Thursday, February 24, 2005

Fate waiting around the bend...

I was thinking about what to write today because the subject of my latest irk is getting old. Not too long ago, I saw a friend's blog, and out of nowhere he met a girl and got engaged. The thing that I found so interesting is that by looking at his blog the day before, you would have never guessed this was around the corner for him. I don't think he even expected to meet someone, and the reason I believe he is engaged is because fate put them together at that specific moment. He was in exactly the right place at the right time, and she was there to become his wife. Their life paths converged exactly at that point, just as it was supposed to. You would never guess that these two people who live in different parts of the state having completely opposite jobs could connect, when the moment before, the connection did not exist.

It is the awe that I see in this, how one person can never know what is in store for them just around the bend. I am humbled by the thought that we can plan all we want to, but we never know what will happen -- that next split second, all life can change forever. One decision. One phone call. One action. One thought.

Maybe that's a reason why I wrote this blog. I wanted to have a record of my thoughts in an organized fashion, so that when something waits for me around the corner, I will be able to put my finger on my timeline and say "it was at this particular moment in this particular place that my life was changed forever."

I often walk with anticipation and caution, wondering what will happen in the next split second. When nothing happens and my life stays the same, I sometimes get depressed. I feel that I live a carefully planned life; I walk my path and make adjustments along the way. I roll with the punches, and change with my environment. One day I was to be a doctor, another day a sovereign, another day a speaker, another day a banker, and today I am to become a patent lawyer. I certainly have never flip-flopped -- each step was a carefully planned goal, and within each goal I gave it everything I had. But I am limited in my knowledge of what is meant for me, and I can only do the best that I can with the knowledge and foresight that I have been given. I thought for years that I was a brilliant investor, and today I feel like a chump. I never invested carelessly; each of my hundreds of market trades were carefully planned, organized, analyzed, and executed with precision. I would venture to say that I never do something half-heartedly; if I make a decision, then I stick to it and persevere until either I succeed, I fail, or it fails me.

There are those that lie in wait for religion to fail me. They wait for my big fall not because they want to see me fail, but because they want what they think is best for me. They see me weakened by my toils in the unknown, and indeed I am. What they don't yet grasp is that I am on a search for truth, and the answer, as glorious and as majestic as it is, does not feel all that glorious because our senses are dulled to the point where we find our life's meaning in the material equivalent of a shiny penny.

I would say that everything in life has a physical part and a metaphysical counterpart. I personally am not that excited by the concept of a king in his throne ruling a country. More so, the concept of a G-d in the heavens ruling over his creation doesn't excite me that much either. It is hard for me to picture "truth" as being the spiritual version of George Bush, who I would say is the modern-day equivalent of a king. However, the more I learn, the more I realize that while the concept of a king of the universe is said to have truth to it, it is an analogy for a greater concept I cannot grasp because I am bound, tied, blindfolded and gagged in the physical world, and hence I can only think in terms of physicality. After all, remember that G-d had to constrict and lower himself to create our world -- lower himself from what? Is he in his unconstricted form just a big blob made up of spiritual stuff, floating in the heavens comprising of all he creates without space in which to manifest? This logical result forces us to realize that we cannot comprehend the answer because it is beyond the limits of our rational thought. And if there is no G-d or divine creator, what are we? What started the existence that we call reality? Are we really just bodies living out lives in search of gold, power, love, and pleasure?

If there is no G-d, our life's meaning would be what we make it, yet it would be arbitrary because we could change it at any moment. I used to think that reality was pliable because from my experience I could have changed the meaning I gave to events and things around me. Being confined to my perceptions, I could conceivably imagine any meaning, and then believe it were true by convincing myself, and I did exactly that. Yet I now think it would be a confusion of our senses to believe that reality is empirically confined to our perceptions.

I would venture to say that it is entirely possible that the "I" that I am discussing is even a limited concept because if I change my point of reference to the spiritual, unbound by space and time, another “me” materializes; that “me” has a life longer than my flesh-bound-120-year-trip to the grave. And who is to say that my only existence is the blind fool whose words you are reading right now? Who is to say that here is the only place we exist right now? I don't sense you, but you exist, don't you? This requires deep contemplation.

If there is any validity to anything I've said above, then the only way to get some sort of grasp on reality is to find someone or something that seems to have a clue on what is going on. Through fate and help from those G-d has put in my way, I found Torah, and through Torah, I found a Rebbe, a Rabbi, a Rav and a mashpia (in lay terms, a spiritual advisor).

A mashpia's role is to facilitate the growth of the individual to adhere more strongly to Torah principles. They give answers to moral and practical questions that are based on Torah and jewish law, not based on their own opinions and desires (for this reason it is very important to choose your mashpia wisely). If Torah is true, meaning that it contains the deepest secrets of existence and following it is the true path, then logically it makes sense to connect myself to it and seek it out; a mashpia can be a useful guide to accomplish this end.

In my opinion, it is a big deal to be asked to be a mashpia, and it is an even greater responsibility to be one. Yet in life, there are those who intrude and try to be my mashpia when they have not been invited nor appointed, nor do they have the qualifications. Only a fool tries to learn how to be rich from someone who is struggling financially. Only a fool asks a depressed person how to be joyful. Contrary to what most people would believe, I have sought out various teachers and mentors, and I have attached myself to them so that I can learn from them what they have achieved. The last person from whom I would want to learn about religion is from someone who doesn't believe in it. I would be a fool to act otherwise. This is the path I have chosen, and that has been chosen for me.

So as with anything, I am on a path that is made up of my choices, and the influences of fate that have moved me in certain directions by allowing me or denying me certain results from my efforts. It humbles me to think how different life might be if I didn't go into the Eichler's bookstore on that faithful day to acquire the book that started my journey which has led me to where I am today. I always have to keep in mind that while I make the choices how I act, the path that results is not mine to determine. The conditions that were set in motion that led me to go into the bookstore were set long before I made the decision to read the book. The author had to write the book; the store had to open up years before. One could say that I might have become religious anyway, and this fated argument I do not dispute. We never know what lays in wait for us, good or bad, around the bend. Nor do we know what conditions have been set by our decisions and our actions. For that, we have a responsibility to be the best we can be, to hope and pray that we make the right choices at each moment. This is also one reason why I pray daily and on high holidays that things should turn out good. Because even if we have made the wrong choices, we ask for divine intervention to correct our mistakes and bring us closer to the truth.

I used to think I was fully in control of my environment, my decisions forming the way the world would turn out. To some extent that is true, but in addition to all of us humans planning and making decisions, there is a CEO that reviews all decisions and plans, and approves them or denies them. As they say, "man plans, and G-d laughs." We are not masters of the universe. In general, if people thought about it, they would realize that they are really literally nothing, and yet they are plagued with delusions of grandeur and self-importance. If we saw how small we really are compared to how we actually see ourselves, worlds would crumble.

I do believe each act is significant. We have been taught that is a divine plan, and by doing the commandments and acting in the ways we have been instructed by G-d, we further that plan. Just as we can affect our own lives, so too do I believe we can affect the world. As I said before, but now in a new context -- we never know what catastrophic effects may follow as a result of our actions -- that next split second, we might do something or say something that forever changes life for ourselves and for others. One decision. One phone call. One action. One thought. That is all it ever took.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

The football helmet and the friend.

I received an offbeat e-mail two days ago from an old friend asking me to instruct him on something illegal, and I was convinced the e-mail was spoofed. I was convinced my old friend was not the author because he would never ask me something like that, especially because of his profession. [Spoof as far as I know means the e-mail was faked]. I reacted swiftly and with annoyance and wrote back a response, and to my surprise, it was him and the message was real.

This brings me to two topics which are often on my mind. First, a person can lead one life in public, and a secret life in private. I don't know what drives us to put on a shell, a persona, a facade, but we do. We want others to see us in a certain light, so we change their scenary. Since the title of this blog is "Frumpter", it's appropriate to bring religion into the topic since too often the most devious shells are built and broken all under the guise of yiddishkeit. It is from here that we'll from time to time hear stories of people who have broken through the shell and done some unspeakable act such as murder, or other things I'd rather not mention -- we hear about them on the radio from time to time.

The breaking of the shell is the "postal man gone crazy" syndrome, where it is said that he takes out a shotgun, climbs to the top of the building, and takes people out of their misery when the misery is really his. Interestingly enough, our rabbis at yeshiva warned us about this in a discreet way. One rabbi once told me that yiddishkeit and being frum is like a football helmet -- you put it on, and you're ready to take on the world without fear of harm. The problem, as they explained it is that you can take it off just as easily.

The context of the analogy was that people would come to yeshiva, grow a beard and be the most chassidish person in the group. They would spend months or years in yeshiva and would be the frummest of the frumpters. [A frumpter is someone who is so religious that he takes religion to an extreme. From his point of view, he is the most religious person on the earth. I got yelled at once by one of these frumpters for cracking a joke at a shabbos table; I was scolded for not talking about Torah. Need I say that it is usually that type who is found eating pork in a back alley behind closed doors.] As frum as these people were, I was heartbroken on multiple occasions when as I would drive these bochurim (students) to the airport, they would tell me they were not going to continue being religious. In other words, yiddishkeit was like the football helmet -- they put it on when they got to yeshiva, and just as easily, they took it off when they left.

The main thought of this point is that it is such a benefit to be real. The football helmet, akin to the external wrappings (in clothing, facial hair, and outwardly acts) that a jew dons to feel jewish does not automatically change the person who is inside. I am very sensitive to this because my life has changed so drastically and I am always checking with an internal feedback mechanism to make sure it is still real. I would say I am like the Cohen in the Temple who walks around with bells attached to his garments. Yet, it would be too easy to fake being religious and slack on the details and nobody would know the difference. Back to the football helmet analogy, while the immediate goal in Judaism is to *do* the mitzvahs and the commandments, and to *follow* the laws, the end goal is to make doing them part of the person doing it. This means that it is not enough to put on the analogical footbal helmet; one must change the person underneath by constantly working hard on oneself and breaking the bad habits no matter what it takes. [With a smile,] keep your sanity and always be real.

The second thought which I am saving for another time deals with the concept of a friend. I need guidance understanding this topic more fully and flushing out the concepts and the issues. As a preview, there are friends who are real, friends who are situational, and friends who are transient. Transient friends can disappear for months or years at a time, but when you see them again it is as if you saw them last the day before. I have friends like this who while I don't speak to them for months at a time, I treasure them deeply.

I have recently been thinking deeply about my friends, and even more recenly on a sad note, I had a conversation whether it is fair for me to lean on certain individuals when they have given me evidence that they are not in the relationship for the benefit of the friendship. This is a tough and sensitive subject, and is touchy for the ones involved because there is a clash of beliefs regarding this topic. Further, the evidence is circumstantial at best because I cannot know what is going on in another's mind and by jewish law I must presume good intent.

On this I must also say that I have been pleasantly surprised who has come through. Like a wife, a friend must be sought out and found. Similarly, like a new continent or a new species, a friend must be discovered. To me, a friend can also be compared to a piece of coal -- very often it is difficult distinguishing one from another... but in those times of high pressure, just as a piece of coal becomes a diamond, so too does a friend shine through. This is a topic for future contemplation.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Follow your heart or your mind?

This next thought is cryptic, I know. I learned in yeshiva that a person should use his mind to govern his heart, because the heart is driven by temptation while the mind is driven by intellect.

Tonight I had to make a decision on something that came up in a thought of mine where it was the other way. My mind played tricks on me and used my beliefs about how everything always turns out good in the end, among other belief systems I have firmly planted -- but my mind used it to drive me to decide one way. My heart, on the other hand, knew the right and moral thing to do and was not sending me any signals of temptation.

The trick for me to decide when I get into scenarios like this is to look at which is tempting me with desire -- my heart or my mind? Whichever is causing the desire, that is the party that loses the case. I decide to go with the organ that is not tempting me because I trust that it is not deceiving me like the other is (who is utilizing desire, my favorite "sin", to tempt me).

Usually it is my heart that really feels the need for whatever I am seeking out at the time; my mind usually knows the logical answer that is in line with my goals. Tonight my mind used my goals as a negotiating tool to stimulate desire and urge me to side with its logic. But I knew from my beliefs that what it was telling me was dead wrong, and that going with my heart would produce the result that is in line with my goals and my beliefs.

So when the roles are flipped as they were for me tonight, and the mind is the one that was causing the desire, would it be better to have gone with the heart who knew the true answer? or would it have been better to side with the mind who had my goals' interests in mind? Here tonight I sided with my heart because here I can guarantee you my devious mind would have gotten me and others in trouble.

Almost decided to shut blog down...

I was driving home today and I was having second thoughts of having a blog. I was thinking of shutting it down. My original thought was to give people a peeper's view of thoughts that go on in my head. My goal was perhaps to influence others, perhaps to provide entertainment... but most of all I wanted people to read what I wrote (or would in the future write) and say "wow, I went through that same thing!" and by reading the blog they would hopefully have received something of value that they can use in their own life with their own situation.

I've quelled my thoughts of stopping the blog after reading the responses from a close friend of mine whose values and opinions I have always respected. The feedback wasn't what I expected -- I didn't influence the reader, but rather, I was influenced by the his thoughts on the topics I wrote about. This was an unexpected effect.

So then the question becomes... If I continue writing, am I writing the blog for others' benefit like I originally planned, or am I writing the blog for my own benefit? We know the answer now is yes to both answers. Thanking you for helping me change my mind to continue the blog.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Summer in New Hampshire or China??

I am considering bolstering my resume with a few intellectual property courses, namely from Franklin Pierce Law Center. The two options would be either to take the courses for a month in New Hampshire, or to take their program in China. Either way, while it would be a month out of my life, it would give me specialized experience that I could get nowhere else.

Courses with classes on Friday afternoon and Saturday day are automatically out. That knocks out many of them. My consideration of the China program is 1) an opportunity to travel, 2) a chance to learn a new language and a new culture, and 3) it is likely that I will be working with companies in China, so it's a good idea to learn their law.

Kashrut and yiddishkeit considerations are: Kosher food in China will be hard to get, but with effort, anything is possible. Worst case is I become a vegetarian for a month. Regarding yiddishkeit, I am told there are shuls and jewish communities (can you believe it?), and a thriving local Chabad. Who can ask for anything more?

Off-topic, there's a talmudic quote that I look to when I feel that life is giving me a difficult time. "Just as the olive yields oil for light only when it is pounded, so are man's greatest potentials realized only under the pressure of adversity." Isn't that the story of our lives?

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Religion and personality...

Religion doesn't make you a nice person. It doesn't make you holy. It doesn't even take away the person you were before you were religious -- There is no being born again; that is a concept foreign to Judaism which in my opinion does not make much sense. My hopes with regard to becoming religious were that by learning Torah, and that by submitting myself to a higher power, that somehow I would be protected and shielded from chaotic tragedies this world deals out to people. Nature has a terrible sense of humour; I became religious to transcend nature.

What affects me about being religious are the judgments people make of me because of how I look. It sometimes causes me to wonder why people don't look beyond the beard and realize that there is versatile person here. I am not a rabbi, nor am I simply a bearded face. I am a friendly person with magnitudes of complex levels of thoughts, ideas, and emotions who grasped the concept and understood that if I have an obligation to my creator to act in a certain way, then it is my duty to fulfill that obligation.

Yet people think that I crawled out of my old body and entered a new shell; this is simply not true. I am the same person I was years ago with the same desires, the same goals, and some of the same flaws, but now I have a Jewish value system which refines how I act in public and in private, and which changes what activities I engage in. Maybe people do have a reason for treating me differently, but it should be because the aspects of my character that have improved and matured from my efforts and my struggles, rather than because I have a new appearance.

They are right. I do look different. I have grown a long beard which I keep neatly tucked away so that nobody can see how long it is. I also wear a yarlmukah, tzitzis, a white shirt and black slacks. I look like the ideal yid. Yet on another note, the ultimate goal is to get my personality to match my appearance. I have chosen who I want to be -- now I must become that person. I learned a long time ago that to make changes, one must simulate, and then one must emulate. This was valuable when I was a child - I would look at the most popular kid in class, watch and simulate his actions, his hand movements, his tone of voice, his dress, and his disposition, and then I would emulate him. I would find myself feeling and acting as he would, getting the same results. As robotic as that sounds, it is a practical way to make changes in one's life. The trick is deciding who you want to be.

To the dismay of those I love most, I have chosen to be a servent of my creator. Yet the exception I have chosen is not to lock myself away in heavy dogma and hide from the world, but rather to follow the Jewish laws in the world we live in today because they were commanded to me by my creator and because they are the right way to live. One point I must emphasize is that the fact that we live in a world that is not conducive to a religious life does not (heaven forbid) mean that we have the privilege to succumb to its desires to secularize and to become lax in our observance of the commandments. On the contrary. Because the world offers such adversity, that is all the more reason to respond to the world with equal strength and equal conviction. For this reason among others, I justify being strictly religious and I live in balance and equilibrium with the secular world as my greatest opponent and my greatest ally.

Helping a friend with his wedding...

I just spent some quality time helping a close friend with the details of getting married. There is just so much to take care of when it comes to the religious requirements. No man is an island, everyone needs help.

I would say that the wedding is one of the most important part of a person's life. Marriage is not about saving on the rent or merging bank accounts. It is about starting a *new* life with another person. This doesn't only happen on the physical level -- on a spiritual level, from what I think I understand, a new being is created -- a new soul. Marriage is the completion of both the husband and the wife to form a new and complete entity from which children will issue. This is a beautiful thing.

A wedding between a man and a woman is the physical re-creation of the wedding between the Jews and G-d when we received the Torah, the biggest event in history. What we do down here in the physical world corresponds to what happens in the spiritual world, and vice versa. When we marry, we re-create the relationship in our world between G-d and man, and the world continues. This is not a story, this is what happens on a spiritual level. This is so big that I can't even grasp the gravity of the concept, but you get the point.

This reminds me of a story from "Hayom Yom" that moved me. The Lubavicher Rebbe's wife was once talking to her friends and she related something said by her husband (the Rebbe). He said "With one mitzvah I acquired you as a wife. How much moreso with all of the mitzvas does G-d acquire us?"

Why blog now?

My goal in writing this blog is to share some things that go on in my life... personal things... things that relate to my relationship with G-d, with my peers, and with those I deeply care about.

I wouldn't write about life as a frum Jew unless there were a life -not- as a frum Jew. There was.

People thought I was crazy making the transition from being a normal guy. I always felt Jewish, but it wasn't until yeshiva that I learned that there is an obligation to follow G-d's commandments. Before then, I thought of Him as some spiritual being or force, with a long white beard if he had one. Regarding the Mount Sinai story? I thought it was a parable; a lesson to teach us about ascetic morality. You should have seen my face when I was in yeshiva learning Chumash (5 books of Moses) and I raised my head up in wonder and asked the rabbi "you mean this stuff is real?!?"

Here was my logic for becoming religious: If there is a G-d, then we have an obligation to him to follow his commandments. When we die, we'll know if we were right. If there is no G-d, and reality is limited to our experience in our lifetime only, when we die, consciousness will die with us and we won't know we were wrong. I'd rather err on the side of being religious.