’s necessary to re-orient our actions. The setback is a gift. By intervening, I show my son my love. The cruelest response would be to ignore the problem. Richard Bach put it well in his brilliant book Illusions: “To love someone unconditionally is not to care who they are or what they do. Unconditional love, on the surface, looks the same as indifference.”
My parents are very involved in my life. Their involvement is welcome and cherished. My father has taken upon himself the job of worrying for me. It’s quite a relief that I don’t have to worry for myself since my dad does such a good job of it. Many of our conversations evolve from small talk about our day-to-day to an analysis of all the things that are wrong in my life. It took me years to understand that my father isn’t trying to wreck my good mood. He shows his love with his concern that I remain focused on what needs doing for my family’s well being. His broken record repetition of the state of my finances or the costs of sending my kids to private school is actually pure, unadulterated love, hidden in the “garment” of worry.
How many parents show their love in the “garment” of screaming, paranoia and nagging? My mom still admonishes that I could break a finger while skiing or skateboarding. “And then what?” she adds accusingly. Even at 47 years old she still reminds me to take my jacket because it might get cold. I love it! Many friends only see the silver lining of their parent’s love after their parents have left the earth. I often refer to my song “He is Still My Daddy,” (coming out soon on my new CD!) when I feel like bucking the onslaught of paternal judgment. I consciously remind myself that my parent’s caveats represent the deepest love.
It’s important to state the difficulty of appreciating a loving Universe when one is in the depths of despair. Overly helpful friends may remind you that God only tests those whom God loves, and that challenges are proof that God really needs you and is counting on you to grow. In the thick fog of despondency we are blind to the opportunities that impregnate every setback. Sometimes it takes an enlightened guide to coach you through the trough, to “lift your eyes” to a vision of healing, consolation and even victory.
Today I braved the LA drizzle with my family to attend a book signing of a young woman who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer when she was twenty. As soon as she was able to get over the sense of victimhood, cancer gave her the incentive to take life seriously and the awareness that she had special gifts to counsel those in similar straits. The audience was overjoyed to hear that this year, eight years after her lifesaving surgery, she gave birth to healthy twins. Her sister donated the eggs and thanks the miracle of in vitro fertilization she and her husband are parents of darling daughters. At the nadir of her struggle it’s unlikely that she would have uttered the words she said today: “I’m grateful for my cancer.”
A careful reading of our holy Torah shows that our biblical heroes do not have access to prophecy when in states of sadness. Sadness is compared with idol worship in our Talmud. After all, a negative spin on life is a slap in the face to our Creator who gives us our tests with love and hope for our eventual triumph. Yaakov spends twenty-two years without access to prophecy while mourning for his missing Yosef. And by extension we are shocked to see that Avraham must have been joyful at the chance to do the mitzvah of sacrificing his beloved Yitzchak or he wouldn’t have heard the angel calling to stay his hand. Our greatest moments are not spent in couch potato mode with the latest Netflix delivery. When we look back we are proudest of overcoming obstacles, the more profound the adversity the more powerful the feeling of accomplishment.
Still, we don’t ask for tests. We don’t seek out problems. They do a perfectly good job finding us. Two months ago I broke my foot. I survived the ignominy of being pushed in a wheelchair on the Sabbath, barely mastered crutches, and had my low back go out due to the imbalance of walking around in a Frankenstein boot. Thank God I’m doing much better now but I have a brand new sense of appreciation for my mobility. I’m much more sympathetic to those in wheelchairs, to those who suffer with inadequate access, crumbling sidewalks and death star potholes. Only afterwards did I recognize God’s kindness in that my injury transpired in the only two-month window in my schedule when I didn’t have to get on an airplane and tour.
I never did get to spend the day with Max. He was reduced to a furious, frustrated adolescent festering in his room. Not to worry…we’ll get our chance…he’s a great kid with an award-winning smile. His brother Jesse was more than happy to have me to himself for the day. We took my first hike since my accident and boy did I smell the roses. We saw ducks, geese, doves, quail, lizards and turtles, ate wild grapes in a forest of eucalyptus and munched on a picnic of Jeff’s kosher chicken cilantro sausages smeared with hearts of romaine and pareve Caesar dressing with a side of seasoned fries. With every breath of fresh air I thanked God. With every bite of my gourmet hot dog I sang praises to the Almighty. My God is a God of love, thank you very much. Life is so good.