Friday, March 26, 2004

The Interview

I’m used to asking personal questions, not answering them. As a Rabbi, I prepare for weddings and funerals with personal questions about the couple’s aspirations and the deceased’s character. So I probe personal lives, obliviously doing my job, searching for speechworthy material. But I must admit that it was unsettling when I finally found myself on the receiving end of personal questions.

It was a school project; Two high school students were interviewing me. They wanted to know about my heroes, my interests, and what inspired me to become a Rabbi. And I found it difficult to give answers. It’s always awkward to open up about personal matters, even if they’re trivial. But remarkably, I didn’t have immediate answers; I had never thought much about these questions before.

We don’t ask ourselves serious questions, and that’s a shame. Good questions are the difference between mediocrity and excellence. Indeed, the right question can be revolutionary. Theodore Herzl asks: “Can we wait in pious resignation till the princes and peoples of this earth are more mercifully disposed towards us?”. Because of this question we now have a State of Israel. Martin Luther King asks: “Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice, or the extension of justice?”. Because of this question the civil rights movement grows, and racism slowly begins to crumble. Simple, sincere questions can start revolutions.

What makes questions so powerful is the way they strip away the veneer of falsehood. Incessant logic has a way of exposing the corrupt realities hidden beneath phony explanations. Good questions persist until they finally get a genuine answer.

Unfortunately, our predisposition is to ignore and accept. Anyone who has fallen victim to fraud (as I have) knows that you always look back and wonder: “why didn’t I ask any questions?”. Just a little more scrutiny and you would have figured it out. But we’re simply not in the habit of asking questions, even of relative strangers, and blindly accept the status quo.

And the last person we’d ever ask questions of is ....ourselves. We have “excuses” (lies, actually) to explain why we are lazy and disengaged . Our true priorities get submerged under self deceptions like “I’ll do it when I have a chance” and “it’s not my responsibility”. We unquestioningly smother our souls in phony excuses, and as a result remain mediocrities.

The Talmud says that after we die, we are interviewed by an angel who asks us whether we lived a life focussed on family, ethics, spirituality and hope. Truth is, we need to ask these questions while we’re still alive. And that’s the exactly the point of the Talmud: it’s a terrible shame to wait until you’re interviewed, whether by angels or teenagers, before thinking seriously about life.

Thursday, March 11, 2004

Chicken Cordon Bleu

This is a true story.

Once upon a time, there was a kosher caterer who made a wonderful dish: chicken and pastrami. He would skilfully stuff pastrami into a chicken breast, fry it in breadcrumbs, and cover it with sauce. Alas, no one wanted to buy this tasty entree, for mere chicken and pastrami was far too humble for his customer’s sophisticated palates. Disappointed, the caterer searched for a solution. He decided to give his beleaguered entree a more glamourous name: chicken cordon bleu. (Luckily, his clientele were unaware that chicken cordon bleu is usually stuffed with ham and cheese.) And now it began to sell!! All wanted a taste of that gourmet delicacy, chicken cordon bleu!! With a stroke of the pen, this chicken was no longer a Yiddish accented immigrant from Brooklyn, but rather an charming French arrival.

There’s a simple lesson to this story (to quote the Mishna): “don’t judge a wine by it’s bottle”. It’s easy to be enticed by slick packaging; the shiny veneer, the classy bottle, and the exotic name can beguile us into rash decisions. Indeed, this classic moral relates well to our story. However, it has a uniquely contemporary dimension as well.

We are an image driven society. Frankly, no one cares what the wine tastes like anymore; we’re only interested in the bottle. Our identities are now based on the external and superficial. That’s why what your shoes do for your image is more important than what they do for your feet (hence, the invention of stiletto heels). And it’s why people go to tanning salons, why people who drive 100 kmh buy sportscars, and it’s why people who would never eat “Jewish” food will serve that famous French entree, chicken cordon bleu. Today, image is more important than reality.

Our infatuation with image is destructive. It is a form of stupidity, which, (to paraphrase Maimonides) is the petri dish of evil. This obsession turns us into superstitious consumers, buying only items that have the blessings of the fashion Gods. Because of it, we forget about the comfort of loose sweatshirts and sensible shoes, we ignore our health in search of the perfect tan, and refuse to try great, but untrendy, food. We fail to truly experience life while we’re chasing an illusion. In the end, we’re left clutching an empty bottle, never having enjoyed the wine inside.

We ate some chicken cordon bleu the other night, and it was quite enjoyable. Not because it conjured images of French chef , but simply because it tasted good. Or, as Shakespeare might have put it, “chicken and pastrami by any other name, still tastes as sweet as chicken and pastrami”.