When I was a little boy growing up in post-World War II Washington, DC, my parents had to work long and difficult hours to make a living from the little corner grocery store they owned down in the Inner City. We were born on the upstairs floor of that little grocery store in a no-nonsense atmosphere of few material amenities and a “you better hustle if you wanna make it” education and outlook.
Since Mama had six of us youngin’s to care for, and she had to run downstairs to help Pop whenever the store was too busy for him to handle on his own, she had to have full-time help around the house. That’s how Juanita Hancock came into our lives back in 1956, when I was a little tike of seven.
Juanita was a poor sharecropper’s daughter from North Carolina. She didn’t get past the third grade in school, because she had to help on the farm, feeding chickens and picking tobacco. But like so many other black youths of her time, she migrated to one of the big cities in search of a better life. With Hashem’s Divine Providence, Juanita came to work for my parents. She was small on “book-learnin’” but she had a ton of common sense and down home wisdom. We all loved her.
During the times that Mama was busy helping Pop down in the grocery store, Juanita was our surrogate mama upstairs. She never minded if we were insolent; she only smiled when we’d torment her, chase her, tickle her, or throw pillows at her. She’d respond with love. One thing she couldn’t stand, though, is when she’d teach us a lesson in life and we wouldn’t listen.
Juanita warned me not to play with the sharp chisel that Pop forget to return to his toolbox; one day, I was chiseling away at a block of wood and I almost sank that chisel right in the palm of my hand. When Juanita saw what nearly happened, she rushed over, grabbed me by the shoulders, shook me real good and looked me square in the eyes. I’ll never forget what she said: “Pay attention, child! I didn’t warn you fa nuthin’! Folks that don’ listen pay fa it in blood. Don’t you ever forget that!”
I never forgot. Juanita’s lesson proved true time and again, especially in the army during combat situations. The wise-guys who didn’t listen paid for it in blood. Unfortunately, our national leaders have also lacked attention in heeding Divine messages. We also pay for this in blood.
This coming Shabbat is called “Shabbat Chazon,” the Shabbat of the Nine-Days that precedes Tisha B’Av. It is called as such because we read our Haftorah from the first chapter of Isaiah which begins in Hebrew, Chazon Yishayahu, the vision of Isaiah…
Do we lack the spiritual perception of an ox?
The prophet Isaiah chastises our people while revealing the root of their never-ending suffering. One might think that our tribulations are the result of the three most heinous sins – idolatry, bloodshed, and forbidden sex. No, that’s not the case. Maybe we suffer because we cut corners on Shabbat or Kashruth? No, says the prophet. He scolds us bitterly, saying that we lack the barnyard wisdom of a mule or an ox, for, “The ox knows his owner, and the donkey his master's feed trough, but Israel does not know” (Isaiah 1:3). According to the prophet Isaiah, the root of all our national and personal troubles since time immemorial is simply, “My people don’t pay attention (ibid)!”
Juanita’s words were right out of the Bible in living color. Just like she didn’t want to see me cut my hand wide open, Hashem doesn’t want to see us – His beloved sons and daughters – commit national suicide. Day after day, He shakes us (lovingly, but He needs to grab our infantile attention) with more and more important messages that we choose to ignore and says to each, “Pay attention, child!” The problem is that we go our merry way while continue making worse mistakes.
Let’s look at Israeli history in the last 22 years since 1988. The first entifada began with the so-called Palestinian Arabs throwing rocks at us. Hashem was shaking us by the shoulders and saying, “Pay attention, child!” We didn’t pay attention nor did we wake up. The rocks became switchblades, a louder call to “Pay attention, child!” Again, we didn’t pay attention nor did we wake up. The switchblades became pistols, the pistols became bombs, the bombs became shahidim, or suicide bombers, the shahidim became Kassam rockets and the Kassam rockets have become GRAD missiles. We still haven’t awakened from our spiritual slumber. Meanwhile the GRAD missiles our now becoming chemical and nuclear warheads, G-d forbid, and more flotillas loom to threaten naval confrontation in the Meditteranean.
Who needs all this?
All we have to do is to pay attention to the messages of our beloved Father in Heaven who never stops calling, “Pay attention, child!” Hashem wants us to spend an hour a day assessing ourselves and trying our best to understand, internalize, and implement His Divine messages that come to us via the stimuli of our world.
Once we begin heeding Divine messages and speaking to Hashem for an hour a day, we can say good-bye to all our tribulations, individual and national alike. May this very year be the year of our full redemption, amen!
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